Attorney’s lack of billing judgment justifies a 50 percent reduction in the attorney’s fee award

Posted on February 26th, 2014 by Legal Fee Advisors

In a 2013 decision, the Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed the trial court’s decision awarding the court appointed attorney $24,358.50 in attorney’s fees, following a 50 percent reduction of the attorney’s fee application (In re NRF, 2013 WY 9, 294 P3d 879, 883 [Wyo 2013]).

In March 2009, the attorney was appointed by the court to represent an indigent parent in a parental rights termination action. In October 2010, following a 7 day jury trial, a verdict was reached terminating the parent’s parental rights. The attorney timely filed a notice of appeal, which he withdrew in November 2010. Approximately one year later, in October 2011, the attorney filed a twenty-six page “detailed itemized billing” showing that for the 2 year period the attorney spent 487.17 hours working on this case, for a total of $48,717.00 at the hourly rate of $100. The District court found the hourly rate reasonable, but the number of hours excessive and reduced them by 50 percent. In reviewing the District Court’s decision, the Supreme Court of Wyoming reviewed the submitted fee application and affirmed the decision.

The Supreme Court held that the attorney failed to exercise billing judgment when he billed for excessive legal research and document reading, clerical work and long days. “Billing judgment is usually shown by the attorney writing off unproductive, excessive, or redundant hours.” In re NRF, 2013 WY 9, 294 P3d 879, 883 [Wyo 2013] citing Green v. Adm’rs of Tulane Educ. Fund, 284 F.3d 642, 662 (5th Cir.2002); ACLU of Georgia v. Barnes, 168 F.3d 423, 28 (11th Cir.1999). Therefore, the attorney who holds himself as a “very knowledgeable and experienced trial attorney” should not spend more than 4 hours on legal research for a pre-trial memorandum, which does not cite any case law or bring any new issues, or more than 40 hours on review of 809 pages of discovery. Even though it is clear that purely clerical entries should not be billed at an attorney’s rate, the attorney billed for time spent walking to and from the courthouse to file or retrieve documents.  In reviewing the attorney’s billing records the court asked “when did the attorney sleep, eat, and take care of other personal matters,” when for a 12 day or 288 hour period the attorney had billed 213.55 hours.

Courts are not required to accept attorney’s billing records at face value when confronted with a request for an attorney fee award.  But courts are also not required to do a “line-by-line” examination of the attorney’s billing records.  The attorney, requesting the fee award, bears the burden of proving reasonableness of the hours requested, and itemized billing records are not the only indicator of reasonableness. More than anything, in order to be reasonable, billing records must be transparent, so that the client understands what he is paying for.

Enisa Tutovic

Legal Fee Advisors © 2014

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