Billing Improprieties Push Massachusetts Court to Slash Fees by 40%
Posted on February 13th, 2018 by Legal Fee Advisors
By Zachary Kalmbach.
A Massachusetts fee dispute highlights the consequences of several improper billing practices, including block billing, charging for clerical work, and overstaffing. The case arose out of an employment dispute and resulted in a jury verdict for plaintiff, who subsequently moved for an award of $487,150 in attorneys’ fees and $83,639.64 in costs. The Court reduced both fees and costs by approximately 40% – awarding a total of $341,340.09; in large part due to block billing, charging for travel, clerical tasks, and overstaffing.
Plaintiff’s attorneys sought compensation for 1,317.40 hours of work. The vast majority was billed by partners and block-billed. The Court began its analysis by stating that it was “hindered in evaluating the reasonableness of the time spent on each task because the attorneys…used block billing to record their time.” The Court determined that block billing [alone] warranted a 5% reduction in the number of hours requested.
The Court also found that the attorneys billed for travel and clerical tasks. Although the Court stated that travel time “is routinely discounted at half the rate of core legal work,” the attorneys charged such time at full rates. Partners also billed at full rate for tasks such as assembling exhibits and preparing deposition transcripts. The Court found that “[m]any of the tasks…could have been performed by a less-experienced associate or paralegal at a substantially reduced rate.” Block billing made it difficult for the Court to identify how much time was spent on travel and clerical work versus core legal work. Rather than use different rates to compensate the attorneys for legal and non-legal work, the Court found that a 20% cumulative reduction in hours was appropriate.
Some billing entries appeared to incorporate charges for duplicative or unnecessary tasks. For example, two partners each charged for attending one conference and one deposition. Noting that the case was not unusually complex, and that defendants were represented by a single attorney for most of the litigation, the Court applied an additional 5% reduction to such hours. The Court subsequently combined the reductions for block billing, travel, clerical and duplicative tasks into one cumulative 30% reduction to the hours sought.
Moreover, because the attorneys submitted little evidence to support their requested hourly rates, the Court determined that they failed to meet their burden to show that the rates charged were reasonable. Accordingly, the Court reduced one partner’s hourly rate from $395 to $350, another partner’s rate from $365 to $320, and an associate’s rate from $285 to $125. These adjustments, along with the hours reductions discussed above, resulted in an attorneys’ fee award of $294,839.30.
Plaintiff also sought to be reimbursed for $83,639.64 in costs. The Court reduced the amount sought by 44% to account for the fact that plaintiff failed to provide any documentation to support the reasonableness of expert fees and photocopying costs. The reduction resulted in a total cost award of $46,500.79.
The reduced hours, rates, and costs resulted in a total award of $341,340.09, a 40% reduction in the amount requested. This case provides warnings for future fee-dispute litigants, describing billing practices which may lead courts to reduce fee awards. It suggests that firms should refrain from billing attorney rates for travel and clerical tasks, should only bill for one attorney’s attendance at conferences and depositions, and that costs requests must be supported by adequate documentation.
Ellicott v. Am. Capital Energy, Inc., No. CV 14-12152-FDS, 2017 WL 1224537 (D. Mass. Apr. 3, 2017)
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