California Court “Troubled” by Blatant Block Billing and “Exceptionally Vague” Entries, Slashes Fees by 68%

Posted on June 5th, 2018 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Zachary Kalmbach.

A 2017 California fee dispute demonstrates gross instances of inadequate billing practices. The civil rights action began in 2007 and originally involved 12 claims against 16 defendants. In March 2017, a jury found one police officer liable for excessive force, awarding damages in the amount of $350,000, and plaintiff subsequently moved for $707,257.50 in attorneys’ fees. The Court reduced the award by 68% because of, among other reasons, block billing, vague entries, and failure to submit sufficient evidence in support of proposed hourly rates.

Plaintiff’s lead counsel requested an hourly rate of $775, which the Court reduced to $525 due to the attorney’s failure to submit reliable evidence supporting the rate. In fact, the attorney failed to provide even “one fee award from any of his prior cases to justify such a high hourly rate.” The Court also reduced the hourly rates of two associates—as one of the associates had never practiced civil rights law and the other had only six months of legal experience.

There were also several issues with the reasonableness of the number of hours billed by plaintiff’s attorneys. For example, the Court identified billing entries for 57 hours that did not include a date. The undated entries made it “nearly impossible to match the hours recorded…with what happened during the entirety of th[e] litigation.” Accordingly, the Court applied a 30% reduction to the undated hours.

Moreover, the Court identified many instances of block-billed and vague entries, with lead counsel, for example, block billing at least 330 hours and on one day, billing 19 hours for “Trial and trial prep.” The Court found such entries “troubling,” as each one “could have easily been split into more than one entry.” Further, many of the lead counsel’s entries were “exceptionally vague.” For example, entries labeled “Prepare for opening brief” and “Finalize opening brief” blocked out “time frames as large as 19 hours while offering little information as to the work actually being done.” Accordingly, the lead counsel’s block-billed hours were reduced by 20%. For similar reasons, the Court also applied a 20% reduction to an associate’s block-billed hours.

Plaintiff submitted over 148 reconstructed hours, which the Court had “great concerns over.” “Of particular concern [were] at least ten entries that were reconstructed where [the lead counsel] billed more than 10 hours each.” The Court reduced the reconstructed hours by 25% to account for possible inflation.

Because the relief obtained by plaintiff was “extremely limited,” (he prevailed on only a single claim against a single defendant), the Court reduced the lodestar figure after the aforementioned reductions by 45%. The Court also excluded hours billed for defending plaintiff in the criminal action which gave rise to the events in this case. This was in part because there was “no indication that [the lead counsel’s] representation of Plaintiff in the criminal proceedings was in an effort to advance Plaintiff’s civil rights claims.”

The reductions resulted in a fee award of $228,280.25, 68% less than the total requested. Plaintiff’s attorneys provide an example of how not to bill clients or submit a fee petition. Billing in blocks of nearly 20 hours for tasks described in as little detail as “trial and trial prep” or “finalize opening brief” will likely be unacceptable in fee disputes. This case also shows the importance of submitting adequate evidence to support requested hourly rates, and demonstrates the significance of an attorney’s experience in determining such rates.

Note: An appeal was filed by Young in July 2017, we will update you on any updates with this appeal.

Young v. Wolfe, No. CV0703190RSWLAJWX, 2017 WL 3184167 (C.D. Cal. July 26, 2017)

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