Confronted with Excessive Hours and Overstaffing, Massachusetts Court Slashes Fee Request by $1.2million

Posted on May 24th, 2017 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Jillian Robbins.

The victorious Plaintiffs in an unpaid wages case and bankruptcy proceeding sought attorneys’ fees of $2,245,932.61 for the legal aid society and a large law firm that worked on their case. However, a Massachusetts Superior Court closely scrutinized the number of hours the attorneys worked, and found them to be wholly unreasonable, especially in light of the number of attorneys staffed on the case. As a result, the Court cut the fee request of over $2 million and awarded only $332,289.91 citing overstaffing and excessive hours.

The Court explained that this case could have been staffed with the one attorney from legal aid with over 20 years of experience litigating similar cases, plus one junior attorney and one senior attorney from the law firm. Instead, the case was handled by two partners, five associates, one law clerk, and one paralegal, which the Court found to be “far more lawyers, and far more senior lawyers, than was necessary.” The Court additionally found that it did not matter that the attorneys performed the work on a pro bono basis. The Court stated that while attorneys providing pro bono services is admirable, “they have no more right to recover excessive fees than any other lawyer.”

In calculating the lodestar fee, the Court evaluated the seven-stage litigation plan the Plaintiffs’ attorneys put forward that outlined the number of hours of worked. While the attorneys worked a total of 3,693.31 hours, the Court found that only 919 of these hours were reasonable. For example, while the attorneys worked for 1,038.6 hours in conducting discovery and opposing a motion to dismiss, the Court deemed that this work should not have taken more than 160 hours. Additionally, while the attorneys worked 1,117.6 hours to prepare for and participate in the trial, the Court deemed that this work should not have taken more than 200 hours to complete.

Next, while the Court found it appropriate for legal aid to charge a higher hourly rate due to the complexities of the case, the Court found that the law firm, charging over $1,000 per hour, without explaining why, was unreasonable. The law firm presented no evidence as to the hourly rate that other similarly situated clients pay, nor did the firm describe the kind of work that the firm performs when it charged those rates. Thus, the Court used prevailing market rates in the Boston area to determine the appropriate hourly rate. The Court determined that in light of the number of attorneys that should have been staffed, and the prevailing market rates in the area, a blended rate of $380 per hour between one partner and one associate was much more appropriate than over $1,000 per hour.

This case should serve as a lesson that courts will frequently scrutinize the fee petition for efficiency: the number of attorneys a firm staffs on a case, as well as the number of hours the attorneys work, even in a case with 15 plaintiffs. Additionally, when filing a motion for attorneys’ fees, a firm should present evidence as to how and why it charged the hourly rate that it did in the context of the local market, or else it risks having their hourly rate cut by drastic amounts.


Juan Juan Chen v. Wen Jing Huang, 33 Mass.L.Rptr. 499 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2016).

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