Copy and Pasting Billing Entries Won’t Fly in Federal Battles for Legal Fees

Posted on May 8th, 2018 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Zachary Kalmbach.

A firm’s pattern of repeating billing entries word-for-word, in addition to a number of other improper billing practices, led to a 33% reduction in attorneys’ fees in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The Tetlocks’ filed a petition under the Vaccine Act as the administrators of the estate of Jennifer Tetlock, alleging that she died as a result of receiving her third HPV vaccine. They subsequently moved for $292,587.50 in attorneys’ fees and $149,816.01 in costs, for a total of $442,403.51.  The Court reduced attorneys’ fees to $197,126.86, a 33% reduction, and reduced costs by $1,401.72. The Court held the reductions were warranted by a plethora of improper billing practices, including block billing, vague and duplicative billing entries, excessive billing, and constantly using the same descriptions or tasks in billing entries.

This litigation lasted over seven years, and the Court concluded that the hourly rates charged by two of petitioner’s attorneys should be reduced for hours logged early in the litigation. The Court reasoned that the two attorneys were less experienced early in the litigation, and thus they should have billed at lower rates earlier in the case. The lowered rates resulted in a reduction of $10,841.70 to the fee request.

As to the reasonableness of the number of hours billed, the Court took issue with several of counsel’s billing practices. For example, the Court held that numerous billing entries for communication with their client and with opposing counsel were excessive. Moreover, the Court found counsel excessively billed for intra-office communications, such as meetings with each other.

The Court found a number of further problems with the counsel’s billing entries. For example, many entries were billed in blocks in excess of four hours, and several in excess of ten hours. Moreover, the billing records were permeated with vague, duplicative, and repetitive entries. Large chunks of entries contained exact vague phrases, such as “emails to and from client with literature.” Entries such as these were too vague to determine whether the tasks were compensable. The Court emphasized that billing entries should be contemporaneous and reflect the actual work performed, and that “when entries are copied word-for-word, they are too vague and duplicative to determine the reasonable hours expended on that particular task.” The deficient billing practice warranted a 30% reduction in fees on top of the $10,841.70 reduction for adjusted rates.

Costs were largely found to be reasonable, with a few exceptions. For example, counsel billed $80.89 for drinks from the hotel room minibar and for movies purchased from the hotel. Further, counsel was unable to produce receipts or invoices for several of their expenses, such as train tickets and meals. Undocumented costs totaled $1,320.83, which, along with the foregoing $80.89 reduction for room service charges, resulted in a total costs reduction of $1,401.72.

Reductions resulted in a final award of $197,126.86 in attorneys’ fees and $148,414.29 in costs. While the costs reduction was minimal, the 33% reduction to attorneys’ fees was significant. This case demonstrates a number of billing practices that courts will not tolerate. Most significantly, the Court made clear that billing entries repeated word-for-word do not allow courts to accurately ascertain work actually performed and thus do not meet the required standard of reasonableness.

Tetlock v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., No. 10-56V, 2017 WL 5664257 (Fed. Cl. Nov. 1, 2017)

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