Despite Attorneys’ Voluntary Reduction in Hours Spent, Massachusetts Court Cuts Fee Request by 50%

Posted on December 5th, 2017 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Jillian Robbins.

When the City of Worcester adopted ordinances aimed at controlling aggressive panhandling, city residents claimed this constituted a violation of the First Amendment and sought injunctive relief and monetary damages. After making it all the way to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs were victorious, and the law firm and governmental agency that represented them sought over $1 million in attorney’s fees and costs. Although both the law firm and agency voluntarily reduced the number of hours expended on certain tasks, the federal district court of Massachusetts nevertheless cut the fee request in half, awarding only $519,488.97, as both the hourly rates charged and the time expended on the case were held to be excessive.

The Court first found that the hourly rates charged were “far in excess of any reasonable rate that would be charged in the Worcester area for this type of case.” The partners at the firm billed from $488-$680 per hour, the associates at the firm billed from $289-$520 per hour, and the agency’s senior attorneys billed $625-$750 per hour. The Court drastically reduced the partner rates to $350-$400 per hour, the associate rates to $200-$250 per hour, and the agency senior attorney rates to $350-$375 per hour. The Court explained that while the case did raise some new legal theories, “in reality, the litigation simply involved a new spin on the age old conflict between freedom of speech and a municipality’s right to limit speech in the name of public safety.” Thus, the issues in the case were not so complex and novel as to warrant the hourly rates charged in the relevant market.

Next, while the Court appreciated that the private attorneys did not seek fees associated with traveling and other administrative tasks – and that the agency attorneys cut their hours in half completely – the Court was not persuaded that the attorneys “made a concerted effort to, as the saying goes, separate the wheat from the chaff.” In other words, the Court found that this voluntary reduction did not change the fact that the fees that the attorneys did decide to bill were still excessive. For example, the Court found that a partner charging 300 hours for researching and drafting initial drafts was improper, given the fact that these tasks could have been delegated to a more junior attorney. Additionally, the Court noted that there was overlapping and duplicative billing because there were nine attorneys staffed on the case. The Court explained that some of the work the agency attorneys billed was also billed by the firm, thus the work was duplicative and the reduction was warranted on this basis.

This case demonstrates that even if attorneys voluntarily reduce the number of hours they spend on a case, courts may nevertheless examine billing records in order to determine whether the fees charged were proper. Additionally, when multiple firms or agencies are engaged, attorneys should be careful to delegate tasks to staff with the proper seniority level and ensure efforts are not duplicated amongst the team.

Thayer v. City of Worcester, No. CV 13-40057-TSH, 2017 WL 1190366 (D. Mass. Mar. 29, 2017).

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