Judge Sickened by “Outrageously Excessive” Fee Petition, Refuses to Award Any Fees

Posted on January 16th, 2019 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Zachary Kalmbach.

A Pennsylvania judge was so offended by the excessiveness of a fee petition that he denied it in full, referred the petitioning attorney for discipline, and suggested that she deserved to be disbarred. The case was a civil rights action that lasted ten years and originally involved many defendants and “a barrage of educational and civil rights claims.” After two trials, the case settled on one claim against one defendant for $25,000. Plaintiff’s counsel subsequently requested $727,000 in fees. The judge was so shocked by the impropriety of the fee petition that he denied it in full.

Describing the fee petition as “mind boggling” and “outrageously excessive,” the Court found that “the vast majority of [plaintiff’s counsel’s] entries [were] larded with excretaun becoming of any attorney in this District (and certainly unbillable to a client under any stretch of the imagination).” For example, portions of the fee petition reviewed by the Court contained over 350 entries with descriptions such as “Correspondence with Patti [her client’s mother],” “Correspondence with Patti about issue,” Correspondence with Pattie thanking her for information,” and “Correspondence with Patti telling her glad she’s giving herself a break.” The Court stated that entries such as these, accompanied with a “glut of other administrative entries not properly billable as attorney time and entries that lack any detail whatsoever,” should “sicken both bench and bar.”

Plaintiff’s counsel also edged close to ethical boundaries by billing every correspondence in separate 6-minute entries, or more. The Court noted that, even if it took counsel one minute to read an email and one minute to respond, she billed all the correspondence in two separate 6-minute increments. The Court observed that such practice essentially padded counsel’s time in ten-minute increments (12 minutes versus 2) and “reek[ed] both of impropriety and lack of judgment.” The Court was so disturbed that it included examples such as these in its submission of the matter to the disciplinary board.

Even though “[i]t would be enough to deny [plaintiff’s counsel’s] petition in whole if it alone was comprised of entries of irrelevant correspondence, administrative tasks not billable as attorney time, hours spent reading blogs, and discussions with local reporters,” the Court’s frustration did not end there. The Court emphasized that counsel’s conduct warranted sanctions because she submitted the petition only five months after another judge scolded her for similar improprieties.

The Court found the “most repugnant of all aspects” of the petition to be counsel’s request for compensation for time necessitated by her own misconduct. Although plaintiff won at the first trial, defendants were granted a new trial because of counsel’s misconduct, which resulted in a defense verdict. The Court called counsel’s request to be compensated for both trials “exceedingly shameless.”

The Court attempted to make line-by-line revisions to the billing entries, but soon found that it was a “fool’s errand” because the entries were so inappropriate, vague, and duplicative that nearly every one of her entries needed to be eliminated or refined. Improprieties “rotted the very core of her fee petition,” and the Court concluded that line-by-line revision was fruitless.

In sum, the invoices were sovague, duplicative, and improper, and counsel’s conduct so repugnant, that the Court had no choice but to deny the entire petition. In addition to referring counsel’s conduct to the disciplinary board, the Court imposed sanctions and suggested that she deserved to be disbarred. This is an extreme case, but it demonstrates the high standard to which Courts hold attorneys in the context of billing. Attorneys should keep cases such as this in mind as they bill clients and structure fee petitions.

Young v. Smith, 269 F. Supp. 3d 251 (M.D. Pa. 2017), aff’d, 905 F.3d 229 (3d Cir. 2018)

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