New York Attorneys’ Fees Cut in Half Due to Too Many Attorneys and Excessive Hours
Posted on April 13th, 2017 by Legal Fee Advisors
By Jillian Robbins.
The victorious Plaintiff in an excessive force and due process claim requested a total of $976,958.70 in attorneys’ fees and costs. In February, 2017 the Eastern District of New York substantially denied the application, and cut the request in half, awarding only $426,571.45 against the Defendants, citing excessive staffing and hours by the Plaintiff’s New York law firm.
The Plaintiff, Robert Houston, an inmate at Suffolk County Correctional Facility, brought suit against Suffolk County and Officer Thomas Cotter for excessive force and violation of due process. The jury found for Houston, awarding $30,000 in damages. Houston subsequently moved for attorneys’ fees and costs, seeking $976,958.70 in total fees and costs. The Defendants opposed the motion, explaining that because Houston had an “insignificant degree of success” in his claims, he was not entitled to such an egregious amount of attorneys’ fees. Although the Eastern District of New York rejected this argument, explaining that this was not the proper way to calculate attorneys’ fees for this type of case [allowing statutory fees], the Court nevertheless cut Houston’s attorneys’ fees in half.
The Court found that the hourly rates requested by Plaintiff were reasonable, but it found that the number of hours were not, for the following reasons:
First, the Court found that the fact that the firm assigned ten different attorneys to the case, as well as having four different attorneys present at trial, constituted excessive staffing. The Court explained that the due process claim did not have “such thorny and unusual legal issues” to warrant so many attorneys being assigned to the case. Additionally, the fact that the firm spent more than 3,000 hours on the case was also excessive; the Court could not point to any similar case of similar length that has ever warranted such a grand expenditure of time. The Court also criticized the use of block-billing and the numerous time entries for “review communications,” which the Court determined were vague and possibly unreasonable. Additionally, the firm billed time for new associates familiarizing themselves with the facts of the case, with the Court stating that it would not award fees for such “duplicative efforts.” Furthermore, the Court found unfavorable the fact that the firm apportioned the same amount of time to both the excessive force and due process claims; explaining that this demonstrated that the firm did not make an effort to distinguish between the two.
In light of all of these circumstances, the Court found that a fifty percent reduction of the attorneys’ fees that the Plaintiff sought was warranted, awarding $346,479.55 in attorneys’ fees against the Defendants. Additionally, the Court reduced the amount of costs Plaintiff sought by fifty percent, due to the aforementioned overstaffing. The Court also reduced the legal research costs sought by eighty percent since the legal issues were “largely static” and did not warrant such a large expenditure. With these reductions, the Court awarded $80,091.90 in costs against the Defendants.
This is another example where courts will not take lightly the amount of time a firm spends on a case, how this amount of time is reflected in timesheets, and how many attorneys it staffs. Firms going forward should be specific in their descriptions for time entries, employ a reasonable number of attorneys for a specific task, and if it is a case involving multiple claims, have processes in place to apportion time appropriately between each claim. This will allow for courts to easily determine the amount of appropriate attorneys’ fees to award, and will ensure that attorneys’ fee awards will not be reduced due to lack of reasonableness.
Houston v. Cotter, No. 07-cv-3256, 2017 WL 587178 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 14, 2017).
Legal Fee Advisors provides confidential, practical consultation to companies and individuals, solving their legal fee issues with respect and fairness.