New York Court Slashes “Excessive” Fees in Half

Posted on March 27th, 2018 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Zachary Kalmbach.

A firm’s practice of excessive billing led a New York court to reduce an attorneys’ fees and costs award by 52%. Plaintiff sued the City of New York and several NYPD officers, alleging, among other claims, excessive force. The jury found one of the officers liable for $175,000. Plaintiff, who was represented by a New York law firm, subsequently moved for $859,004.91 in attorneys’ fees and costs. Most of the requested fees were billed by a partner and associate who tried the case, as well as another partner who observed the trial from the gallery. The Court reduced the award by 52%, due in large part to “excessive” billing.

While the Court generally found that the hourly rates charged by the attorneys were reasonable, it reduced the $625 per hour charged by the partner who observed the case from the gallery. The Court found that, had the partner tried the case, $625 might have been reasonable. The partner, however, did not participate at trial, and a “reasonable client would not pay that rate for a lawyer just to observe and for his assistance in preparing the case.” Accordingly, the Court reduced the partner’s rate to $550 per hour.

As to the number of hours billed, the Court stated it was “plain that the [1,772 hours] that the Firm billed [wa]s excessive and unreasonable.” The Court asserted that “[n]o reasonable attorney would have billed a paying client in this type of case the hours for which the Firm seeks compensation….” The Court further supported this conclusion by noting that the trial lasted four days and that no novel questions of law were implicated.

Part of the excessiveness the Court identified came from “the attorneys add[ing] multiple claims against multiple defendants that had little chance of success.” “A reasonable client generally expects lawyers to advance theories that have a reasonable prospect of success…attorneys should not be rewarded for multiplying the proceedings and bringing unsuccessful claims against multiple defendants.” The Court also identified several instances where the firm attempted to “play hardball” and asserted that “[l]awyers should not be rewarded for engaging in unreasonable efforts or attempts to play hardball.”

There were “other myriad problems with the hours billed” identified by the Court. The partner who observed the trial stated that he billed for his time as he claimed to provide unique medical insights to the attorneys trying the case. The Court found such an explanation untenable because the partner trying the case had his own expertise and “did not need a silent partner in the gallery charging full freight for each date of trial attendance.” There were numerous other instances of excessive billing identified by the Court, such as the firm billing over 14 hours for drafting proposed voir dire questions that experienced attorneys “should have been able to submit in a fraction of the time.” For these reasons, the Court applied an across-the-board hour reduction of 50%, resulting in an attorneys’ fees award of $410,071.25.

Plaintiff’s request for costs presented further problems. Some of the costs, such as $1,013.83 for meals, were “generally not recoverable.” Other costs, such as $1,818.80 in lodging, were “on their face extravagant.” “More fundamentally, however, there [was] insufficient documentation to justify an award for any of the outstanding costs.” Thus, the request for costs beyond what the defendants agreed to pay was denied. This resulted in a $3,443.87 costs award, a 71% reduction from the requested amount.

After reductions, the final award of attorneys’ fees and costs totaled $413,515.12, a 52% reduction from the amount sought. This case raises a number of interesting issues, such as demonstrating that lawyers should not charge clients for simply observing proceedings. Moreover, it demonstrates a Courts’ annoyance at firms for “playing hardball” and bringing claims that have little chance of success, while also providing future fee-dispute litigants with other examples of excessive billing and costs that should not be charged to clients.

Alicea v. City of New York, No. 13-CV-7073 (JGK), 2017 WL 3412100 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 8, 2017)

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