New York Judge slashes Winston & Strawn’s $20,000 fee request for billing excessive hours and unreasonable attorney rates
Posted on February 12th, 2014 by Legal Fee Advisors
In December of last year, a Magistrate judge in the Southern District reduced law firm Winston & Strawn’s fee request by more than 80% in a pro bono case against New York City, finding the hours claimed by the firm to be excessive and the attorney rates unsupported by evidence of the attorneys’ experience. (Alli v. Steward-Bowden, 11 CIV. 4952 PKC KNF, 2013 WL 6633192 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 17, 2013)) Plaintiff Umar Alli, a former prisoner at Riker’s island, brought a §1983 suit again the city, claiming assault by prison officials and inadequate medical treatment. The case was originally filed pro se, though Winston & Strawn was subsequently assigned to represent Alli in accordance with a District Court program. When the city refused to designate a city representative for the firm to depose pursuant to a discovery request filed in July of 2012, Winston & Strawn moved for sanctions and sought to recover $19,810.50 in attorney’s fees associated with its motion to compel.
In his Decision, Judge Kevin Fox first took issue with the firm’s attorney rates. Fox dismissed the plaintiff’s attempt to insert attorney information in a footnote of a memorandum of law, finding that counsel failed to provide evidence of each attorney’s experience, reputation, and respective ability. Further, the firm had failed to produce evidence showing they were precluded from taking on other work during the case. Judge Fox also questioned the number of attorneys and hours spent on a relatively simple case- 6 hours preparing a 5 page motion to compel and 22.65 hours preparing a 6 page memorandum in opposition to the defendant’s protective order- especially because both documents presented the same 3 short arguments. The Judge found inexplicable the additional 4.45 hours spent by counsel to “prepare opposition for filing.” Finally, a reduction of the fee award was justified by the firm’s practice of block billing, which aggregated time spent on both discovery motions and a separate Rule 72 for which fees were not sought.
The above-mentioned deficiencies had a great impact on the court’s decision. Winston & Strawn was awarded the sum of only $3,600 in attorney’s fees. Although the parties later waived the expenses in a settlement, the case clearly illustrates that, in pro bono cases as well (though fee awards in pro bono suits are fairly uncommon), the courts will require firms to staff and handle matters efficiently and provide adequate justification for potentially inflated attorney rates.
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