Southern District of Ohio: An insufficient list of emails results in their exclusion from the fee award

Posted on November 3rd, 2016 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Tejan Arora

In September, 2014, the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, affirmed a magistrate judge’s recommendation excluding an award for attorney fees in a civil rights case for time expended in drafting and sending over 2,000 emails due to the attorney’s failure to provide adequate time billing records. A further 75% across-the-board reduction for other insufficient billing practices was also affirmed by the court. Most notably, the court held that a list of emails submitted, in and of itself, does not constitute contemporaneous billing records sufficient to support an award of attorney fees as it lacks any indication of the time spent.

The Plaintiff’s attorney sought $51,475.00 in compensation for 205.9 hours spent on email communications billed at an hourly rate of $250, pursuant to the fee-shifting provisions contained in the “Proceedings in vindication of civil rights” section of the United States Code Annotated (42 U.S.C.A. § 1988 (West 2000)). In her request for attorney fees, the attorney submitted a purported list of 2,059 drafted and reviewed emails. This list of emails only indicated the author, subject, and date of receipt. The attorney failed to submit contemporaneous detailed time records for each corresponding email. The attorney simply billed a pattern of one tenth of an hour, or six minute, increments without regard to the actual time expended, the content, or subject matter. The magistrate found the email list insufficient to warrant an award of attorney fees. The attorney appealed the magistrate’s initial decision on four grounds, with the district court, however, affirming the magistrate’s initial recommendation.

First, the district court held that this email list, in and of itself, did not constitute a contemporaneous billing record. Second, the court held that a complete denial of fees, rather than a reduction, is warranted when there is not enough information to enable the court to determine whether certain email communications are properly billable. Third, the court held that the attorney failed to include the actual emails contained in the email list for the magistrate’s review, indicating that the inclusion of the emails could have assisted the court in assessing the reasonableness of the time charged. Fourth, the court also held that billing a pattern of one tenth of an hour increments for each email is not permissible because it does not represent the actual time expended. Accordingly, the court denied all fees with respect to the emails.

In addition, the district court affirmed a 75% across-the-board reduction in attorney fees due to insufficient billing practices including billing for unrelated matters, block billing, vague entries, excessive time, double billing, and achieving limited success. The court stated that some entries were “so general or undefined that it is impossible for this court to determine whether or not the request for fees related to those tasks is reasonable.” As for the court’s determination of limited success, the attorney argued that obtaining a full award on a retaliation claim indicated success. The court disagreed and stated that although she received a full award for one claim, she “obtained only a modest degree of success despite multiple years of litigation on several claims.”

As demonstrated in this case, courts can go as far as denying attorney fees in their entirety. Although the idea of separately recording time for every email drafted or reviewed may seem daunting to some, it is simply not enough to submit a simple list of emails – attorneys must keep detailed time records of their work to justify the award.

Abernathy v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., No. 2:10-CV-131, 2014 WL 4829612 (S.D. Ohio Sept. 29, 2014)

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