A Unique Approach to Block Billing

Posted on June 25th, 2014 by Legal Fee Advisors

A recent district court case in Georgia, Bird v. Sumter County School District,[1] took an interesting approach to block billing.  As defined by the Court, block billing is “a practice of logging hours whereby activities are grouped together without regard to their similarity.”  Because block billing makes it difficult or impossible for a court to determine the amount of time an attorney spent on individual tasks—and therefore, impossible to evaluate whether the time spent was reasonable—courts often reduce fee awards when an attorney’s time is block billed.  Some courts exclude the block billed hours entirely, but “across-the-board” reductions (reducing the total number of hours billed by a fixed percentage) are more common.

In this case, the defendants challenging the fee request suggested that an across-the-board reduction of 10-25% would be appropriate.  However, the Court found that an across-the-board reduction was unwarranted because “the total amount of hours expended and fees billed are not patently unreasonable.”  Instead, the Court’s 10% fee reduction applied only to “entries that involve block billing to such an extent that discerning the reasonableness of the time expended is rendered impossible.”

The defendants further argued that the fee award should be reduced because the plaintiff was required to submit additional briefing to supplement his motion for attorney fees.  The Court found that the time spent on the additional briefing was excessive, and that a 50% reduction in hours was appropriate.  The Court noted that a portion of the time spent on the briefing was block billed.  However, the Court concluded that, after the 50% reduction, the amount of time spent on the briefing was “reasonable in light of the complex nature of this case.”  This conclusion necessarily implies that any block billing regarding the briefing did not prevent the Court from evaluating the reasonableness of the time spent.  Thus, the 50% reduction for time spent on the pleadings appears to have been based on excessiveness, rather than block billing.

The defendants also raised two additional arguments.  First, defendants claimed that “substantial portions” of the motion were copied from another case.  The Court rejected this argument, finding that only “short portions” of the motion were copied verbatim, and that any other similarities between the motions were due to the “slow evolution of case law.”  Second, defendants asserted a further reduction was warranted for time spent on a portion of the plaintiff’s claim that was unsuccessful.  The Court agreed, and reduced the fee award accordingly.

As noted above, this case is significant due to its use of a more nuanced approach to block billing.  The Court’s use of a percentage reduction only for certain block billed entries appears to be more equitable than denying an attorney all fees for block billed hours, and less arbitrary than an outright, across-the-board reduction.  However, this approach requires the Court to engage in a very detailed review of an attorney’s billing records in order to determine which block billed entries warrant a reduction.  Thus, a court that believes the party opposing a motion for fees should bear the burden of specifying which entries are objectionable may be unwilling to engage in such a detailed review.  Time will tell if other courts will adopt the Georgia District Court’s approach.

E. Burgess
Legal Fee Advisors © 2014

[1] No. 1:12-CV-76 (WLS), 2014 WL 2196084 (M.D. Ga. May 27, 2014).

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