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Billing Rates 2022: Void for vagueness: Courts trim fee requests that lack detail

Scott Lauck//November 21, 2022//

Billing Rates 2022: Void for vagueness: Courts trim fee requests that lack detail

Scott Lauck//November 21, 2022//

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Lawyers may not like keeping track of their time in six-minute increments. But when it comes to getting fees approved by the court, it appears there’s no such thing as too much detail.

In a case in the Western District of Missouri, one lawyer found himself on the end of a judge’s pointed criticism, though in the end it turned out not to matter.

The $250,000 request in Albelo v. Epic Landscape Productions LC stemmed from a settlement under the Fair Labor Standards Act to recover unpaid wages and overtime for a class of workers. After the defense objected that the plaintiffs’ request didn’t show the substance of the work they claimed to have done, Judge Greg Kays ordered the attorneys to submit more detailed records.

Their response, Kays wrote in a March order, was “uneven.” Attorneys with the Kansas City firm of Bertram & Graf and the Dodge City, Kansas firm Rebein Brothers submitted adequate records.

“And then there is what attorney Michael Hodgson has submitted,” Kays wrote. According to the order, Hodgson, a Lee’s Summit practitioner, sought more than 333 hours’ worth of work at $550 an hour. But Kays said the supporting record was just a copy of his work calendar, with a number of entries that appeared to be unrelated to the litigation and few entries showing any kind of sustained work on briefs or depositions.

“In short, while the Court is certain Mr. Hodgson and his staff worked on this case, it has no idea exactly how much time they spent working on this case,” Kays wrote. “Frankly, the Court doubts Mr. Hodgson has a very good idea either.”

However, Kays still awarded the full $250,000, as he noted that the request by the other two firms totaled $242,093. The court, Kays wrote, “can still award the entire amount sought because it is certain Mr. Hodgson and his staff performed at least $8,000 worth of work on this case.”

Hodgson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Reductions for redactions

Turning over one’s detailed time records as part of a fee request risks disclosing privileged information to the other side and possibly to the public. As a result, it’s common for attorneys to redact their records to obscure sensitive entries. But that has its own risks, as a group of Lewis Rice attorneys found when requesting fees at the end of a successful contract dispute.

The case, Ascentium Capital LLC v. Littell, resulted in a judgment of about $329,000 against a limousine company that defaulted on its loans during the pandemic. The plaintiff lender won its attorneys’ fees and costs. Attorneys from Lewis Rice’s St. Louis office, who represented the lender, sought $139,000 in attorney’s fees.

However, Judge Nanette K. Laughrey’s April order deducted about $10,500 from the total, finding that a number of entries by partner Joseph Trad were “impermissibly vague” and didn’t describe what the attorney had been doing. Examples, Laughrey said, included blocks of time described as “work on lawsuit issues,” “review e-mail correspondence exchanges” or “work on open issues.”

Trad argued in a court filing that the “details gleaned from surrounding time entries” provided enough context for the court to gauge the reasonableness of the hours. In some instances, the judge agreed and denied challenges raised by the defendants. Elsewhere, she wrote, the surrounding entries “do little to elucidate” what Trad was working on.

About $850 worth of the rejected fees came from items in which the lawyers had redacted critical information from the entries — even though the billing statements were filed under seal. Laughrey wrote that the redactions prevented her from determining if the entries are reasonable. For example, the fee for researching “case law pertaining to evidence required to [redacted]” was disallowed because “the Court cannot determine the subject matter of the research.”

Block billing

Part of the defendant’s argument in the case was that the Lewis Rice attorneys had engaged in “block billing” — entries that list several tasks without specifying how much time was spent on each one.

Laughrey, however, was more concerned with the imprecision of the entries than the number of items on a single line. She threw out time spent on telephone conferences with unknown subjects and work on non-specific pleadings. But she OK’d a 3.2-hour entry for “work on deposition preparation including mediation statement” because she said the overall amount of time spent on the tasks seemed reasonable.

A similar issue arose in a case in the Eastern District of Missouri that recently resulted in a large jury verdict. The case, Major Brands Inc. v. Mast-Jagermeister Inc. US, garnered an $11.75 million award for the plaintiff on claims under the Missouri Franchise Act. It was the third largest jury verdict of 2021 as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media.

Lewis Rice, which represented Major Brands, was chided by the defense for engaging in block billing in that case as well. But Judge Henry Autrey had no problem with it.

“While the entries do not indicate how many minutes were spent on each particular task, they are sufficiently specific to communicate the work that was done and its connection to the case,” he wrote in his September order. “Furthermore, there is no evidence that attorneys were spending an excessive amount of time on their tasks or duplicating the work done by others.”

Other than a $13,000 reduction for time spent on unrelated legal theories, Autrey approved nearly the entire $3.39 million fee request.

Billing Rates 2022

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