Detail Needed in Time Records

A new decision out of the US District Court, ED New York, reminds us of the importance of providing the court with details in your time records when it comes to fee application time.

New York City attorney Brian Bromberg was kind enough to provide me a copy of what was a remarkably good fee decision but also one that points out the difficulties of balancing the everyday needs of a law practice to be efficient and quick, as well as detailed in our time records.

First the good news. It was a Consumer Law case where the consumer was entitled to recover $1,000 and only after apparently a difficult fight did it finally come to be. Like many defendants in similar Consumer Law cases, they fought attorney Bromberg's client's case through to verdict and lost. Then the fee application came. Ultimately, attorney Bromberg obtained a fee award of over $60,000, a terrific result in a statutory damages case that has rumblings of Stalingrad all over it. In fact, it reads as though the trial judge was looking to reduce the fees somewhere and he may have had to look hard to find it.

On December 18, 2008, in Larsen v JBC Legal Group, et al, Case No. CV 04-4409 (ETB), the court allowed most of the requested fees in an FDCPA case but disallowed a very small portion of the request for lack of the level of detail the judge wanted.

"... a number of the billing entries do not sufficiently describe the nature of the task performed by plaintiff's counsel to allow the Court to determine whether the time expended on the task is reasonable." The Court said that it could not tell from the time records what the "subject matter" was for some of the letters and phone calls required in the case's litigation, so it deducted it from the award. Overall, the amount looks insignificant in light of the final award.

The Court cited to prior cases for authority, including ACE Ltd v CIGNA Corp, 2001 WL 1286247 and Marisol A. v Giuliani, 111 F.Supp.2d 381, at 397, both NY cases, noting that the minimum detail it wanted would be a statement of the general subject matter of the time.

The Court explained the types of out-of-pocket expenses recoverable in a fee application too, noting that "as long as they were 'incidental and necessary to the representation' of those clients" they were recoverable as part of the fees and not unrecoverable overhead. That part was a decision based on logic and law and good reason, and what some might easily call "nit picking" over the fees seems minor but it does bring up a good point.

It's a point every litigator needs to keep in mind when writing up time records in a fee-shifting case. Clarity in billing helps in paying cases and it's crucial in fee-shifting cases too. More detail is always better and less detail is always riskier.

Courts quite often look to find ways to reduce fee awards and although they may have to look hard, and no matter how small the amount might be, it can still cost you. Attorney Bromberg had lots of good detail everywhere else and still came out very good, but if you aren't as detailed in your fee records, it can cost you.

Ronald Burdge

Helping Consumer Lawyers Help Their Clients Since 1978.