SDNY Judge Awards Fraction of Fees Sought by Kramer Levin

In Roberta Campbell v. Mark Hotel Sponsor, 09-cv-9644 – a breach of contract case – Judge Pauley slashed the legal fees and costs sought by attorney-for-the-winner Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP from more than $3 million to a “mere” $475,000.  The relatively short opinion reinforces the need for counsel to exercise “billing judgment” and is a worthwhile read for anyone preparing a fee application in the Southern District.

Regardless of whether the entitlement to attorney fees is grounded in a fee-shifting statute (such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the New York City Human Rights Law) rather than, as here, a fee-shifting contract, the principles articulated by the court have broad application.

While the determination of a proper fee award often requires an analysis of several factors, it’s a fair assumption that the party seeking fees would prefer not to see the fees sought described as “breathtaking”, certain entries described as “disturbing”, or the contract entitling the prevailing party to fees characterized as “lopsided”.  Nor, obviously, do you want to see something like this:

This Court has conducted a thorough and mind-numbing review of Kramer Levin’s billing records.  To avoid undue embarrassment to a fine law firm like Kramer Levin, this Court declines to recapitulate that review in this opinion. Suffice it to note that it is highly unlikely that anyone at Kramer Levin actually reviewed the time records before hitting the print button and compiling them as exhibits.  Such a review would have uncovered, among other things, problematic entries.

Such “problematic entries” included a $230 entry for a Kramer Levin staff member to deliver a letter to a judge having nothing to do with the case, a $390 entry for a partner for work described as “Misc items”, and a $22,000 entry for time spent by partners (also fact witnesses) preparing and sitting for their depositions.

Here, the legal and factual issues (which related to a breach of a real estate contract) were neither novel nor complex, and remained the same throughout the case.   Also, the fact that Kramer Levin’s client would have “been willing to pay” the fees was irrelevant in light of the fact that no bills were submitted to the client.  Finally, citing well-established law, attorney fees were not recoverable for time spent working on the fee application itself.

So, fee-seeking litigants, take heed – especially if you’re before Judge Pauley.