A case that took over 10 years to move through the federal judicial system, finally ended with the court agreeing that Unum must pay attorney’s fees and costs. However when the bill was delivered, Unum sought the court’s intervention because Unum claimed that the attorney fees and costs were excessive.
Jane Fitts’ long term disability battle with Unum had been a long one. The final bill that her attorneys delivered came to $1,384,127.79 in fees and costs. She supplied supporting records of the time spent by her attorneys. Unum contended that it should only have to pay half of this, and Fitts found herself in court once again.
Unum presents their arguments to reduce attorney fees
Unum presented multiple arguments to support their demand that the bill should be reduced by 50%. The first argument claimed that because Unum had prevailed on all but the one claim upon which they agreed to settle with her, they shouldn’t have to pay all of her fees. Fitts argued that part of the settlement included recovering fees and costs. The court disagreed. Unum’s agreement with Fitts fell under ERISA jurisdiction, not civil rights statutes where the degree of success is relevant to determining what is a reasonable fee. Under ERISA, fees are either appropriate or not appropriate. Once the court determines that fees are appropriate, the extent to which one party prevailed versus another becomes irrelevant.
Unum also argued that Fitts’ fees needed to be reduced, because the amount she was seeking was grossly disproportionate to the amount that Unum had spent in defending itself. Unum claimed that they had spent $400,000 less than Fitts. At the same time, Unum did not find the hourly rate charged by Fitts’ attorneys unacceptable, it was only the total bill that concerned them.
The Court did not find this difference in fees proof that Fitt’s request was unreasonable. The court agreed with Fitts’ observation that Unum was very experienced at litigation under ERISA, whereas she was not. Thus, her attorney’s fees and costs would naturally be greater.
Unum claims billing detail is insufficient
Unum argued that the billing records contained flaws. One such flaw included block billing where various tasks were lumped together so that it was impossible to evaluate the reasonableness of the entries. They cited a court ruling in the D.C. circuit where this had been ordered. After reviewing the records, the court found that there was sufficient detail included in most of the billing entries to support with a high degree of certainty that the hours listed were actual and reasonable.
When the court looked at many of the entries that Unum claimed were block billing entries, the court found that the entries were descriptive of how the attorney had spent the hours. For example an attorney may have spent 6 1/2 hours “editing and revising motion for attorney fees” and conducting “legal research.” This type of block entry was acceptable to the court. But other entries were vague. The court determined that an adjustment downward would be appropriate based upon the number of instances where the details were insufficient.
Unum also argued that a 50% fee reduction was appropriate because some of the attorney’s billing entries weren’t specific enough. When the Court compared the length of time and the multiple briefings involved, the costs appeared in line with expectations. In the light of this fact, the Court recognized “how lawyers work and how they notate their time.” The Court would not demand exacting details for how Fitts’ attorney’s allocated their time and refused to scrutinize each billing entry.
But some entries, as identified by Unum, were inadequate because they didn’t identify why the activity should be billed to Unum. “Research” related to what aspect of the case? “Meetings” discussed what subject? “Confer and emails with client” dealt with which issues? “Reviewing and revising” applied to which document? These inadequacies would be considered in determining how much of a fee reduction the Court would assess.
Unum moved on to pointing out specific entries that they disagreed with. For example they claimed that Fitts’ attorneys billed twice for work on the same document, on the same day. Fitts failed to explain why this would be necessary or why this was not a duplication of effort. Apparent duplications would be considered in determining how much the fees should be reduced.
Unum points out valid inconsistencies
Unum noticed other inconsistencies. One entry billed for time spent working on a reply brief that had been filed in court the day before. Other entries violated a Court standard that does not allow legal firms to bill for secretarial tasks such as organizing and updating files at paralegal rates, even if a paralegal within the firm does the work. Unum also noted that attorney travel times were not billed at a reduced rate of 50%, the prevailing norm within the U.S. District Court of the District of Colombia.
Another inconsistency that Unum noticed was the inclusion of entries for time spent working on claims against Fannie Mae, who was not a party to the settlement agreement. The court agreed that this would be inappropriate and that these fees should be struck.
The court finds middle ground
The Court found that some of Unum’s arguments had merit. Many did not. But when all the evidence was considered, the Court did not find that the valid issues supported a 50% reduction in the attorney’s fees. The Court used the established practice of reducing the overall fee request by a reasonable percentage, comparable to the level of flawed entries. The Court determined this should be 15%, not 50%.
Cases like this emphasize how important careful billing can be for an attorney’s clients. Fitts’ case remained active in the legal system for over 10 years. You might think this is unusual, but every attorney should retain meticulous records no matter how long the case continues. Most cases requiring litigation can last several years and the average is three years.
Long-term disability insurance companies like Unum have a reputation for picking apart requests for fees and costs. Choose an attorney that has the ability to stand behind your case and battle the disability insurance company for as long as it takes.