Winston & Strawn’s nearly $20,000 fee request in a pro bono case where New York City was sanctioned for discovery delays was chopped to $3,600 when a Southern District magistrate judge found the firm provided few details about the attorneys’ experience and billed for too many attorneys and hours.
“The simplicity and brevity” of Winston’s discovery briefing, Magistrate Judge Kevin Fox (See Profile) said in Alli v. Steward-Bowden, 11-cv-4952, “did not warrant the involvement of multiple attorneys or the expenditure of the number of hours claimed.”
Winston represented a former prisoner, Umar Alli, who brought a civil rights suit against correction officers and the city of New York.
Alli claimed he was attacked by officers on Rikers Island in 2011, denied proper care, confined to heinous conditions, and suffered physical and psychological pain. He was a minor at the time of arrest, and a detainee awaiting trial and sentencing at the time of the incident, said Jennifer Stewart, a Winston associate.
Alli originally filed suit pro se, but under a Southern District program, the court referred him to Winston & Strawn, Stewart said.
In July, the Winston & Strawn team sought to depose a city representative.
The city objected, contending Alli hadn’t stated a plausible claim. Alli’s attorneys said the city’s “outright refusal” to designate a witness was baseless and prejudiced their ability to conduct discovery. In moving for sanctions in August, the firm sought attorney fees and costs related to its motion to compel testimony.
The city and prison officials moved for a protective order staying any deposition of the city until another discovery matter was resolved.
In an Oct. 1 decision, Fox found the city failed to comply with court rules because it did not designate a witness as it was required to do. Fox found Alli was entitled to recover reasonable expenses incurred with the motion to compel.
In October, Bianca Forde, then a Winston associate, filed a fee application seeking $19,810 for 33 hours of work.
Forde, now an associate at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, billed at $620 an hour, while three other Winston associates billed from $570 to $390, according to Winston’s court documents.
Regardless of the firm’s pro bono representation, Winston attorneys said, reasonable fees must be evaluated at the rate a billing client would pay and the rates are consistent with fee awards to large New York firms on pro bono matters.
The city, however, claimed the proposed fee award was “astronomical,” the hourly rates were unreasonable and the firm failed to maintain clear records.
In a ruling last week, Fox said the motion to compel and opposition to the city’s protective order motion were “very simple and straightforward, not requiring any significant amount of time or labor and not involving any novel or difficult issues.”
Fox said Winston didn’t explain the discrepancy between the six hours preparing the motion to compel and the 22.6 hours spent on the opposition to the protective order motion, “given the equally simple and short three arguments” in both documents. Nor does the firm explain what “preparation for filing” means and why whatever it was it required about 4.5 hours, Fox said.
Fox said Winston provided no evidence this suit prevented it from taking on other work, nor did it provide evidence establishing the experience and abilities of the attorneys.
“The absences of the attorney’s experience, reputations and respective abilities do not aid the court in its assessment of the reasonableness of the hourly rates,” Fox said.
Moreover, Fox said, the time records included time spent on a motion not subject to his sanctions ruling.
Fox reduced the hourly rates for each attorney to $300 and number of hours charged to 12.
In a statement to the Law Journal, Assistant Corporation Counsel Patrick Beath said: “We believe the court correctly found that the expenses demanded were excessive. It appropriately reduced the requested amount by more than 80 percent.”
In a Friday letter to the court, Beath said the parties had reached a settlement. Alli agreed to waive the $3,600 in expenses as a term of the settlement, according to the city’s law department..
Stewart, the Winston associate, said in an interview that Winston & Strawn generally donates fee awards in pro bono cases to public interest agencies after deducting for litigation expenses.
She said it’s “relatively uncommon” to have fee awards in pro bono cases. But the firm seeks fees in such cases when there’s a basis for it under court rules, as it would in any other case, she said. She declined to comment on the reduction in fees in this case.
@ | Christine Simmons can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chlsimmons.