Mayer Brown’s request to recover about $126,000 in attorney fees in a landlord-tenant case received a blistering response from a Manhattan judge, who lambasted the firm’s billing records as showing a “stunningly inordinate amount of time” on simple tasks.
“The court will not countenance the gross overreaching evidenced under the facts and circumstances of this case in which the client is not even being billed for legal services. To move any court to put its imprimatur of approval on such practices is simply intolerable,” Manhattan Civil Court Judge Frank Nervo (See Profile) said this week in Clozel v. Jalisi, 11227/12, denying any fee award to Mayer Brown.
Mayer Brown represented Thomas Clozel and Chine Labbe in successfully recovering a $6,400 security deposit and treble damages from their former landlord, a total of $19,200. It also defeated attempts by the landlord, Hasan Jalisi, to vacate a default judgment.
Mayer Brown associate Bridget Kessler told Nervo that the firm’s representation in the case was “done as a favor” and the firm was “not looking to recover” anything from the clients because its representation was an accommodation, according to the judge.
Clozel’s father is a founder and CEO of Swiss biopharmaceutical company Actelion, which is a client of Mayer Brown in other matters, firm partner Lee Abrams said in an interview. “We agreed to help,” he said.
In the landlord-tenant case, Mayer Brown asked for $126,026 from Jalisi, submitting a 14-page statement of its services.
“This statement demonstrates much duplicated effort, research on the most basic and banal legal principles that a client could reasonably expect” for an attorney with prior knowledge of the issues charging at least $405 an hour, Nervo said.
The judge said some work wouldn’t require oversight by a more senior associate—Jason Kirschner, at $615 an hour, and partner, Abrams, at $895 an hour—”all as unabashedly invoiced here.”
Nervo said the billing was “particularly egregious” considering Mayer Brown calls itself a “global law firm with a large litigation practice” that routinely represents clients in landlord/tenant matters.
Nervo ticked off examples of what he said was overbilling. For instance, Kessler researched Civil Court procedural rules and pleading requirements, law on security deposits and real estate licensing and drafted a complaint on one day in February 2012, totaling $1,822 for 4.5 hours.
“The court finds these are legal matters about which counsel is presumed to know and tasks that, even were they necessary, could have been performed within minutes,” Nervo said.”While legal research may be billed for under appropriate circumstances, merely reading a court rule is not research.”
The judge blasted Mayer Brown for spending seven hours, at a total cost of $2,835, reviewing emails and documentation related to the security deposit.
“This is a grossly unnecessary amount of time for such a simple matter. Indeed, the basis upon which any attorney can actually occupy himself or herself over seven hours reviewing this nominal and uncomplicated material, in a simple case like this, defies imagination,” Nervo said.
Kessler defended the work, saying she spent nearly five hours researching and discussing trial strategy with her client and others. The judge questioned why so much time was needed on the case.
“This court cannot envision the inordinate circumstances under which any trial of this matter­­—had it gone to trial—would extend beyond sixty minutes, and preparation for that trial, in view of the time purportedly spent on the matter previously, would require much more than another sixty minutes,” Nervo said.
Kessler spent the better part of two hours researching, drafting, discussing with others and serving the notice of inquest, which, Nervo pointed out, is a one-sided form requiring the preparer to add the case caption, check off two boxes and answer basic questions, which were noted as “not applicable” in this case.
“To demand compensation for two hours of professional or non-professional time over three days to accomplish this essentially ministerial task…the court finds unbelievable,” Nervo said.
“Given the fact that the items billed for, and the number of hours allegedly spent on them, is incredible, the court finds there is no basis to award any fee,” Nervo said. “This is particularly true given the additional fact that counsel is not even billing its client for legal services and by its own admission used the case to garner good will.”
Goodwill is on many occasions inestimable, Nervo added.
At a court hearing on the firm’s fee request last month, Kessler told Nervo that before her clients filed suit against Jalisi, which they were reluctant to do, she wanted to ensure “all of the factual and legal implications were fully considered.”
“My goal in working on this lawsuit was to complete it as diligently and as completely as I could and as I would for any other client in any other court,” Kessler said. “Just because I have reviewed procedural rules in another instance does not mean that I can go forward without looking back” to check that those rules apply to this case.
Kessler said some issues were unique to this case, including that the landlord only provided a P.O. box in Maryland, which made service of process difficult, and her clients are now in France.
But the main issue, she said, was Jalisi’s delaying tactics and that he filed frivolous motions. “In order to provide my clients with the best representation possible we needed to fully respond to all of those arguments,” she said.
Nervo responded at the hearing: “We have to be careful billing clients for our study of law for things that you should know or shouldn’t have too much difficulty in determining when we decide what is reasonable.”
Kessler, who now works at Brooklyn Defender Services, declined to comment.
A Mayer Brown spokeswoman declined to comment on the decision.
In an interview, Jalisi’s attorney, Margarita Rubin, of two-attorney firm Rubin & Rubin, said, “The judge was spot on. You see something like that, and it makes your eyes pop out. I’ve never come across a six-figure fee request” in a case of this size.
The decision “is the right message to send to counsel when they’re looking to get compensated,” she said. “We all in this profession have to be reasonable.’