A New York federal judge has more than halved attorney fees due to an Ethiopian cookbook author who was wrongly sued for copyright infringement, finding that her defense counsel billed “excessive” hours for often straightforward work.
In July, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan of the Eastern District of New York lambasted the plaintiff, author of a different Ethiopian cookbook, for bringing “unreasonable” claims in Schleifer v. Berns, 17-cv-1649. And he awarded an as-yet-undetermined amount of attorney fees to the defendant. In the lawsuit, author Ian Schleifer had falsely alleged that Kittee Berns’ 2015 cookbook—”Teff Love: Adventures in Vegan Ethiopian Cooking”—used protected information from his 2007 (and second edition 2016) cookbook, “Ethiopian-Inspired Cooking: Vegetarian Specialties.”
On Monday, Cogan turned his sights to the defendant’s counsel. He criticized Berns’ lawyers at Kushnirsky Gerber, calling their requested fees “excessive” and at times “redundant,” and he chopped their itemized request for $29,365 in attorney fees down to $13,055 in attorney fees (plus $316.15 in costs).
He went through the categories and tasks billed, point by point, while explaining why the hours were often too high.
Underlying his reasoning was the notion—as explained in the July dismissal decision—that the plaintiff had brought a particularly flimsy action.
“The number of hours expended [by Kushnirsky Gerber]—83.9 hours—is too many in light of the weakness of plaintiff’s case and counsel’s experience with copyright cases,” Cogan wrote before analyzing the amounts billed.
He also said, “the court continues to be guided by the overarching purposes of the Copyright Act, that is, compensation and deterrence,” and noted that “the test is whether the plaintiff ‘spen[t] the minimum necessary to litigate the case effectively,’” quoting Simmons v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 575 F.3d 170, 174 (2d Cir. 2009).
Jordan Fletcher, of counsel at Manhattan-based Kushnirsky Gerber and Berns’ lawyer, could not be reached on Tuesday for comment.
Cogan wrote that, “First, it seems inherently excessive and redundant that defendant [counsel at Kushnirsky Gerber] expended 6.5 hours drafting the pre-motion conference letter in anticipation of the motion to dismiss, 33.7 hours on the motion to dismiss itself, and then 19 hours on the reply brief, for a total of 59.2 hours.”
“The minimum necessary hours to have effectively litigated the motion to dismiss in this case cannot be nearly 60 hours when the case was so patently deficient,” he continued, then added, “The research necessary to draft the pre-motion conference letter should certainly have transferred to the motion to dismiss and reply. With much of the legwork already done … the motion itself should not have taken more than 10 to 15 hours.”
Continuing his breakdown, Cogan also wrote that “even though plaintiff filed an amended complaint after defendant filed her motion to dismiss, the changes to the amended complaint were so minimal that the court in fact saw no need to reinitiate motion practice. Accordingly, the application for 19 collective hours on the reply is excessive.”
In the end, Cogan ruled that “no more than 25 hours” total should be allotted to time spent on the pre-motion conference letter, motion to dismiss and reply.
He also wrote that “it is similarly unreasonable that counsel spent 3.5 hours conducting a ‘Preliminary Case and Pleadings Review,’” when the complaint was only seven pages.
“Nor is it clear from the itemization which portions of time were preliminary ‘case review’ and which were ‘pleadings review.’ Because the itemization fails to apprise the court properly … the court will not allow fees for this task,” Cogan continued, adding, “Nor will the court permit fees for 1.2 hours of ‘court correspondence,’ as the only court correspondence on the docket (apart from the pre-motion conference letters) is a barely one-page letter asking the court to adjourn the initial status conference.”
Cogan concluded by writing that Kushnirsky Gerber’s final category of billing, 12 hours for preparing its fees application to him, was also too many.
“Half of the application is a general recitation of counsel’s qualifications and a description of their firm and cases, and counsel’s declarations … The remainder of the fee request includes the printouts of the itemizations and billing records, counsel’s resumes, defendant’s own declaration and her documented expenses, all of which would have (or certainly should have) been collated and put together by support staff,” he wrote.
Plaintiff Schleifer’s lawyer, senior partner Joseph Nohavicka of the Astoria, Queens-based firm Pardalis & Nohavicka, declined to comment.