Wednesday, July 3, 2019
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed and remanded an appeal involving court-ordered fees in a guardianship matter.
Rosenau LLP represented Jennifer Brown, the daughter of Vivian N. Brown, in her successful attempt to be appointed her mother’s guardian. In 2015, Rosenau LLP petitioned the court under Super. Ct. Prob. R. 308 and D.C. Code §§ 21-2047, -2060, for an interim award of fees from Vivian N. Brown’s assets in the amount of $25,358.18. The firm attached timesheets listing its attorneys’ entries of time worked on the case, including brief descriptions of the work and the rate at which that time was charged. This first petition was denied without prejudice by the trial court (the Hon. Natalia M. Combs Greene) after the estate’s conservator responded, inter alia, that more than one Rosenau attorney was billing for some of the same work in the petition. The court noted that, in addition to double billing, some of the tasks in the firm’s petition were bundled such that certain related and unrelated tasks were billed together (block or bundled billing).
The firm subsequently filed an amended petition in which it lowered the amount requested, corrected the double billing, and “earnest[ly] attempt[ed]” to separate unrelated bundled tasks. The trial court (the Hon. Kaye K. Christian), however, denied payment of the full amount requested. The court ruled that each “fee petition billing entr[y] regarding meetings, telephone conferences, or other written correspondence” must list “the subject matter of the correspondence, the person with whom Petitioner is corresponding, and said person’s relevance to the well[-]being of the ward.” The court concluded that more than 70 entries were deficient on this basis. The court also ruled that “‘block-billing,’ ‘aggregate’ or ‘blended’ time claims [are] forbidden because time records lumping together multiple tasks make it impossible to evaluate their reasonableness” (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). The court concluded that an additional 17 entries were deficient on this basis. In all, the court disallowed entries from the amended petition totaling $11,325.41 out of $22,412.95 in fees requested. The court then granted the remainder of the requested fees and costs without engaging in any additional analysis. The firm filed a consent motion for reconsideration, which the court denied. This appeal followed.
The trial court found that Rosenau LLP’s fee petition failed to meet the threshold requirement of Rule 308(b)(1) in that it lacked the requisite detail and impermissibly relied on block billing. Although it may be prudent for individuals seeking compensation under Rule 308 to set forth tasks in as much detail as possible, we see no requirement under our probate statute, our probate rules, or our case law that compelled the court to deny fees for the reasons it provided. Rule 308 asks for a “reasonabl[y] detail[ed]” petition to aid the trial court’s ultimate assessment: whether the fees requested by attorneys and other individuals who perform work for the estate are reasonable...
Likewise, Rule 308 does not plainly prohibit all “bundling,” and we have never interpreted it to convey such a prohibition. We see no reason to impose such a prohibition now, so long as the description of bundled tasks is sufficiently detailed to permit a court to assess the reasonableness of the time billed. We agree, however, that entries bundling time so vaguely as to make a reasonableness determination impossible may be appropriately disallowed.
Associate Judge Easterly authored the opinion. (Mike Frisch)