Much to my former law partners and book-keepers’ chagrin, I often apply courtesy discounts to my clients’ legal invoices.
It’s counter-productive to my business model. But, as a kid raised by a mom who worked at the local Piggly Wiggly and a dad who worked on an assembly line, sometimes I look at a bill, am reminded of how expensive lawyers are, and apply a small discount.
Don’t get me wrong: All my billable entries are wonderful and worth every penny. In fact, I tend to win many of my cases, including an award of attorney fees, and, when I do, I sometimes wonder whether the defendant have to pay the full amount (and not the discounted amount)?
A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals says that a court can only award what the prevailing party actually pays (or is obligated to pay). It’s at St. Paul Cmty. Ltd. P’ship v. St. Paul Cmty. Church, No. M202101548COAR3CV, 2023 WL 1860692(Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2023).
In the case, the trial court originally awarded the Church $343,535.07 in attorney fees and expenses, which were computed at the rate of $295.00 per hour. In later proceedings (after an earlier remand), the Church attorneys asked for $515,655 in attorney fees, which appeared to retroactively calculate all entries at $450 per hour.
Why? The attorney and client had a unique “side” agreement to the engagement letter, that, even though the hourly rate was $295, if they won, the attorney would ask the Court to reimburse the fees “at a higher rate than the $295/hour I’m billing the church.” There was no agreement that the Church would ever actually have to pay that higher rate.
In light of the Tennessee’s application of the “American Rule” on attorney fees, the Court of Appeals focused on the text of the underlying agreement, which required the reimbursement of attorneys fees “incurred” by the Church. “Incur,” the Court noted, means “to become liable for” or “to be legally obligated to pay.”
Here, the lawyer’s engagement letter clearly said that the Church would never be expected to actually pay that higher rate. The trial court, then, was correct in awarding the attorney fees at the $295 rate, “which were charged and paid at the $295 rate pursuant to the written engagement letter” and denying any requests that the higher rate. Id. *6.
It’s an interesting opinion, with some fairly unique facts that would never come up in most cases.
But, in the context of long-standing litigation, a few $300 or $500 “courtesy discounts” here and there over the course of a case could add up to a few thousand (or more) dollars. After a long fought legal battle, it’d be natural to have your billing software show your cumulative legal fees for your Affidavit (which would naturally output only logged time entries and not paid bills) and forget to give your adversary the benefit of those discounts.
Under this new opinion, you may be legally obliged to. So, maybe my book-keeper is right.