A Lesson From Judge Geiger About Clarity in Attorney Time Entries

Giarusso v. Giarusso, 455 N.J. Super. 42 (App. Div. 2018).  This opinion by Judge Geiger today involved an application for attorneys’ fees in a matrimonial matter by a well-known North Jersey firm.  The firm had represented the plaintiff wife in connection with post-judgment proceedings.  The firm rendered services to collect alimony and child support arrears from the defendant husband, as well as equitable distribution owed to the wife.  The wife did not pay any amounts to the firm after an initial $5,000 retainer.

The firm sought over $99,000 in a post-judgment fee application, and sought a charging lien for that amount.  The Family Part declined to impose a charging lien, on the grounds that the Attorney’s Lien Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:13-5, does not apply to legal services performed entirely post-judgment.  On the law firm’s appeal, Judge Geiger endorsed the Family Part’s ruling in that regard, quoting and relying on dicta from Musikoff v. Jay Parrino’s the Mint, LLC, 172 N.J. 133 (2002).  He found that dicta to be a “carefully considered statement” and therefore “persuasive authority.”

Having rejected a charging lien, the Family Part awarded the law firm $50,000 as the reasonable value of its services.  Plaintiff had objected to the number of hours that the firm billed, though not to its hourly rates.  The firm appealed that ruling too, arguing that it was an abuse of discretion not to award the full amount of over $99,000 that the firm sought, and that the Family Part erred in not fully analyzing the factors of Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(a), which illuminate the overall requirement that an attorney’s fee be reasonable.

Judge Geiger agreed that the Family Part had not made proper findings and conclusions, as required by Rule 1:7-4.  But that was because the firm’s time entries, though showing “the date, type of service, identity of the person performing the work, time expended, and resulting amount, … omit[ted] any description of the subject matter or the purpose of the service rendered.”  Thus, invoices indicated the type of communication with the client or others, such as a telephone call or an e-mail, but did not disclose “the subject matter.”  Moreover, defendant stated that he had been billed only $13,000 or $14,000 in fees for the same post-judgment period.  For those reasons, the Family Part determined that the firm had not carried its burden of proving its right to the full amount claimed.

“[W]ithout a description of the work or an explanation for the amount of time expended, the judge could not determine the reasonableness of the hours actually expended, a critical determination in calculating the fee to be awarded.”  The Family Part was “thwarted” in making findings and conclusions by the firm’s failure to provide sufficient information.  Judge Geiger held that the fee issue would be remanded to a new judge (the trial judge having retired) to make a complete record and render findings and conclusions.  He thus gave the firm an opportunity to provide more detail in support of its fee request.

This is a clear lesson for all attorneys who seek fees.  The nature of services rendered must be disclosed in some fashion, though time entries need not be a book-length manuscript.

Finally, the panel reversed a ruling of the Family Part that, in order to obtain a judgment for the amount of fees awarded to it, the firm needed to begin a separate collection action, rather than proceeding in the underlying Family Part case.  Citing Levine v. Levine, 381 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2005), which ruled on that very issue, Judge Geiger held that the firm “need not file a separate action in the Law Division to obtain a judgment against his client for attorney’s fees.”