What Disciplinary Sanction is Appropriate for Billing “Phantom” Hours?

On March 15, 2019, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia suspended a lawyer for three months for false billing practices. See Lawyer Disciplinary Bd. v. Hassan, No. 16-1210 (Va. Mar. 15, 2019). The lawyer, who was associated with the state’s Public Defender Services (PDS), used billing practices that “resulted in impractical absurdities such as billing thirty or more hours on multiple days.” Id. Because of the “false vouchers” that the respondent “intentionally” submitted, “public money was used to pay for [his] overbilling.” Said the court:

Hassan knew that he was billing his time in either one hour or one-half hour increments, regardless of how much time he actually worked. These were not accidental instances of misplaced decimals or mistaken notations.

Lawyer Disciplinary Bd. v. Hassan at p. 15.

The Louisiana Supreme Court likely would have imposed a significantly harsher penalty for such misconduct in Louisiana. For example, in the recent matter of In re Brazil, No. 2019-B-0081 (La. Feb. 25, 2019), the court disbarred a lawyer who “submitted false and inflated billing records to his law firm.” 1

The takeaway? The Louisiana Supreme Court generally imposes extraordinarily harsh sanctions in lawyer disciplinary matters. Although I have conducted no empirical research on the issue, it is apparent from my regular review of sanctions imposed in other jurisdictions that Louisiana’s sanctions are among the most onerous. Whether this is “good” or “bad” from a normative standpoint is uncertain–at least to me.

  1. In contrast, a lawyer’s submission of false internal time reports to a law firm for internal time tracking purposes drew a significantly less onerous sanction. In the matter of In re Wallace, the respondent submitted “false and inflated billable hours” to his firm on contingent fee cases. The court imposed a twelve-month suspension. The court chose not to disbar the respondent because no clients received false invoices and “little or no actual harm was suffered” by his firm. See In re Wallace, No. 2017-B-0525 (La. Sep. 22, 2017). But see In re Quirk, No. 2018-B-1857 (Jan. 14, 2019) (disbaring lawyer who “submitted phantom billing entries to his law firm for work not performed but not billed to clients”).
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