The Cost of Careless Writing

Victor Steinbok passes along this magistrate judge opinion reducing a lawyer’s fees — under a statute that provides for fee-shifting — based largely on pervasive carelessness in writing and editing, ranging from “nearly unintelligible” passages to omitted pages and paragraphs to pervasive typos to arithmetical errors. And this was from a judge who nonetheless had respect for some of the lawyer’s work. (“As for the time Mr. Puricelli spent in court, considering the quality of his written work, the court was impressed with the transformation. Mr. Puricelli was well prepared, his witnesses were prepped, and his case proceeded quite artfully and smoothly.”) The result:

Mr. Puricelli’s written work is careless, to the point of disrespectful. The Defendants have described it as “vague, ambiguous, unintelligible, verbose and repetitive.” We agree. Although the Defendants have taken issue with some of the typographical errors present in Mr. Puricelli’s filings, the problems with his pleadings have gone beyond typos.

At the outset, the court ordered the Plaintiff to file an amended complaint because paragraphs and pages were missing from that filed with the court and sent to defense counsel. Moreover, although we recognize the complicated nature of this case, lying at the crossroads of § 1983 and Title VII, some of the Amended Complaint was nearly unintelligible. In ruling on the Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint, the Honorable Stewart Dalzell, to whom the case was assigned prior to its referral to the undersigned, noted that the court was “puzzled” by some of the Plaintiff’s arguments in opposition to the motion to dismiss and found others “odd.” See Order on Motion to Dismiss (Jan. 30, 2001, Dalzell, J.). Mr. Puricelli’s lack of care caused the court, and I am sure, defense counsel, to expend an inordinate amount of time deciphering the arguments and responding, accordingly.

As previously mentioned, Mr. Puricelli’s filings are replete with typographical errors and we would be remiss if we did not point out some of our favorites. Throughout the litigation, Mr. Puricelli identified the court as “THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTER [sic] DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA.” Considering the religious persuasion of the presiding officer, the “Passover” District would have been more appropriate. However, we took no personal offense at the reference. In response to the attorneys’ fees petition, the Defendants note that the typographical errors in Mr. Puricelli’s written work are epidemic. In response to this attack, Mr. Puricelli writes the following:

As for there being typos, yes there have been typos, but these errors have not detracted from the arguments or results, and the rule in this case was a victory for Mr. Devore. Further, had the Defendants not tired [sic] to paper Plaintiff’s counsel to death, some type [sic] would not have occurred. Furthermore, there have been omissions by the Defendants, thus they should not case [sic] stones.

If these mistakes were purposeful, they would be brilliant. However, based on the history of the case and Mr. Puricelli’s filings, we know otherwise….

In his reply to the Defendants’ response to the petition for attorneys’ fees, Plaintiff’s counsel argues that his typographical errors require no more than a $20 per hour reduction. We disagree. As we previously stated, Mr. Puricelli’s complete lack of care in his written product shows disrespect for the court. His errors, not just typographical, caused the court a considerable amount of work. See infra, at note 5. Hence, a substantial reduction is in order. We believe that $150 per hour is, in fact, generous.

The lawyer had asked for $300 per hour, and in fact got that much for the in-court work, work that the judge found impressive; the reduction in the fee was thus quite substantial. And I think the “careless, to the point of disrespectful” phrase from the judge was telling. It’s inevitable that there will be a few mistakes in your work, even carefully proofread work that you submit to a court. But if you have enough mistakes, you look like you’re not taking the subject — or the interests and perceptions of your reader, the judge — seriously. Law students, take heed.

(The opinion was handed down in 2004, but I hadn’t seen it before, so I thought many of our readers wouldn’t have, either. Thanks to Legal Juice for the pointer.) [UPDATE: D’oh! Commenter Brett Thomas reminds me that I did link to this when it came out, but entirely forgot about it. Hey, it’s an opinion so nice it’s worth linking to twice.]