A China Doll Affidavit and an Application for Attorney’s Fees are required by the Court to grant an award of attorney’s fees in an Arizona legal proceeding. After a party files for an award of fees, the Court then provides the opposing party an opportunity to object.
In this article, we discuss what these two filings—the Application for Attorney’s Fees and China Doll Affidavit—are and how a party objects to the other party’s request for fees.
What is a China Doll Affidavit?
The China Doll Restaurant was a restaurant of great renown that once sat on 7th Avenue and Osborne. It was a two-story, ornately decorated restaurant that drew a lot of interest from around the Valley.
As famous as it may have once been, by the time this case came along, the China Doll restaurant’s fortune cookies were predicting a dire future for the restaurant. This case centers on a dispute between the restaurant’s owners and their landlord over the termination of the China Doll’s lease.
Ultimately, the landlords prevailed and were awarded attorney’s fees on appeal.
The landlords’ attorney submitted a request for $10,331.00 in attorney’s fees (the equivalent of just under $31,300.00 in today’s money). Naturally, China Doll claimed the fees were unreasonable.
The resulting case, Schweiger v. China Doll Restaurant, 138 Ariz. 183 (App. 1983), has become the gold standard for how courts assess whether an attorney’s fees are reasonable when awarding attorney’s fees. The restaurant complained, in part, that the landlords’ attorney records did not provide sufficient detail of the work performed.
China Doll Factors
China Doll introduced a number of factors for courts to consider when awarding attorney’s fees.
- Reasonable billing rate. Every China Doll affidavit must disclose the hourly rates of the attorney(s) and paralegal(s) who worked on the case. In China Doll, the Court noted that the agreement of the parties (meaning the party and their attorney) is the best indicator of what is reasonable; nevertheless, the Court is not bound by that agreement. The China Doll Court noted that a judge is not likely to go upwards, but may determine a lesser rate is more appropriate. Family law attorneys’ hourly rates vary greatly, often dependent on the experience and skill of the attorney involved. Truthfully, hourly rates are rarely challenged in attacks on China Doll
- Hours Reasonably Expended. We go from the rarest factor challenged in the attorneys’ billing rate to perhaps the most frequently challenged factor: Whether an attorney spent an “inordinate amount of time” on a task. This, of course, requires some familiarity with how much time attorneys generally spend on a task. But the more hours it takes someone to do something, the more susceptible that entry is to being challenged when it appears in a China Doll
- Sufficient Detail. The China Doll affidavit should include records that sufficiently detail the services provided. It should identify what attorney/paralegal performed the service, a description of the service they provided, the time spent in providing the service. Many attorneys may white-out or black-out a part of entry to protect attorney-client privilege. If they do so, you have an argument that they are omitting details necessary for the Court to determine whether the time spent was reasonable.
- Contemporaneous records. China Doll also noted that one of the indicators of reliability is that the hours are recorded simultaneously with the work being performed. This is not always easy to tell, but some bills include the date the service is performed and the date the service is recorded. If the billing does not have that, the next thing to look at is whether the bills are invoiced monthly. Generally, if they are submitting monthly bills that indicate their clients are making monthly payments, that generally is indicative of contemporaneous time-keeping; if they do not have, then there is certainly grounds to question whether the record-keeping is happening contemporaneously.
- Successful Claims by Opposing Party. Where the party who will be paying attorney’s fees prevailed on some of the issues, the award of attorney’s fees should be reduced accordingly. “Where a party has achieved only partial or limited success, however, it would be unreasonable to award compensation for all hours expended, including time spent on the unsuccessful issues or claims.” China Doll, 138 Ariz. at189. For this principle, the Court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court of Hensley v. Eckerhart, which held, “But where the plaintiff achieved only limited success, the district court should award only that amount of fees that is reasonable in relation to the results obtained.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 440 (1983).
What is an Application for Attorney’s Fees?
This is the document where the party seeking fees formally requests them by submitting the Application and Affidavit. The Application lists the qualifications of the attorney and justifies the attorney’s billing rate and lists the total amount of attorney’s fees being requested.
Other Factors in the Award of Attorney’s Fees
These factors do not come directly from China Doll but from its subsequent progeny of cases.
- Block Billing. Block billing occurs where an attorney “[groups] tasks together in a block so that time spent on each task cannot be reviewed for its reasonableness.” In re Guardianship of Sleeth, 226 Ariz. 171, 178, ¶ 34 (App. 2010). This practice prevents a fair assessment of the attorney’s billing practices and Courts generally reduce the award of attorney’s fees accordingly.
- Failing to identify who performed the services. In Roberts v. City of Phoenix, 225 Ariz. 112 (App. 2010), the court denied the requested hours of “staff time” because the attorney’s affidavit provided no explanation as to who these people were, making it impossible for the Court to assess whether their rates and services were reasonable.
- Paralegal work performed at an attorney rate. Certain portions of litigation, such as filing, should be performed by paralegals, not attorneys. If an attorney does perform the task, the attorney should reduce their rate for that service to that of a paralegal. See Cont’l Townhouses East Unit One Ass’n v. Brockbank, 152 Ariz. 537, 544 (App. 1986) (explaining lawyers should not perform tasks more appropriately “performed by legal assistants or law clerks solely to permit that time to be compensable in the event an attorneys’ fees application is ultimately submitted”).
What to do when objecting to a China Doll affidavit
The purpose of the Objection to Attorney’s Fees is to ask the Court to limit how much it awards against you in attorney’s fees.
The problem is that by the time most litigants reach this point, they are battle-weary. In most instances, the person being ordered to pay fees has lost their case, and they may be despondent about it. Many are scrambling to find either a new attorney or hire an attorney for the first time to fix the result. A common question we get asked among this group of litigants is whether filing an objection is worth it.
The answer is almost always yes! The simple act of objecting, for whatever reason, causes, in most instances, the Court to make a much more significant reduction in the fee award than they would make if the Application and Affidavit went uncontested. Almost always, litigants get back the money they spend on an Objection to Attorney’s Fees.
Here is what to include in an Objection to Attorney’s Fees:
- General Objection. Most people start with a general objection as to why fees should not be awarded. Or why fees prior to a certain point in time should not be awarded.
- Objections to Specific Billing Entries. This involves a bit of a process:
- Review and Highlight the Affidavit. When you are asked to object to a China Doll Affidavit, you will want to review opposing counsel’s billing. Look through each billing entry and highlight any that fall under any of the above-listed factors. You want to identify each of these instances.
- Write your objection. Then make your argument to the judge as to why those billing entries should not be included in the award of attorney’s fees.
- List Out Objections, if practical. If it’s practical to do so, list out the objections you’re making to individual billing entries and total them up.
- Do the math for the judge. Let the judge know how much should be excluded from the Court’s consideration.