October 28, 2020
A recent Law 360 story by Allison Grande, “Full 11th Circ. Urged to Buck Ban on Class Incentive Awards,” reports that the full Eleventh Circuit is being pressed to review a panel decision in a dispute over a $1.4 million robocall settlement that found class representatives can't recover routine incentive awards, with the lead plaintiff arguing that this categorical ban would hobble class action litigation and an objector to the deal taking issue with the calculation of class counsel's fees.
Lead plaintiff Charles Johnson and objector Jenna Dickenson in separate petitions filed seized on differing rationales in attempting to convince the appellate court to reconsider a panel ruling handed down last month that directed the lower court to revisit its approval of the contested class action settlement in a dispute accusing medical debt collector NPAS Solutions LLC of violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
In a divided decision, the panel concluded that a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings from the 1880s prohibited Johnson from being awarded $6,000 for his role in the litigation and that the district court had failed to provide a sufficient explanation for signing off on the deal or class counsel's request to recover 30% of the settlement fund.
Johnson argued that the panel's clearly incorrect decision to categorically prohibit the common practice of awarding incentive payments to named plaintiffs established a precedent that not only conflicted with every other circuit but also upended long-standing class action practice.
"No court in the last century has ever held that incentive awards are categorically impermissible," Johnson argued. "That incentive awards are a universally accepted practice provides ample reason for the full court to consider whether such an established aspect of class-action settlements should be held per se unlawful."
Contending that the panel's decision "effects a sea change in class action practice," Johnson stressed the importance of incentive awards in encouraging plaintiffs to step forward to lead lawsuits that enable redress for widespread harm that's "inflicted in small increments" on a large group of individuals that aren't willing or able to bring claims separately.
"If few plaintiffs would suffer litigation for the hope of a tiny recovery, fewer still would do so for the same possible award alongside the added burdens — including, potentially, paying a defendant's costs — and fiduciary responsibilities that attend litigating on behalf of a class," Johnson argued. "Incentive payments help attract class representatives willing to shoulder those burdens."
Johnson urged the full Eleventh Circuit to order the parties to provide "full, targeted briefing" on this "vital issue," noting that the parties have barely addressed the topic to date since courts have repeatedly approved incentive awards without incident. He also argued that the more than century-old Supreme Court cases on which the panel relied to buck this trend "provide no authority" for its novel conclusion. "The panel majority broke from all other circuits and remade the landscape of class-action litigation on the premise that Supreme Court precedent so required," Johnson added. "That precedent — if it applies — requires nothing of the sort."
Dickenson, who was the lone objector to the TCPA deal and appealed its approval to the Eleventh Circuit, asserted in her own brief that the full appellate should take a look at the case to clarify the appropriate standard for calculating attorney fees in such disputes. While the panel held that the lower court hadn't provided enough information about why the fee request was reasonable, it backed the method of calculating and awarding fees as a percentage of the settlement fund, concluding that an Eleventh Circuit case from 1991 that endorsed this practice was still "good law."
Dickenson argued that this holding conflicts with Supreme Court precedent, most notably its 2010 holding in Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, which "directly repudiated" the use of the factors relied on by the Eleventh Circuit and directed lower courts "to recognize a strong presumption that attorneys' unenhanced lodestars — i.e., their hourly rates times the hours expended — provide them a reasonable fee that is sufficient both to attract capable counsel and to equitably compensate them."
Therefore, it's imperative for the full Eleventh Circuit to step in to clearly announce whether lower courts should award class counsel fees based on attorneys' actual time and billings or as a percentage of the common class settlement fund, according to Dickenson. "Attorney's fees are a critical issue in class-action litigation, and uniform rules governing their calculation are a matter of overriding national importance," Dickenson argued.