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$9M in Attorney Fees in Fidelity Workers 401K Settlement

February 27, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Alexis Shanes, “Fidelity Workers’ Attys Get $9M Cut of 401K Settlement,” reports that a Boston federal court approved $9 million in fees for the attorneys who helped current and former Fidelity Investments employees secure a $28.5 million settlement in their suit accusing the company of loading its workers' 401(k) plans with costly, proprietary investment options. 

In addition to granting the request by attorneys from Nichols Kaster PLLP and Block & Leviton LLP for a one-third cut of the settlement, U.S. District Judge William Young greenlighted $1.4 million in litigation expenses and $115,000 in settlement administration expenses.  The court also approved service awards of $10,000 each for lead plaintiffs Kevin Moitoso, Tim Lewis, Mary Lee Torline and Sheryl Arndt.  The four plaintiffs represented a class of roughly 41,000 current and former Fidelity workers.

In a December motion for fees, the attorneys said they had logged 7,862 hours working on the case.  In that time, they said, they developed the original complaint and amended it four times; reviewed or produced more than 180,000 pages of documents; and deposed a dozen witnesses.

"There is no question that class counsel devoted significant time and effort to this case," the attorneys said in the fee bid.  "Plaintiffs litigated this case vigorously, pursuing the case up to one month before trial was set to begin.  "This court and other courts have approved one-third fee awards in cases at far earlier stages of litigation," they added.

The parties struck the deal in July, after Judge Young set the suit up for trial with a March case stated order, an alternative to cross-motions for summary judgment that allowed the court to draw inferences and reach a decision based on undisputed facts in the case.  The order found Fidelity liable for failing to monitor proprietary mutual funds in the workers' 401(k) plan.  The parties had requested the case stated procedure after filing dueling summary judgment motions in September 2019.

The Fidelity workers sued under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act in October 2018, alleging Fidelity Management & Research Co., FMR LLC and four related entities had loaded their retirement plans with costly investment options that burdened plan participants.  The Fidelity retirement plan had roughly $15 billion in assets by the end of 2016, according to the complaint, ranking it among the top 20 such plans in the nation.

$110M Fee Request Trimmed in $650M Facebook Biometric Settlement

February 26, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “$650M Facebook Privacy Deal OK’d, $110M Atty Fees Trimmed,” reports that a California federal judge praised a $650 million settlement resolving claims that Facebook's facial recognition technology violated Illinois users' biometric privacy rights, calling it a "landmark result," but he trimmed the $110 million requested attorney fees to $97.5 million.  U.S. District Judge James Donato gave his final stamp of approval to the multimillion-dollar deal resolving claims under the "new and untested" Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, calling it a major win for consumers in the "hotly contested" area of digital privacy.

The settlement will put at least $345 each into the hands of 1.6 million class members who filed claims, according to the order, and Facebook has agreed to set its "face recognition" default setting to "off" for all global users and delete all existing and stored face templates for the class members.

But Judge Donato also cut back the $110 million in attorney fees that class counsel at Edelson PC, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP and Labaton Sucharow LLP asked for, saying the $650 million size of the settlement fund is not a typical case that warrants the use of a 25% contingency fee as a benchmark.  The judge said in this case it would be more appropriate for him to adjust the benchmark percentage or employ the lodestar method instead to avoid "windfall profits" for class counsel.

"To be clear, the court recognizes the skill, dedication and hard work class counsel brought to this case and their clients," Judge Donato said.  "The fact that the court cannot in good conscience award fees on the presumption of a 25% contingency cut should not be read as detracting from that in any way."

"It is simply a matter of fairness and proportion," the judge said.  He said a 25% presumption is just too big to be applied to a settlement fund as large as this one.  The class counsel spent more than 30,103 hours on the case, according to the order — including 9,577 hours by Robbins Geller, 8,103 hours by Labaton Sucharow and 12,423 hours by Edelson.

The judge adjusted the percentage rate from 16.9% of the settlement fund to 15%, giving the class counsel $97.5 million in attorney fees, according to the order.  The judge said he also cross-checked that number with a lodestar calculation and found the award to be more reasonable than the one requested.  But the judge said 15% of the attorney fee award will be held back pending further order.  He granted the class counsel's request for $915,000 in expense reimbursement, finding sufficient documentation, according to the order.

The judge also reduced the incentive awards for the three class representatives — Nimesh Patel, Adam Pezen and Carlo Licata — from the requested $7,500 each to $5,000 each, saying that even though the requested amount would be a "minuscule proportion" of the settlement, it's still too high in comparison to the amount other class members will receive.

Judge Donato praised the parties' "proposed array of innovative ways to reach class members" and notify them of the settlement, including by direct email, Facebook's newsfeed notifications, publication in Illinois newspapers, a settlement website and an internet ad campaign.  "These were robust measures, and they paid off in spades," the judge said.

Kessler Topaz Garner $41M in Attorney Fees for Snap Investors

February 21, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Emilie Ruscoe, “Kessler Topaz Garners $41.1M For Repping Snap Investors,” reports that Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check LLP attorneys will take home $41.1 million for their work representing social media giant Snap Inc. investors in a suit alleging fraud, even as the federal judge who approved the deal opined that the overall fee request process does not face any "meaningful opposition and rigorous testing."

In his order out of Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson found that the multimillion counsel fee, which comprises a quarter of the $155 million settlement sum in the case, is reasonable "in light of the length of the litigation, a comparison to awards made in similar cases, and the minimal reaction from the class."  Judge Wilson signed off on the settlement sum in the same order.

Though the judge approved the fee total, he also noted in his analysis that, "Ultimately, the [counsel fee request] process fails to create any incentive to ensure that requests for attorney's fees in these cases face meaningful opposition and rigorous testing, thereby rendering a court's task in these situations unusually difficult."

Neither the defendants nor the members of the proposed class are in a position to really scrutinize the requested attorney fee, the judge said.  Defendants would have to pay their own attorneys more to go through the process of opposing the counsel fee, and class members are unlikely to retain and pay additional counsel just to oppose the counsel fee, he said.

While courts are required to undertake their own review of the requested counsel fee, they also "are faced with hundreds of cases per year and must allocate limited time across those cases," Judge Wilson said.  Nonetheless, the judge said, the requested 25% fee is reasonable.  Only two members of the putative class, out of 828,000 who received notice about the case, objected to the settlement, and neither of them objected to the attorney fees.

The settlement ends claims that Snap failed to disclose in its initial public offering that Snap's daily active user engagement metrics had been negatively impacted as a result of stiff competition from Facebook.  Snap's March 2017 IPO raised $3.4 billion, but investors claim that revelations about the company's stalling performance indicators pushed down the company's trading price.

Article: Since When Do Attorneys Have to Pay the Opposing Counsel Fees?!

February 20, 2021

A recent article by Deena Duffy, “Since When Do Attorneys Have to Pay the Opposing Counsel Fees?! reports on how attorneys can be held responsible for opposing counsel fees in Ohio.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys can be Held Responsible for Opposing Legal Fees if Discovery Rules are Neglected

This may be a question that has never crossed your mind.  If so, then good for you. It means you’ve likely never been faced with sanctions.  However, just because you haven’t, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of the possibility.

What happens when your client is served discovery requests that require review of a large number of documents prior to production to the other side, yet, your client refuses to be involved in the review?  What if not only does your client refuse to engage in the review, but also refuses to engage in any negotiations aimed at making the review more manageable?  Quite clearly, these actions likely won’t bode well for your client.  Even more unfortunately for you, as this client’s attorney, you yourself could land in hot water with the court, even resulting in you being personally responsible for a portion of opposing counsel’s fees.

As we all know, some jurisdictions are more lenient when it comes to discovery rules while others – not so much.  To that extent, it is crucial to be familiar with not only the discovery rules for the jurisdiction you’re in.  Moreover, the growing importance of becoming aware of the potential ramifications of not complying with those discovery rules cannot be understated.

In a recent case out of Second District Court of Appeals of Ohio, an attorney learned the hard way what happens when you let the client run the show.  As attorneys, our duty is obviously to be zealous advocates for our clients and to provide them with advice and guidance related to their case.  However, we need to recognize that during the course of our representation, it becomes our responsibility to ensure that the client is doing what the court has ordered.

This particular discovery and sanctions issue arose out of a civil action where Plaintiff alleged that Defendant engaged in tortious interference with business relationships, defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.  During the discovery phase, which began in December 2017, the Defense served Plaintiff with several requests for document production.  In Plaintiff’s interrogatory responses, Plaintiff identified 68 witnesses as having information related to his claims.  Defense counsel proposed that Plaintiff provide his multiple email accounts and their passwords to the Defense’s expert, who would then run searches for the 68 witness names.  The Court approved of the plan; however, the Plaintiff did not, arguing that this approach did not account for the protection of privileged information.

On appeal, the case was remanded and the parties came to an agreement regarding production wherein the first search the expert would conduct would be the names of privileged individuals.  The results of that search would go to Plaintiff counsel to review and produce a privilege log related to those documents.  The remainder of the non-privileged emails that hit on the 68 witness names would then be produced.  Defense counsel provided a list of potential search terms to Plaintiff counsel, who had no objections or modifications to the list.  Herein appears to be the end of Plaintiff’s cooperation in the discovery process.

The search for privileged names returned roughly 3,200 emails.  Plaintiff’s counsel identified roughly 2,700 of them as actually being privileged and produced a privilege log, though woefully insufficient.  The second search, for the 68 witness names, returned roughly 50,000 emails.  Following the second search, Defense counsel requested that Plaintiff modify their discovery responses.  This would assist in modifying the search term list in an attempt to cull out potentially non-responsive results to make the potentially responsive population easier to manage.  Defense counsel didn’t hear anything from Plaintiff counsel for two weeks, at which point the Plaintiff refused to modify the discovery responses.  Plaintiff did suggest that Defense counsel somehow modify the search term list to be able to discern between “material” and “relevant” discoverable information, yet provided no suggestion on how this might be accomplished.  Plaintiff counsel also informed Defense counsel that Plaintiff blatantly refused to review any emails prior to 2013, arguing that there is no way they could be relevant.  Defense counsel continued attempting to negotiate with Plaintiff to methodically deal with the large population of emails; however, Plaintiff counsel never responded to Defense counsel’s suggestions.

After roughly 15 months, the Defense filed a motion for sanctions, arguing that Plaintiff (1) refused to provide a sufficient privilege log, (2) refused to review or provide any emails from pre-2013, (3) refused to review or provide any emails related to the second search, and (4) failed to respond or negotiate regarding any suggestions made by the Defendant to move forward in the discovery phase.  At the sanctions hearing, Plaintiff counsel wasn’t in any position to help himself or his client.  Plaintiff admitted that he didn’t review a single email out of the 50,000 that resulted from the search, saying that he glanced at the list but found it overwhelming, repeatedly stating that the expert never actually ran the search terms.  In response to being asked about the pre-2013 emails, Plaintiff said, “I did not even [expletive] know the defendant during that time and it wasn’t relevant to this particular action.”  The Defense claimed they were relevant for two reasons – first to prove that Plaintiff routinely engaged in vexatious litigation, and second to prove that Plaintiff had been engaging with the witnesses as early as 2010 due to his involvement with the Defendant’s church business.

Eventually, Judge Hall granted the sanctions motion, finding Plaintiff in contempt for failing to comply with the December 2018 agreed discovery order.  A few months later, a hearing was held on the matter of attorneys’ fees, of which the court ordered Plaintiff and Plaintiff counsel, jointly and severally, to pay Defense counsel’s attorney fees, totaling $11,835.00.

In its analysis, the Court routinely returned to the fact that Plaintiff not only failed to review any of the documents, but that he blatantly refused to do so.  The Court noted that the discovery order to which the parties had agreed did not give Plaintiff the option to choose to review the emails but rather the duty to do so.  Plaintiff alleged more than once that the list of documents to review was overwhelming; however, Plaintiff refused to engage in any negotiations with the Defense regarding potential modifications to make the population more manageable.

In Ohio, the civil rules allow for an attorney to be sanctioned for failing to comply with discovery orders per Civ. R. 37(B)(3).  The Court, in granting sanctions against Plaintiff counsel, argued that Plaintiff counsel continued to repeat baseless allegations about Defense counsel’s motives and that it was “especially egregious” for Plaintiff counsel to continually blame the Defendant for Plaintiff’s negligent conduct regarding discovery.

This case, while unfortunate for Plaintiff and Plaintiff counsel, should serve as a reminder to attorneys of the need to be genuine in their efforts regarding discovery.  It should go without saying that, due to attorney ethics and candor requirements, attorneys are responsible for following orders issued by the court and that failure to do so could result in the misbehaving attorney being found personally responsible for a portion of opposing counsel’s fees.

Moral of the Story

Not only is it important to understand what is required with regard to jurisdictional discovery rules, but also to understand what could happen the rules aren’t followed.

Deena Duffy is staff attorney at Spencer Fane LLP in Minneapolis.

Lead Counsel Defends $800M Fee Request in Roundup MDL

February 19, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Lead Counsel in Roundup MDL Defend $800M Fee Request,” reports that lawyers defending as much as $800 million in proposed common benefit fees from settlements with Monsanto insisted that the law firms objecting to their request had painted “an incomplete and inaccurate picture” of the Roundup litigation.  More than a dozen law firms had objected to the fee request, with one of them calling the request a “money grab” by lead counsel in the multidistrict litigation.  In a response, lead counsel insisted that the award was justified.

They said Bayer, which owns Monsanto, would not have entered into settlements last year but for their work, which included obtaining three Roundup verdicts.  “The pleadings and affidavits submitted by the objectors present an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the Roundup litigation,” they wrote.  “The simple fact remains that all Roundup attorneys and plaintiffs have benefitted from MDL leadership’s efforts—irrespective of whether or where their cases are filed or unfiled and whether their individually retained attorneys have cases pending in the MDL, have formally availed themselves of MDL work product, or have entered into a formal participation agreement.”  Lead counsel are Robin Greenwald, of Weitz & Luxenberg in New York; Michael Miller, of The Miller Firm in Orange, Virginia; and Aimee Wagstaff, of Andrus Wagstaff in Lakewood, Colorado.

Bayer announced in June that it planned to settle about 125,000 Roundup claims for an estimated $10.9 billion, which included a class action settlement that lawyers later withdrew.  The settlements were not part of a global agreement, however.  Lawyers, including lead counsel, conducted their own negotiations, which have been confidential, and many cases remain unsettled.

In a Jan. 11 motion, lead counsel sought an 8.25% assessment on Roundup settlements to pay for fees and expenses spent on the “common benefit” of all lawyers.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California, overseeing the Roundup multidistrict litigation, filed a Jan. 26 order asking lawyers to address four questions about the holdback request, including whether it is even necessary and, if so, how much, and whether it should be lower than the proposed 8% in fees and 0.25% in expenses.  He also asked whether he could issue a holdback “without understanding how much of a premium co-lead counsel has already received on their settlements compared to the typical settlement.”

Several firms criticized the request, particularly on top of an estimated $2 billion in attorney fees they claimed that lead counsel made from contingency fee contracts associated with their own cases, which settled last year for greater amounts than Monsanto is now offering.

In their response, lead counsel noted that the proposed holdback includes an assessment on their own cases, and would compensate about 20 firms not in leadership.  They also said that the assessment pertained only to about 400 law firms that had done one of the following: had at least one case pending in the multidistrict litigation, signed a participation agreement, used “work product” in the multidistrict litigation, or sought help from Kenneth Feinberg, the special master, in settlement negotiations.

“The circumstances of this litigation warrant an expansion of the current scope of the holdback to encompass the entire universe of settlements, because all Roundup plaintiffs have undoubtedly benefited from the efforts and expenditures of common benefit attorneys,” they wrote.  “Indeed, the extensive work that this court has conducted in issuing opinions and managing the litigation have had a direct effect on each and every Roundup case or claim, irrespective of whether or where an attorney might have filed his or her cases.”  Many of the objecting firms had insisted they did not use discovery in the multidistrict litigation and that lead counsel purposely kept the experts to themselves.  Lead counsel countered that they had made work product available on a firm website and provided a “trial package” and experts.

Addressing the objections of specific firms, lead counsel said that Beasley Allen had a pending case in federal court that is part of the trial pool and had coordinated with Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the lead counsel firms, to obtain experts in its state court cases.  Beasley Allen also had asked for an 8% holdback in the multidistrict litigation against Johnson & Johnson over talcum powder, they wrote.  They also attacked the objections of The Lanier Law Firm as “untrue and baffling” given that the firm reached out to lead counsel to retain their experts for upcoming Roundup trials in Missouri state courts.  The Lanier Law Firm also had sought a 10% holdback in multidistrict litigation over DePuy Orthopaedics’ Pinnacle hip implants.

In an email, W. Mark Lanier called the comparison “apples and oranges,” given the amount of work done in the hip implant cases, and disputed claims that he used experts from the multidistrict litigation.  “I find the pleading and allegations a bit baffling as well,” he wrote. “I personally had been told most every expert was being pulled by MDL leadership, and non-MDL cases would have to find their own experts.”  Chhabria has scheduled a March 3 hearing on the fee dispute.