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Category: Fee Award

$175M in Attorney Fees in $10B VW Settlement

March 22, 2017

A recent Courthouse News Services story by Nicholas Iovino, “Lawyers Share $175M Payday in VW Settlement,” reports that a federal judge awarded $175 million in attorneys’ fees and costs to lawyers that helped secure a $10 billion settlement in the Volkswagen diesel-gate scandal.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer approved the $10 billion package in October 2016 as part of a larger $15 billion deal, which included $4.7 billion in air quality improvement programs to mitigate the impact of cars that violated emissions standards.

The $15 billion deal was the most costly settlement Volkswagen has paid thus far for its use of emissions-cheating software in some 11 million cars worldwide.  The German automaker has paid more than $20 billion in U.S. civil settlements and criminal fines, and U.S. prosecutors have charged six of its executives over their roles in the scandal.

As part of the $15 billion deal approved last year, Volkswagen agreed to spend up to $10 billion buying back or modifying nearly 600,000 2-liter diesel engine vehicles tainted by defeat devices.  Defeat devices allowed the cars to mask emissions during tests while spewing up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide on the road than allowed under federal law.

Breyer found $167 million in attorneys’ fees and $8 million in costs requested by the plaintiff class lawyers was “reasonable and fair” given the “extraordinary result” achieved for the class.  The judge said the settlement put owners of affected vehicles back into the same position they were in before the scandal was made public in September 2015.  Volkswagen offered to buy back cars based on their pre-public scandal value or to repair them with EPA-approved emissions-reducing modifications.

Awarded attorneys’ fees make up 1.7 percent of the $10 billion settlement package.  The award will be shared among 21 law firms that made up the plaintiff class steering committee, headed by lead counsel Elizabeth Cabraser of Lief Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

The lawyers and their staff worked 98,000 hours litigating the case and negotiating the settlement.  They expect to spend an additional 21,00 hours processing claims over the next 26 months, according to Breyer’s March 17 ruling.

The average hourly rate for class attorneys’ work was $529, amounting to a $63.5 million lodestar, or total cost of litigation hours.  Breyer found applying a 2.63 multiplier to the lodestar was justified given “the complexities of this case and the extraordinary result achieved for the class.”

Lead attorney Elizabeth Cabraser said in an emailed statement, “The award will be allocated by lead counsel among firms who performed authorized common benefit work, based upon relative value of contributions to the case and time that was reported and complied with guidelines set forth by the Court.  These fees will not be deducted from any class member’s recovery amount.”

NALFA Podcast with Law Professor Charles Silver

March 17, 2017

NALFA hosts a podcast series on attorney fee issues.  We talk with thought leaders, attorney fee experts, and attorney fee newsmakers who’ve helped shape and influence the jurisprudence of reasonable attorney fees.  NALFA interviews members, faculty, judges, law professors, in-house counsel, and others on a range of attorney fee and legal billing issues.

NALFA’s second podcast featured an interview with Charles M. Silver, Professor of Law at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.  The NALFA podcast with Professor Silver focused on his empirical research on the setting of attorney fees in securities class actions and economic principles at play in civil litigation.  The podcast discussion centered on fee calculation methods, judicial procedure for awarding fees, and private contingency fee agreements. 

Professor Silver also discussed the politics of class actions and the dynamics of the tort reform lobby.  In addition, Professor Silver also offered several recommendations for the class action world, including employing a more real world, market based approach to awarding fees in class actions.

“These podcasts are the perfect broadcast format to discuss attorney fee and legal billing issues,” said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  “In addition to his research, Professor Silver talked about a range of issues including the creation of a data set for judges to draw upon when awarding fees, fee allocation issues in MDLs, and setting attorney fees early in the class action process,” Jesse said.  Click on the link below to listen to the NALFA podcast:

https://soundcloud.com/thenalfa/nalfa-podcast-with-law-professor-charles-m-silver

Federal Circuit: EAJA Fee Awards Must Use Local Rates

March 16, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Chuck Stanley, “Fed. Circuit Says EAJA Legal Fees Must Use Local Costs,” reports that awards for attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) must be calculated based on the location where the work was done, a Federal Circuit panel said in a precedential ruling.

The federal circuit rejected a veteran’s widow’s claim that ambiguity in the statute allows her to adjust upward the hourly rate for calculating attorneys’ fees in a benefits suit based on the consumer price index (CPI) in Washington, D.C., where the case was heard but little other work was done.

Instead, the panel ruled that Paula Parrott should have provided individual rates for work done in Dallas, San Francisco and Washington in order to win an adjustment from the statutory rate of $125 per hour, rather than using the CPI for a single city or the national CPI to calculate a single rate.

The decision upheld the Veterans Court’s decision to award Parrott fees based on the statutory rate because she failed to provide rates for each city where work had been done on the case.

“We think the local CPI approach, where a local CPI is available … is more consistent with EAJA than the national approach.  We therefore hold that the Veterans Court did not err in ruling that the local CPI approach represented the correct method of calculating the adjustment in Ms. Parrott’s attorney’s hourly rate,” the decision states.

Parrott had claimed more than $7,200 in legal expenses in a suit over benefits for her husband, a deceased veteran, based on an upward adjustment from the statutory hourly rate based on the cost of living in Washington, D.C.  Language in the EAJA, which provides for an award of attorneys’ fees to victorious parties fighting agency action, stipulates that a $125 cap on hourly rates can be adjusted upward due to an increase in the cost of living.

But Parrott argued the statute is ambiguous regarding the method used to calculate such an increase.  She further claimed the Veterans Court was obliged to accept her cost estimate because ambiguity in a statute related to veterans benefits must be construed in favor of the veteran.

However, the panel ruled the EAJA is not ambiguous because using the national CPI rather than local numbers would incentivize more attorneys to accept cases challenging government agencies in low-cost areas rather than pricier areas.  Further, the panel found Parrott’s claim the Veterans Court was required to side with her is not applicable to the EAJA since it is not a veterans benefit statute, but applies to all litigants against executive agencies.

The case is Parrott v. Shulkin, case number 2016-1450, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Judge Highlights Excessive Billing in Sprint Litigation

March 15, 2017

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Joe Palazzolo and Sara Randazzo, “One Lawyer, 6,905 Hours Leads to $1.5 Million Bill in Sprint Suit,” reports that, Alexander Silow, a contract lawyer for a Pennsylvania plaintiffs’ firm, clocked 6,905 hours of work on a shareholder lawsuit against former executives and directors of Sprint Corp. related to its 2005 merger with Nextel.  Averaging about 13 hours a day, Mr. Silow reviewed 48,443 documents and alone accounted for $1.5 million, more than a quarter of the requested legal fees, according to court documents.

“Unbelievable!” is how Judge James Vano in Kansas described the billing records.  And he meant it.  “It seems that the vast amount of work performed on this case was illusory, perhaps done for the purpose of inflating billable hours,” Judge Vano, who sits in Olathe, Kan., wrote in a Nov. 22 opinion.

Courts often slash what they see as excessive billing in securities and other litigation, but rarely are they so scathing, legal experts said.  Judge Vano’s ruling might have gone unnoticed but for a recent disclosure about Mr. Silow by the law firm where he worked: He was disbarred in 1987 and practiced law illegally for decades.

The revelation, contained in a February letter to Judge Vano, could ​rupture​ a settlement in the Sprint case, and provide grist for corporate groups and others that have highlighted alleged abuses in the civil-justice system, fueling current momentum for legislative change.

A Republican bill passed by the House of Representatives would make it harder to file class actions, curtailing lawyer-driven litigation that provides little benefit to shareholders and consumers, its supporters say.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer-rights advocates say the legislation would reduce access to the courts and blunt litigation that has improved corporate governance and forced companies to pull unsafe drugs and faulty products from shelves.

Courts regularly bless multimillion-dollar fee awards in recognition of the risk plaintiffs’ firms take by fronting the costs for litigation.  But fee experts said bill-padding is pervasive in class actions and shareholder suits because billing records aren’t reviewed by clients and are scrutinized only when a judge needs to approve a settlement or award fees after trial.

William G. Ross, a law professor at Samford University in Alabama who has written two books on attorney billing, said his most recent survey of lawyers showed that two-thirds were personally aware of bill-padding and more than half admitted they sometimes performed work they otherwise wouldn’t have done had they been charging a flat fee.

Mr. Silow had been working as a contract attorney for at least eight years when staffing agency Abelson Legal Search placed him at the Weiser Law Firm PC in Berwyn, Pa., in 2008, according to a Feb. 3 letter from the firm to Judge Vano.  The law firm was contacted last month by a third party it declined to name and learned that no one with Mr. Silow’s name was listed in a state database of licensed lawyers, Robert B. Weiser, co-founder of the firm, said in the letter.

Mr. Weiser said Mr. Silow presented himself to the firm as Alexander J. Silow, but “was in actuality named Jeffrey M. Silow” and confessed he had been disbarred when the firm confronted him, the letter said.  The firm has since ended its relationship with Mr. Silow and alerted authorities, it said.

Pennsylvania’s attorney discipline office confirmed Mr. Silow was disbarred in 1987 but could provide no additional information.  Mr. Silow didn’t respond to emails and calls seeking comment.  Abelson Legal Search didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Weiser said in the letter that his firm stands by the accuracy of Mr. Silow’s billing records in the Sprint lawsuit, which alleged the company directors and officers concealed problems created by the merger with Nextel.  The company posted a nearly $30 billion loss as a result of the deal.

The lawsuit sought to claw back profits from former Sprint directors and officers, who it accused of incompetence and self-dealing.  But a settlement reached last year was more modest.  Sprint agreed to changes to its corporate governance and the composition of its board of directors.

Judge Vano approved the deal in his November ruling but slashed the proposed legal fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys from $4.25 million to $450,000.  “The focus appears to have been upon an easy, cheap settlement in the first instance,” Judge Vano wrote.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers—Mr. Weiser’s firm, Florida lawyers Alison Leffew and Bruce G. Murphy and the Kansas City firm Dollar Burns & Becker LC—have appealed Judge Vano’s ruling on the fees.  They argued the results of the settlement, rather than the hours billed, justified the amount sought.

In court documents, Mr. Weiser and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers representing a Sprint shareholder said Mr. Silow’s “extensive document review” enabled them to make “well-informed decisions.”

Michael Hartleib, a Sprint shareholder who objected to the settlement, asked the Kansas appeals court last month to return the case to Judge Vano’s court so he can reconsider the deal in light of the new evidence showing Mr. Silow had no license to practice law.

Jury Verdict Adds More Fees After Low Settlement Offer

March 14, 2017

A recent Daily Report story by Greg Land, “Settlement Adds $700k in Fees to $3.7M Verdict,” reports that, following a 2015 Gwinnett County verdict awarding $3.7 million to a man whose back was injured in an auto accident, his lawyers collected another $700,000 in attorney fees after settling claims under Georgia's offer of settlement statute.

After what they said were extensive negotiations and a failed mediation, plaintiffs attorneys Mark Issa and Jeff Shiver said the case settled recently with a total payment of $4.4 million.  The lawyers noted that the defendant's insurer had refused multiple offers to settle for her policy limits of $25,000 early in the litigation and later declined a $475,000 settlement offer.

"This is most classic example of an insurance company stepping on dollars to pick up pennies," said Shiver of Shiver & Hamilton.  Issa said the fact that the insurer offered to pay $11,000 in response to the early demands meant it was aware that its driver bore some liability.

"They didn't reject it outright; they were clearly trying to save a few thousand dollars," said the Issa Law Firm principal.  "We had initially a case with $13,000 in medicals and a $25,000 demand.  Now we have $4.4 million to settle. … This was [a case of] bad decision after bad decision."

The accident happened in 2012 when a Chevrolet Colorado driven by Walter Smalls was struck by a Lincoln Navigator driven by Maria Camarillo. Smalls' 18-year-old daughter, a passenger in the pickup truck, was the more seriously injured, although Smalls suffered abrasions to his face and a leg injury.

After he was released from the hospital, Smalls experienced a sharp pain in his back that continued to worsen despite treatment.  Then a 47-year-old electrician, Smalls ultimately required surgery and had to give up his profession, his lawyers said.

Camarillo's insurer, Omni Indemnity, paid her $25,000 policy limits to Smalls' daughter after a pretrial demand but refused four policy limit demands on Smalls' behalf.  The insurer responded with an offer of $11,000 and continued to decline policy limit demands as Smalls' medical bills mounted.

After Smalls sued in Gwinnett County State Court in 2013, the insurer offered Camarillo's $25,000 limit during a mediation, which was declined.  In 2014, Omni Indemnity turned down the $475,000 offer of judgment, and a few months before trial it rejected a demand for $1.2 million.

Following a four-day trial before Judge Pam South, the jury returned a $3.7 million verdict in November 2015.  Basing their motion on the $475,000 demand, the plaintiffs lawyers filed for attorney fees under Georgia's offer of settlement statute, which declares that a party that declines a settlement offer and then loses at trial by at least 25 percent more than the rejected offer may have to pay the prevailing party's attorney fees accrued from the date of the offer.

The motion offered several calculations of the potential fee award, ranging from $1.1 million to nearly $1.5 million.  South declined to rule on the bid while the case was on appeal, and it was while the appeal was pending that the settlement was worked out.

The lesson for insurers?  "Don't stare a good offer in the face," Issa said.

MetLife Faces $6.2M in Attorney Fees

March 9, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Bonnie Eslinger, “MetLife Faces $6.2M in Atty Fees Over Ponzi Scheme Ruling,” reports that a California judge tentatively ordered MetLife Inc. and various subsidiaries...

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