Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Category: Fee Award

Question: When Is a $3 Million Attorney Fee Award Painful?

April 19, 2017

Answer:  When your fee request was $25 million higher.

And so it was in In Re: Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, pending in federal court in San Francisco.  The case arose, in the court’s words, from VW’s “deliberate use of a defeat device – software designed to cheat emissions tests and deceive federal and state regulators – in nearly 600,000 Volkswagens- and Audi-branded turbocharged direct injection diesel engine vehicles sold in the United States.” 

Here’s how the software worked, per the court:  the “defeat device” would sense when the vehicles were being tested and would then produce regulation-compliant results.  But when the vehicles were driven under normal circumstances, they’d use a less effective emissions control system.  “Only by installing the defeat device on its vehicles was Volkswagen able to obtain” the requisite governmental approvals “for its 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel engine vehicles,” even though those vehicles actually emitted “nitrogen oxides at a factor of up to 40 times over the permitted limit.”

Franchise dealers of VW-branded vehicles sued VW, claiming they were damaged by this “emissions scandal.”  Class certification was sought, and a settlement was reached, encompassing a nationwide class consisting of “all authorized Volkswagen dealers in the United States who, on September 18, 2015, operated a Volkswagen branded dealership pursuant to a valid Volkswagen Dealer Agreement.”  Under the settlement, VW was required to pay $1.19 billion in cash and provide various non-cash benefits to the class.

All told, a good deal for the class.  As the court noted, the settlement “had multiple cash and non-cash components, and … ultimately will provide franchise dealer class members with a recovery of nearly all of their losses attributable to Volkswagen’s disclosure of its use of a defeat device.” 

High fives in plaintiffs’ camp!  Crack open the Veuve Clicquot! 

Class counsel then moved for attorneys’ fees, stating in their motion that their “intense negotiations with Volkswagen led to the second largest class action settlement in automotive case history … and likely one of the top 20 largest class settlements in history in any arena.  In fact, the over $2.1 million average payment to Franchise Dealer Class Members may be the highest average payment to members of a class in any class action settlement.” 

They asked the court to award them “$28.56 million in attorneys’ fees, inclusive of costs.”  And they described their request – which represented, they said, “a fee of 2.0% of the constructive settlement fund of $1.39 billion” – as a “historically miniscule fee” which was “unquestionably fair, reasonable and appropriate compensation in relation to the exceptional results achieved for the” class.  “This remarkably small request,” they declared, “is likely the second-smallest fee amount ever requested in a large common fund case.”

So why did the district court cut their requested fee by nearly ninety percent? 

Because it found that under “the unique circumstances leading to the Settlement,” the “lodestar method, as opposed to the percentage method, is the appropriate method for determining fees,” and the lodestar amount was far lower than the amount they’d requested in their fee application. 

Under the “lodestar method,” fees are calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by reasonable hourly rates.  Computing fees by this method tends to yield lower fee awards than does the percentage method, especially in cases like this one where the settlement fund is large.

The court found that using the percentage method in this case “would overcompensate” class counsel “for its work.”  Class counsel, it reasoned, “did not expend significant additional time procuring the Settlement, nor did it undertake significant additional risk, given Volkswagen’s incentive to settle quickly.”

What does that mean, “significant additional time” and “significant additional risk?”  And why did VW have an “incentive to settle quickly?”

Well, as it happens, before settling the franchise dealer case, VW had settled another emissions-related case; that one between VW, on one hand, and consumers, dealers, securities plaintiffs and government agencies, on the other.  That case settled for $10.033 billion, and class counsel in that one were awarded $167 million in fees. 

That case, in other words, was the main event.  Given that the franchise dealer settlement followed on the heels of that larger settlement, the court reasoned that the former “flowed naturally and necessarily” from the latter.  It calculated class counsels’ lodestar sum in the franchise dealer case as being “only $1.48 million,” meaning that their requested $28.56 million fee “would be a 19x lodestar multiple.”  That didn’t fly.  But a 2x multiplier did, given the risks class counsel assumed in the litigation, and so class counsel were awarded $2,954,455 in fees for work performed relating to that settlement, plus $87,538 in costs. 

And so class counsels’ fee request was mightily reduced by the court.  But they could still take solace in the praise their efforts elicited from the court.  Class counsel “achieved a great result for the franchise dealer class members, even in the face of uncertain risk and litigation length.” “The result” they “achieved is excellent.”  Words like those endure long after the fees have evaporated.

Wouldn’t you say?

The case is In Re: Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, United States District Court, Northern District of California, MDL No. 2672 CRB (JSC), and the decision was rendered on April 12, 2017.

This article, “Question: When Is a $3 Million Attorney Fee Award Painful?”, was written by Jeremy Gilman, a partner at Benesch based in Cleveland.  He has been litigating complex business cases for both plaintiffs and defendants nationwide for the past 34 years.  He is a prolific writer on legal topics, and his fiction has been nominated for a national literary prize.  He is also a musician whose first album is due out this summer.

SCOTUS Rules Fee Awards from Bad Faith Must Be Compensatory, Not Punitive

April 18, 2017

A recent The Recorder by Ross Todd, “At Odds With 9th Circuit, SCOTUS Nixes $2.7M in Discovery Sanctions,” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court held on Tuesday that attorney fee awards resulting from acts of bad faith in litigation must be causally linked to the underlying misconduct.

In a unanimous 13-page opinion (pdf), Justice Elena Kagan reversed a $2.7 million fee award against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. finding that sanctions in civil cases “must be compensatory rather than punitive in nature.”  The upper end of fee award sanctions, Kagan wrote, should be “limited to the fees the innocent party incurred solely because of the misconduct—or put another way, to the fees that party would not have incurred but for the bad faith.”

Goodyear’s case drew amicus support from the American Bar Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.  Both warned that failure to require a direct causal link between penalties and a litigant’s discovery abuses could lead to outsized and abusive sanctions awards.

Tuesday’s decision reverses a 2015 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that put Goodyear on the hook for all $2.7 million in legal fees incurred by Leroy, Donna, Barry, and Suzanne Haeger after an alleged discovery violation in their personal injury case.  The Haegers claimed that faulty Goodyear tires caused a 2003 accident involving their motor home in which they all suffered serious injuries.

For years with the case pending at the trial court, the Haegers’ lawyer had asked the company to hand over all test results for the tire model in question.  But only after the case settled pretrial in 2010 for an undisclosed sum did the Haegers’ lawyer learn from a newspaper article that Goodyear had disclosed test results in separate litigation that he’d never seen.

In response to a motion for sanctions U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver in Phoenix issued an order in 2012 forcing Goodyear to pay its opponents legal fees and costs from the moment when she found Goodyear made its first dishonest discovery response.  Although the judge acknowledged that sanctions are limited to fees caused by the misconduct in the “usual” case, she wrote that Goodyear’s sanctionable conduct rose “to a truly egregious level.”

A divided Ninth Circuit panel affirmed Silver’s finding that she could grant attorney’s fees incurred “during the time when” Goodyear was acting in bad faith.  But in dissent, Circuit Judge Paul Watford wrote that his colleagues had mistakenly pointed to “a temporal limitation, not a causal one” to justify the sanction.  “A sanctioning court must determine which fees were incurred because of, and solely because of, the misconduct at issue (however serious, or concurrent with a lawyer’s work, it might have been),” wrote Watford, in a section quoted by Kagan.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in Tuesday’s decision.

Law Firms Seek Share of Fees From $680M Fund in BP MDL

April 14, 2017

A recent NOLA.com story by Katherine Sayre, “BP Oil Spill: Two Louisiana Firms To Receive $87 Million Each in Attorney Fees,” reports that two law firms in New Orleans and Lafayette that led the massive BP oil spill litigation are set to receive $87.8 million each under a proposed division of about $680 million in class action attorney fees, according to a court filing this week.

The complex case over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and ensuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico involved a two-phase trial with expert testimony and settlement negotiations over several years.  The case consolidated individual economic and medical claims and state government claims from across the country to U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

BP, owner of the failed Macondo well, Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and Halliburton, which was in charge of pouring cement at the well, have agreed to pay the plaintiffs' attorney fees.

A proposed split of about $680 million -- not including reimbursed expenses -- was filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans this week.  The two firms getting the biggest chunk of the award are Herman, Herman & Katz of New Orleans and Domengeaux, Wright, Roy & Edwards of Lafayette with $87.8 million each.  Cunningham Bounds of Mobile, Alabama, and Weitz & Luxenberg of New York are set to receive about $42 million each.  Nearly two dozen firms based in New Orleans are proposed to get a combined $243 million.

The fee committee, made up of six of the plaintiffs' attorneys, reviewed requests from the dozens of law firms involved in the case and conducted 74 interviews over 12 days before making their recommendation, according to the proposal filing.  "The fee committee felt confident that a minimum of 518,250 hours were reasonably expended through the end of 2015 for the common benefit of class members and others affected by the Deepwater Horizon incident," the filing says.  BP agreed to pay about $555 million in attorneys fees; Transocean and Halliburton agreed to about $124 million.

For Domengeaux Wright Roy & Edwards of Lafayette, the case "required full-time devotion and pre-occupation with substantial personal and professional sacrifice (among other things effectively relocating to New Orleans for approximately three years)," the proposed allocation says.

In October, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who has overseen the seven-year-old case, wrote that the multi-district litigation "would appear to be one of the largest, if not the largest, MDL in history."  "Over 130,000 individual civil actions and/or claims-in-limitation were filed by private businesses, individuals, and local governments," Barbier wrote.  "Yet even greater than its sheer size was the MDL's complexity."  The proposed allocation must be reviewed by John Perry, appointed special master over fees for the case, and Barbier.

In April 2016, Barbier approved a $20 billion settlement for BP to pay out to state and local government claims and Clean Water Act violation fines.  BP is expected to pay an estimated $13 billion in economic and medical claims to individuals and businesses.

Fee Request Reduced 90 Percent in VW Dealer Case

April 13, 2017

A recent Courthouse News story by Nicholas Iovino, “Judge Whacks 90% of Attorney Fees in VW Dealer Case,” reports that a federal judge cut more than $25 million from attorneys’ fees in a $1.2 billion settlement between Volkswagen and its U.S. dealerships.  U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer reduced the award to $2.9 million, finding a request for $28.5 million too high, given that “much of the groundwork for the settlement was laid in negotiations” for a previous deal.

Breyer lopped off $1.5 million in billable hours deemed as “hybrid time,” or hours spent negotiating both the dealership settlement and a larger, $10 billion deal for owners of 2.0-liter diesel engine vehicles.  He found that attorneys already had been compensated for those hybrid hours in a $175 million fee award approved in March.

The $2.9 million fees award is the latest Volkswagen must pay to make amends for its installation of emissions-cheating software in 11 million vehicles worldwide, including nearly 600,000 diesel-powered vehicles sold in the United States.  The defeat device software kicked in to hide emissions during tests, while allowing cars to spew up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide on the road than allowed under federal law.

Under the $1.2 billion deal approved in January, 644 U.S. dealerships will each receive an average $1.85 million to cover losses precipitated by the German automaker’s diesel-gate scandal.  Although the requested $28.5 million makes up a mere 2.8 percent of the $1.2 billion deal, granting it would allow the lawyers to pocket more than 14 times the value of hours they actually worked, Breyer wrote.

“Dealer class counsel did not expend significant additional time procuring the settlement, nor did it undertake significant additional risk, given Volkswagen’s incentive to settle quickly,” Breyer wrote in the 10-page ruling.  He cut an additional $560,000 in anticipated billable hours, finding Volkswagen has already started paying dealerships and no further hours are needed to execute the deal.

Breyer recalculated the total value of billable hours at $1.47 million and applied a 2.0-multiplier, for a total of $2.95 million to be split between two law firms.  Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro will receive $2.3 million; Bass Sox & Mercer will get $622,000.  The judge also granted the firms $87,538 in litigation costs.

Federal Circuit Realizes District Judges Call Shots on Fee Awards

April 6, 2017

A recent NLJ story by Scott Graham, “Federal Circuit Faces Facts: District Judges Call Shots on Fee Awards,” reports that a District Court in Texas is on the verge of overruling the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on exceptional case attorney fees.  Two Federal Circuit judges voiced serious displeasure that U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap, of the Eastern District of Texas ignored their strong hint two years ago to award fees in a patent dispute between online retailer Newegg and Acacia Research Corp. subsidiary Adjustacam Inc.

But the judges recognized that sending the case back to the Eastern District of Texas a second time may not make any difference.  That's because even though appellate courts nominally have authority over trial courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively reversed the balance of power on patent fee awards.  "It really seems what [Gilstrap] did here was pay lip service to our mandate, and it's very frustrating," Judge Todd Hughes said during arguments in Adjustacam v. Newegg.  "But if we send it back, he's probably going to deny fees again, and it's all going to be a big waste of time."

"It could be that we never find an exceptional case" unless the district judge does too, Judge Jimmie Reyna said.  "I'm looking at this case to see if there's any point where this court could say there's been an abuse of discretion."

Adjustacam is the latest round in a long-running battle between Acacia and Newegg over exceptional-case attorney fees.  Newegg's outspoken general counsel, Lee Cheng, left the company last year, but outside counsel Mark Lemley of Durie Tangri continued the fight, with Collins, Edmonds, Schlather & Tower partner John Edmonds representing Adjustacam.

Adjustacam sued 58 defendants in the Eastern District of Texas in 2010 over a patent on a rotatable camera mount.  Newegg insisted there was no basis for infringement, especially after U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis construed the claims in 2012.  Adjustacam dismissed its claims three months later because summary judgment briefs were imminent, according to Lemley; and because Adjustacam had settled with Newegg's suppliers, according to Edmonds.

Davis declined to award fees in 2013.  But the following year the U.S. Supreme Court eased the standard for awarding fees in its Octane Fitness decision, while giving district judges more discretion over whether to award them.  The Federal Circuit instructed Davis to reconsider Newegg's fee motion under the new standard.  Hughes' opinion for the court advised that Newegg's arguments "appear to have significant merit."

By then Davis had retired.  His successor Gilstrap adopted almost all of Davis' findings and conclusions.  In a footnote addressing the Federal Circuit opinion, Gilstrap wrote that he had tried "not to circumvent by hindsight the judgments and in-person evaluations that the trial judge who dealt with this case in the courtroom arena was best positioned to have made."

Lemley argued that Gilstrap willfully refused to follow the Federal Circuit's instructions.  "Judge Gilstrap didn't conduct his own evaluation of the facts, he block quoted and cited Judge Davis' previous determinations," Lemley said.  "He afforded no weight to this court's opinion remanding the case, even though this court went out of its way to say it saw significant merit in the frivolousness claim."  Hughes seemed to agree.  Gilstrap's decision "seems to ignore our mandate from our prior decision," he said.

But "even if we all agree" that Adjustacam's litigation position was baseless, Hughes said, "that alone doesn't entitle you to an award of the fees.  After Octane Fitness, the district courts get large discretion to look at the case and say, 'Does this stand out from all the others?'"  Lemley urged Hughes and his colleagues to simply declare the case exceptional, but Reyna also sounded hesitant.  "We have a situation here that let's say that I would find exceptional," he said.  "But yet I'm faced with this very rigorous standard of review" on appeal.

Edmonds argued that Adjustcam had solid grounds for its claims, having recovered as much as $3.7 million from one defendant.  There were "legitimate strategic reasons unrelated to the merits of the case of why Newegg was dropped," Edmonds said.  But that argument presumes that Adjustacam had a reasonable infringement theory, Hughes said.  "And post-claim construction, how can you possibly show any reasonable claim of infringement?" he said.  The Federal Circuit pointed that out in its previous opinion, and Gilstrap dismissed it "with that one-line throwaway sentence" about hindsight, Hughes said.

He was just getting started.  "We ordered the court to look at it all again, under the new standards, under Octane," Hughes said.  "And the court didn't do that.  It said I'm just wholesale adopting these factual findings and I'm not going to change the outcome."  Edmonds disagreed with that characterization.  But even if Gilstrap had found Adjustacam acted unreasonably, "within his discretion he could still find it not to be an exceptional case."