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Category: Fee Award

$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.

PA Enviro Board Can Weigh ‘Bad Faith’ in Awarding Attorney Fees

February 17, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Pa. Enviro Board Can Weight ‘Bad Faith’ in Awarding Attorney Fees,” reports that the administrative board that hears appeals of decisions by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection was justified in denying attorney fees to environmental groups that reached a settlement with Sunoco over its Mariner East 2 pipeline, since the board found neither side acted in "bad faith," a state appellate court ruled.

A majority of the Commonwealth Court ruled the state's Environmental Hearing Board could deny a petition for fees from the Clean Air Council, The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Mountain Watershed Association Inc. based on the so-called bad faith standard, since neither the environmental groups nor Sunoco had acted in bad faith through the groups' appeal of the DEP granting permits for the pipeline, which resulted in a settlement between the groups and the state.

The environmental groups had argued that the board should have applied the looser "catalyst test," which would have only required them to show that their appeal was the motivating factor behind some benefit conferred by the other side in order to trigger fee-shifting provisions in the state's Clean Streams Law and have Sunoco pay their nearly $230,000 legal bill.

"Contrary to objectors' assertions, the catalyst test is not the sole and exclusive standard that EHB may employ in disposing of a request for costs and fees against a permittee under ... the Clean Streams Law.  Indeed, we have specifically recognized that EHB's 'broad discretion includes the authority to adopt standards by which it will evaluate applications for costs and fees,'" wrote Judge Michael H. Wojcik for the majority.  "It was entirely within EHB's discretion, and eminently appropriate, to apply the instant bad faith standard in deciding whether or not to impose costs and fees upon a private party permittee."  The court ruled that the EHB had wide discretion when weighing whether and how to award fees, and in a separate decision it upheld another EHB ruling that had cut the fees awarded to a family that challenged the DEP permits for another part of the pipeline crossing their land.

The environmental groups had challenged 20 permits the DEP had granted Sunoco for construction of a pipeline linking gas wells in Western Pennsylvania to a refinery in the east. The matter wound its way through various proceedings before the EHB until the challengers reached a deal with the DEP in which it would establish a "stakeholder group" on pipeline construction and would put more of its permitting documents online in exchange for the groups dropping their challenge.  The DEP also agreed to pay $27,500 of the challengers' legal fees.

But the challengers then asked the EHB to make Sunoco pay additional legal bills related to their appeal, and Sunoco filed its own petition to make the environmental groups pay nearly $300,000 toward what it had spent defending the permits.  The EHB was split, with the majority saying it could apply the bad-faith standard and find that neither side had "engaged in dilatory, obdurate, vexatious, or bad faith conduct in the course of prosecuting or defending" the appeals.  The minority had agreed that neither side was entitled to fees, but said the bad-faith test was not necessary and the board had broad discretion to award fees as it saw fit.

The environmental groups and the DEP both appealed, though the Commonwealth Court found the DEP lacked standing and granted Sunoco's bid to quash that side of the appeal because the state agency hadn't formally intervened in the fee debate and would not have been affected by the EHB ruling against the private parties.

President Judge P. Kevin Brobson wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, expressing concerns that the EHB's discretion might be so broad that the particular section of the Clean Streams Law might run afoul of the state constitution's requirement that the law contain standards to "guide and restrain" the administrative board's decision-making.  But because that issue wasn't brought up on appeal, and the EHB had denied either side any fees, this wasn't the case to address that with, Judge Brobson wrote.  In this case, there was no reason Sunoco should have been required to pay, he said.

"There is absolutely no basis in the record upon which the EHB could have exercised its discretion below in such a way as to compel Sunoco to pay objectors' legal fees," he wrote. "Sunoco was not a party to the settlement agreement between objectors and DEP that essentially ended objectors' appeals.  Moreover, Sunoco gave up nothing in the settlement or otherwise.  Sunoco kept its permits, unaltered, as if objectors had not even filed their appeals with the EHB."

A dissenting opinion from Judge Ellen Ceisler said the courts shouldn't apply a tougher standard to permit holders when the DEP itself could have been made to pay fees under the catalyst test.  "It does not therefore seem reasonable that, in theory, the DEP could be saddled with fees and costs in response to inadvertent mistakes or good faith, negotiated compromises or settlements, while a permittee could get off scot-free under similar circumstances unless it has conducted itself in a dilatory, obdurate, or vexatious way," she wrote.

The court then applied its ruling to a separate appeal by the DEP of another EHB order, which said the state had to pay about $13,000 of a family's requested $266,000 in fees from the DEP and Sunoco.  Huntingdon County landowners Stephen and Ellen Gerhart had convinced the EHB in 2019 that the DEP had misclassified a wetland on their property and that Sunoco had to do more work to restore it after completing the pipeline's construction.  But the EHB held Sunoco to the bad-faith standard and the DEP to the catalyst test in parceling out who was responsible for the reduced fee award.

Following the same logic as its ruling in the Clean Air Council case, the court affirmed that the EHB had the discretion to apply both standards in awarding fees.  "We agree that the statute and the case law grant broad discretion to the EHB in setting the standard and applying it," said Robert Fox of Manko Gold Katcher & Fox LLP, representing Sunoco in both cases.  An attorney for the environmental groups said they were weighing the decision and their options.

The attorney for the Gerharts said he thought the court correctly balanced the different standards for fee-shifting against the state and against private actors, but noted that in cases like his where the DEP and Sunoco essentially worked together to defend the permits, the state would have to be mindful of whether it would need to build a record to establish that the permit-holder was acting in bad faith.

Litigation Funder Seeks Share of Attorney Fees

February 16, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Litigation Funder Wants Cut of $350M Shire Deal,” reports that law firm lender Counsel Financial Services asked a Florida federal judge for permission to intervene in a dispute over divvying up attorney fees from a $350 million whistleblower settlement with biotech company Shire, alleging the law firm Barry A. Cohen PA should be forced to direct any fees it receives to pay back a $43.8 million line of credit.

Counsel Financial says it loaned money to the Cohen firm in February 2009 in exchange for a secured interest in the firm's assets, which includes legal fee proceeds.  In January 2019, the company obtained a $43,778,684 judgment against the Cohen firm, which previously represented whistleblower Brian Vinca in his suit against Shire.

"Counsel Financial thus has an interest in the legal fees that will be awarded to [the Cohen firm] in this action," the company said in the motion.  "Consequently, Counsel Financial seeks to intervene to ensure that its interest in the legal fees obtained by [the Cohen firm] in connection with this matter are rightfully directed by this Court to Counsel Financial directly from the court registry."

The motion is the latest development in a fight over fees from the $350 million settlement, which was announced in August 2016 and resolved claims stemming from Shire's sales and marketing practices around Dermagraft, a skin substitute the company picked up when it acquired Advanced BioHealing Inc. — now known as Shire Regenerative Medicine Inc. — as part of a $750 million deal in 2011.  Vinca and co-plaintiff Jennifer Sweeney filed the first of the six False Claims Act suits against Shire that led to the settlement.

Kevin J. Darken, who represents Vinca's former counsel, says Vinca's current attorneys, Noel McDonell of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen and Bryen Hill of Mahany Law, have tried to cut him and the Cohen firm out of a fee award.  Darken has asked the court to disqualify McDonell and Hill for allegedly using stolen confidential emails to challenge the charging lien filed by Darken, Cohen and Saady & Saxe PA for a cut of the attorney fees.

McDonell and Hill have accused Darken and Kevin M. Cohen, the representative for Barry Cohen's estate, of conspiring to a fee-splitting scheme of the proceeds.  Vinca, who fired his attorneys in March 2018, is suing Darken, the Cohen firm and Saady & Saxe for malpractice, claiming they cost him the full whistleblower's cut of the Shire settlement.  Vinca claims his former counsel's failures forced him to share the whistleblower award of the Shire settlement with the five other relators who filed FCA suits after he did.

Generally, the first whistleblower to file gets about 20% of the government's recovery, and any subsequent whistleblowers do not receive a cut. But in this case, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. decided to divvy up the proceeds, in part because of deficiencies in the initial eight-page complaint from Vinca and Sweeney, according to McDonell.  Vinca and Sweeney shared more than $50 million from the settlement, while the other whistleblowers shared approximately $30 million.

The six whistleblower lawsuits that led to the settlement all alleged misconduct by Shire from 2007 through the beginning of 2014, including that it paid illegal kickbacks to get health care providers to use or overuse Dermagraft, marketed Dermagraft for uses not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, inflated the price of the drug and spurred the coding of Dermagraft-related reimbursement claims for payouts higher than what was appropriate.

McDonell told Law360 that Counsel Financial's claim has no bearing on this lawsuit because Vinca was not a party to the financing contract between Counsel Financial and the Cohen firm.  "As Magistrate Judge Porcelli noted in June of 2019, the matter at issue is the merits of a charging lien filed against relator Brian Vinca by former counsel, and to what extent compensation is appropriate," McDonell said.  "Accordingly, on behalf of Brian Vinca, we are confident that CFS has, as Judge Porcelli so aptly put it, 'no dog in this fight.'"