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Category: Fee Dispute

Class Counsel Spar Over $2.3M in Attorney Fees in Citigroup 401K Case

February 14, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Dean Seal, “Citigroup Class’ Attys Spar Over $2.3M in Fee in 401K Row,” reports that, one day after McTigue Law LLP sought court intervention for a dispute with former co-counsel Bailey Glasser LLP over $2.3 million in attorneys' fees in a case for a class of Citigroup 401(k) plan participants, Bailey Glasser told a New York federal judge the McTigue attorney "forg[ot] to mention" that the fee dispute must go to arbitration, not the courts.  Bailey Glasser’s Gregory Y. Porter asked U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein to remind James A. Moore of McTigue that in March 2009, the firms signed an agreement as co-counsel for a class of over 300,000 Citigroup Inc. 401(k) plan participants who scored a $6.9 million settlement in their long-running Employee Retirement Income Security Act suit last August.

That agreement contained a clause stating that any disputes must first be mediated and, if that failed, arbitrated, yet that agreement was unmentioned in Moore’s letter to the court asking for a status conference to discuss Bailey Glasser’s attempt to take back a percentage of the attorneys' fees award, according to Porter’s letter.  "Instead, we urge the court to convene a status conference so Mr. Moore can explain why he failed to bring the arbitration agreement to the court’s attention and why the arbitration clause should not be enforced," Porter said.

In his letter, Moore accused Porter of holding the attorneys' fees hostage as leverage in negotiating for a higher percentage of the $2.3 million award by refusing to give consent for a single dollar of the award, held in escrow, to be distributed.  According to Moore, Porter is contesting the allocation of fees because Bailey Glasser paid roughly 10 percent more in expenses than was laid out in the allocation agreement.  Moore said that Bailey Glasser had already been fully reimbursed for that amount through the total expenses award and has incurred no losses, and even if the minor dispute were merited, it would not be affected by the distribution of the majority of the fees award.

"The timing of Mr. Porter’s communications raising his objections and withholding his approval were apparently calculated to prevent my firm from seeking to have the court resolve this matter through the fee petition and final approval process,"  Moore said before asking that the court either dictate the allocation of the fees or simply order their distribution.  Porter followed up the next day, saying that he would not address Moore’s views on the fees allocations "except to note that Mr. Moore’s firm breached the agreement and its duties to the class in Spring 2018 by failing to pay its share of expert expenses (which share my firm paid)."

According to Porter, McTigue refused to respond to emails from Porter asking to confer on the management and financing of the case "given McTigue’s financial condition."  The letter goes into no further details on the expense dispute.  "In sum, the court should not entertain the issues raised in Mr. Moore’s letter without first deciding our motion to compel arbitration," Porter said.

The two firms secured a $6.9 million settlement last summer for a class of current, former and retired Citigroup employees who claimed since 2007 that a Citigroup committee stuffed the company’s 401(k) plan with Citigroup-affiliated funds even though other funds charged lower fees.  Moore, whose firm was allocated more than 77 percent of the lodestar, said in August, "the case was hard-fought for over a decade, and we think the result is an excellent one for plan participants."

The case is Leber et al. v. The Citigroup 401(k) Plan Investment Committee et al., case number 1:07-cv-09329, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Fee Dispute Delays Delaware High Court Fee Ruling

February 7, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Rose Krebs, “Attys’ Fee Fight Delays Forum Appeal at Del. High Court,” reports that the Delaware Supreme Court dismissed an appeal of a Chancery Court ruling that struck down three state-chartered companies’ bylaws mandating that federal district court handle Securities Act complaints, because it has yet to be decided if attorneys’ fees will be awarded to the lead plaintiff in the lower court case.  A three-justice panel ruled that since there remains an open issue about attorneys’ fees in the Chancery case decided in December that challenged whether a company could require Securities Act cases to play out in federal court, it was rejecting the appeal because the matter is not yet terminated at the lower court level.  The lead plaintiff is seeking $3 million in attorneys’ fees, according to court filings.

“This court has consistently held that a judgment on the merits is not final and appealable until the trial court has ruled on an outstanding application for attorneys’ fees,” the panel ruled.  In a Dec. 19 decision, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster invalidated federal forum requirements adopted by Blue Apron Inc., Roku Inc. and Stitch Fix  Inc., and cautioned other companies that adopted similar measures or are contemplating them.

Behind the decision and bylaw measures is a running battle over forum provisions for corporate litigation, with the U.S. Supreme Court declaring earlier this year in Cyan v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund that state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over private securities claims.  Corporations have tended to favor litigation in federal courts rather than dealing with stockholders’ ability to shop around for more plaintiff-friendly states, Vice Chancellor Laster observed. Under the Cyan decision, however, defendants are barred from moving state court cases once they are filed by removing them to federal courts.

Attorneys for lead plaintiff Matthew Sciabacucchi argued that the three companies — in which he holds stocks — failed to identify a clear authority for forum selection rules that extend beyond matters involving the internal affairs of a Delaware company, such as alleged violations of corporate duty by a current or former director, officer or stockholder.  The proposed class sought summary invalidation of the forum selection clauses, while the companies sought an immediate summary judgment ruling in their favor and dismissal of the challenge.

On Jan. 11, Sciabacucchi filed a request for $1 million in attorneys’ fees from each of the companies claiming that the decision “resulted in a benefit for the stockholders” of the companies.  The companies appealed Vice Chancellor Laster’s decision to the Supreme Court on Jan. 17, according to court filings.  In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, the companies contended that Sciabacucchi’s request for fees was not timely since there was no pending application or “any reference” there would be a request for the award of fees when the decision was entered.

They also took issue with the request being made 23 days after the decision in a “one-paragraph motion ... which did not set forth any substantive grounds entitling him to an award of fees.”  In its order, the Supreme Court ruled it had no jurisdiction to hear the appeal since “it was taken from an interlocutory order.”  “This was no surprise," Sciabacucchi’s attorney Kurt M. Heyman of Heyman Enerio Gattuso & Hertzel LLP said in an emailed comment to Law360.  "The Supreme Court followed nearly 30 years of precedent in requiring the appeal to come after the resolution of the fee application."

During arguments in September in the Chancery case, former Delaware Chancellor William B. Chandler III, now of Wilson Sonsini, argued that the federal forum provisions imposed no restrictions on stockholder rights.  Chandler, counsel to Roku and Stitch Fix, said the measures only specify the arena for disputes.  In his opinion, Vice Chancellor Laster said that current Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine held in the 2013 Chancery case of Boilermakers Local 154 Ret. Fund v. Chevron that Delaware companies can adopt forum selection clauses for internal affairs claims, but not for disputes external to the corporation, such as those created by federal law.

Relying on Boilermakers, the vice chancellor found that the Delaware forum selection provisions cannot govern Securities Act claims, "because a 1933 act claim is external to the corporation. Federal law creates the claim, defines the elements of the claim and specifies who can be a plaintiff or a defendant.”

The case on appeal is Salzberg et al. v. Sciabacucchi, case number 25, 2019, in the Supreme Court of the State of Delaware.  The underlying case is Sciabacucchi v. Salzberg et al., case number 2017-0931, in the Court of Chancery for the State of Delaware.

Court Ends Fee Dispute in Acacia Derivative Action

February 5, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Aaron Leibowitz, “Acacia Shareholders’ Attys End Up with $725K in Fee Fight,” reports that the attorneys who brought a derivative suit against Acacia Communications Inc. and its executives will receive $725,000 in fees and expenses in the litigation after reaching a compromise on the amount with the company, according to a Boston federal court order approving the deal.  Lawyers for the suing shareholders and the fiber optics company reached the compromise before U.S. District Judge William G. Young could bring in a Harvard Law School scholar to testify, a step the judge said he was prepared to take at a December hearing about the fee dispute.

The shareholders initially requested $1.75 million in fees plus more than $30,000 in expenses, a figure that Acacia contended was outlandish.  In putting forward that number, the shareholders' attorneys said the internal reforms proposed at Acacia in the settlement of the case, which involved insider trading allegations, would increase stockholder value.  But Acacia pointed to a settlement in a similar case involving internal reforms in which the plaintiffs' team was awarded about $200,000.

Now, the two sides have reached a middle ground.  "The parties have engaged in extensive arms-lengths negotiations, as per the court’s directive, on the attorneys’ fees and expense award and have reached an agreed fee award of $690,633 and an agreed expense award of $34,367," the shareholders' attorneys said in a proposed order.  Judge Young accepted the order as it was proposed the next day.

The shareholders' attorneys had filed a declaration by Harvard Law School scholar Matthew D. Cain, estimating the internal reforms at Acacia would net between $68 million and $82 million for the company's shareholders. Judge Young said in December that he would like to hear from Cain in person as he took on the difficult task of determining a fee amount for a settlement that isn't monetary, but involves changes to the oversight of insider trading at Acacia.

"You say you are the catalyst that caused [these reforms] to be put in place," Judge Young said to the shareholders' attorneys at the December hearing.  "How are you gonna value it?"  The consolidated cases allege that Acacia executives and private equity backers obtained early releases from so-called lockup agreements, allowing them to sell off their shares two weeks before announcements from the company's two largest customers led to a significant drop in Acacia's stock price.

The settlement, which Judge Young approved in part in December while the fee dispute dragged on, mandates the creation of a trading compliance committee to oversee Acacia's insider trading policy, review requests to waive stock sale lockups and report quarterly to the company's audit committee, which will approve any waivers.  Acacia also agreed to amend its insider trading policy to give the company the right to terminate employees and disgorge profits if the policy has been violated.  And the board will be required to add a new independent director.

Geoffrey Johnson of Scott & Scott Attorneys at Law LLP -- co-lead counsel for the shareholders along with Robbins Arroyo LLP – said in December that finding the right fee amount is more art than science, but he said the Harvard expert used "very conservative assumptions" on how the reforms would boost Acacia's worth.  The shareholders' attorneys said they expended nearly 1,690 hours on the case and used a multiplier of 1.72 to calculate the award.

Acacia countered by citing a settlement in a recent case involving internal reforms at Aveo Pharmaceuticals, in which the plaintiffs requested over $800,000 in attorneys' fees but were instead awarded about $200,000 by U.S. District Judge Denise J. Casper, also in Boston.  "The requested fee here is just way too high," Daniel Halston of WilmerHale, representing Acacia, told the judge last month.  "It's just out of bounds."  In addition to the internal reforms and the fee award, the settlement provides $2,500 to each of the five shareholder plaintiffs who brought the case, to be pulled from the larger attorney fee pool.

The case is Tharp et al. v. Acacia Communications et al., case number 1:17-cv-11504, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Potential $550M Fee Award in Pelvic Mesh Litigation

February 4, 2019

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Judge Grants Potential $550M in Pelvic Mesh Fees, Allocation Fight Looms,” reports that a federal judge has issued an order that could result in about $550 million in common benefit fees and expenses to plaintiffs lawyers in the transvaginal mesh litigation, setting the stage for a possible fight over who gets what.  U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia, who is overseeing seven MDL proceedings that at one point surpassed 100,000 lawsuits, granted a request from a fee and cost committee that defendants hold back five percent of all settlements and judgments to pay common benefit counsel.  He rejected three objections from law firms including Philadelphia’s Kline & Specter, which had sought to halve that request, calling the mesh settlements “puny” in comparison to the jury verdicts.

“The court notes that this percentage results in a substantial amount of money awarded to common benefit counsel,” Goodwin wrote in his Jan. 30 order.  “However, based on the numerous factors discussed above and the awards given in similar MDLs, this court believes that the award given is conservative and serves to justly compensate common benefit counsel for their work without unnecessarily burdening the plaintiffs in this litigation.”  In court documents, Henry Garrard of the Law Office of BBGA in Athens, Georgia, who is chairman of the fee committee, had called Kline & Specter’s criticisms “blatant hypocrisy.”

“The court correctly notes that the most important factor in assessing such a fee request is the result obtained,” wrote Kline & Specter’s Shanin Specter, in an email.  “The core of our objection is that the cases were settled for way too little and therefore the lawyers are asking for way too much.  That objection was simply not addressed.  Unfortunately, the court did not look at how much was obtained per claimant and whether these recoveries were good or bad, individually or generally.”

The eight lawyers on the fee committee made their request Nov. 12.  They estimated that about 680,000 of the 900,000 hours that 94 law firms worked on the case was for the common benefit of everyone and sought a hold-back that would grant $366 million in common benefit fees based on the $7.25 billion in settlements so far.  The final settlement price tag, though, could be closer to $11 billion, granting about $550 million in fees in the end.

In a Nov. 26 objection, Specter wrote that the hold-back should be 2.5 percent, noting that the average settlement was about $40,000, while the average award for the cases that have gone to trial is about $9.8 million.  Many of those were in state court, such as a $57 million award that Specter won against Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon Inc. subsidiary in 2017.  Last week, Thomas Kline and Kila Baldwin of Kline & Specter secured another $41 million verdict against Ethicon.  Specter also found fault in lead counsel’s failure to get a global settlement, which he said was proof that that its work was not for the common benefit.

“The court strongly disagrees,” Goodwin wrote in his order.  “Far from failing to provide a common benefit in the form of a global settlement, the plaintiffs’ leadership facilitated the settlement of tens of thousands of cases through its persistent efforts to weaken the defendants’ factual and legal standing compared to individual women across the country.  Plaintiffs’ leadership also provided the MDL plaintiffs with all the work-product they created and educated individual plaintiff attorneys on how to prosecute a pelvic mesh case.  These are global benefits.”

The judge called other arguments “premature.”  Those included Specter’s claim that the fee committee hadn’t provided certain documents and that work by other firms would be uncompensated.  “K&S is essentially arguing certain slices of the pie are too small before the court has even issued its order determining the size of the pie,” he wrote.  “The purpose of this court’s order is to evaluate the reasonableness of the aggregate proposed award that will be individually allocated in a later order.”

More generally, he found the fee request to be “very reasonable” given the investment of tens of millions of dollars, the complexity of the cases and, most importantly, the amount obtained.  He calculated the lodestar—or the total amount billed multiplied by an average hourly rate of $400—to be less than $272 million.  But the award, he wrote, was comparable to other “super-mega-fund” cases, like the $2.4 billion settlement over Actos, in which a judge assessed an 8.6 percent holdback.  He called the other two objections “untimely.”

One of those, by Andrus Wagstaff, which hired Blank Rome attorney Andrew Williamson to file its objection, alleged that the fee committee hadn’t treated the firm fairly.  Another came from Philadelphia’s Sheller, which on Jan. 18 called the fee request a “ ‘smoking gun’ admission” that the fee committee had been “hijacked by a small band of profiteers, outrageously demanding unsupervised use of the common benefit fund as their personal ATM.”

Other firms did not challenge the hold-back percentage overall but have grumbled about the specific amount that the fee committee has earmarked for them—a fight that could magnify in the coming months as special master Dan Stack, a retired judge on the Madison County, Illinois, Circuit Court, reviews the fee allocation.

“Eight law firms took two-thirds of the money, and 91 firms got the rest,” said partner Adam Slater.  “We are hopeful and optimistic that Judge Stack, and, ultimately, Judge Goodwin, will apply the criteria in a fair and equitable way to fairly compensate all the law firms.”  The fee committee also got support from other law firms.  Those included San Francisco’s Levin Simes Abrams; Birmingham, Alabama’s Freese & Goss; and Matthews & Associates in Houston.

Select Income REIT Challenges Fee Request in Merger Suit

January 30, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Reenat Sinay, “REIT Fights Investor’s Attys’ Fee Bid Merger Suit,” reports that Select Income Real Estate Investment Trust hit back at an investor’s request for “an exorbitant $350,000” in attorneys’ fees in his putative class action over a proposed merger with Government Properties REIT, arguing in New York federal court that the shareholder’s counsel is not entitled to a fee award under federal law.  Select Income said Monteverde & Associates PC, which is representing lead plaintiff Jesse Chen, cannot collect attorneys’ fees because the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) bars awards in cases where the class did not receive damages or a monetary settlement, such as this one.

Chen had alleged that Select Income violated federal securities laws by not disclosing “certain immaterial minutiae” in filings related to the proposed deal.  Chen’s suit was followed by a host of copycat lawsuits in which other minor shareholders accused Select Income of failing to disclose “superfluous details” surrounding the transaction, the trust said.  Select Income reached an agreement with the other plaintiffs and released supplemental information in December about its now-completed merger with Government Properties “solely to avoid any further nuisance, distraction and expense,” it said.  After those additional disclosures, Chen withdrew his motions for preliminary injunction and expedited discovery, according to the opposition.

“Crediting this litigation conduct would encourage meritless nuisance litigation and contravene the express goals of the PSLRA,” Select Income said.  “As a threshold matter, plaintiff’s fee petition should be denied outright pursuant to the PSLRA because plaintiff has conferred no monetary benefit on the putative class.”  Chen filed suit on Nov. 9, ahead of a planned Dec. 20 shareholder vote on the merger.  He alleged that the company’s October proxy statement was misleading because it lacked details about Select Income’s financial projections, the valuation analyses performed by UBS Securities LLC and any potential conflicts of interest faced by UBS, among other information.

The trust responded by accusing Chen of merely following a recent trend of investor suits over company mergers and of presenting no real allegations of unfairness, false statements or breach of fiduciary duties on the part of its board of trustees.  Select Income also accused Monteverde of developing a pattern of filing award-seeking “strike suits” in federal court after a recent wave of criticism of such suits in various state courts.

It opposed the “extravagant” fee requested by Chen on behalf of Monteverde, arguing that the calculation does not make sense and is not warranted by the settlement result.  “Plaintiff’s fee demand is based on a 3.16 lodestar multiplier, which implies an average hourly rate of $1,683.50,” the trust said.  “This should be a nonstarter.  The boilerplate nature of plaintiff’s disclosure claims and the lack of any appreciable contingency risk in this case justify, at most, a nominal fee award.”

Select Income also contended that the terms of the settlement with the other plaintiffs, in which extra merger details were divulged in return for dismissal of all claims, provided very little actual benefit to those shareholders and therefore would not justify such a large fee award.  “Even if the PSLRA did not bar the fee petition (and it does), plaintiff has failed to establish that he pled a meritorious claim or that the supplemental disclosures provided a substantial benefit to SIR’s former shareholders, as required for an award of fees under the pre-PSLRA case law on which plaintiff extensively relies,” the trust said.

The case is Chen v. Select Income REIT et al., case number 1:18-cv-10418, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.