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Category: Class Action

$503M in Attorney Fees in Syngenta GMO Corn Settlement

December 10, 2018

A recent Law 360 story by Bonnie Eslinger, “Attys Get $503M in Fees for Syngenta GMO Corn Settlement,” reports that a Kansas federal judge gave final approval to Syngenta AG’s $1.5 billion deal to resolve claims filed on behalf of 650,000 corn producers over the agricultural giant's genetically modified corn seed, a deal that handed class counsel a $503 million cut.  The order from U.S. District Judge John W. Lungstrum noted that the case was "hotly contested," with the merits of the corn producer claims "thoroughly vetted through litigation" in multiple jurisdictions.  That litigation included one multiweek class action trial in his court and extensive preparation for other trials.

"This is not a situation in which the parties proceeded quickly to settlement without serious litigation of the claims on their merits, such that there might be reason to suspect that the settlement was not fairly negotiated," the judge wrote.  "Indeed, the protracted negotiation process and the vigor with which the parties litigated the merits of the claims provide additional assurance that this agreement was fairly and honestly negotiated."

The litigation winds back to 2014, when corn farmers and others in the corn industry began filing lawsuits, including class actions, against Syngenta over the company's marketing of two insect-resistant GMO corn seed products, Viptera and Duracade, without securing approval from China, according to the court's order.

"The plaintiffs alleged that Syngenta's commercialization of its products caused the genetically-modified corn to be commingled throughout the corn supply in the United States; that China rejected imports of all corn from the United States ... [and] that such rejection caused corn prices to drop in the United States; and that corn farmers and others in the industry were harmed by that market effect," the judge noted.

Hundreds of suits were brought together in the multidistrict litigation heard in Judge Lungstrum's courtroom.  The nationwide settlement class is generally divided into four subclasses: corn producers who did not purchase Viptera or Duracade; corn producers who did purchase one of those products; grain handling facilities; and ethanol producers.  Of the 650,000 class members, 52 percent have submitted claims and only 17 members properly exercised their right to opt out, and just nine objections by 15 members were submitted in the end, the judge said.

"The fact that the class members have reacted so overwhelmingly in favor of the settlement further supports a finding that the settlement is fair and reasonable and adequate," he said, adding that the court found the objections filed in opposition to the settlement to "lack merit."  The judge also said that the immediate payout that the settlement offers — even after the award of one-third of that amount for attorneys' fees — had more value than the "mere possibility of a more favorable outcome after further litigation."

The first trial in the MDL, which won class certification in September 2016, tested the negligence claims of four Kansas farmers representing 7,000 others who believed that Syngenta rushed Viptera seed to market in 2010, willfully ignoring the importance of Chinese regulatory approvals.

The Kansas farmers alleged that varieties of harvested corn were mixed together indiscriminately on their export journey.  When China discovered the rogue strain in November 2013, they alleged, it immediately rejected American corn cargo, shutting down the Chinese market for U.S. corn and costing the domestic U.S. industry more than $1 billion.  The jury sided with the farmers, finding Syngenta negligent and awarding the class of corn producers $217.7 million in compensatory damages. Syngenta said it planned to appeal.

In July, Judge Lungstrum further consolidated the seven remaining separate state class actions in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.  Syngenta then urged the court to certify the $217.7 million verdict as a final judgment, telling Judge Lungstrum in September that it was necessary to prevent needless delay of the company's appeal since it knew the farmers planned to dispute the finality of the verdict.  The farmers shot back in October by asking the judge not to sign off on the verdict because the outcomes of other classes could influence the appropriateness of the jury's decision.

The case is In re: Syngenta AG MIR162 Corn Litigation, case number 2:14-md-02591, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.

Firms Must Evenly Split $11.3M in Fees in Century 21 Class Action

December 6, 2018

A recent Law 360 story by Bill Wichert, “3 Firms Must Evenly Split $11.3M Fees in Century 21 Suit,” reports that three law firms representing Century 21 Real Estate Corp. franchisees in a class action against the company and its former parent must evenly split roughly $11.3 million in attorneys’ fees awarded in connection with a settlement in the case, a New Jersey appeals court ruled in nixing one firm’s bid for a larger share.

A three-judge appellate panel upheld a trial court order that confirmed an arbitration award dividing the money equally between Zwerling Schachter & Zwerling LLP, Keefe Law Firm and Kopelowitz Ostrow PA, rejecting Zwerling Schachter’s argument that it deserved more than a third of the fees due to its work and responsibility in the litigation.  The arbitrator, a former federal judge, correctly found that representation agreements between the firms and franchisees required the firms to equally share the attorneys’ fees even if they did not share the work and responsibility in the class action equally, according to the panel.

The class action, which was initially filed in 2002, alleged that Century 21’s then-parent, Cendant Corp., breached a contract by diverting Century 21 advertising funds to competitors.  The franchisees claimed that Cendant, which also owned Coldwell Banker and ERA Real Estate, misappropriated funds to try to sink Century 21 and build up its other units.  In 2002 and 2004, Zwerling Schachter, Kopelowitz Ostrow and McElroy Deutsch & Mulvaney LLP entered into "attorneys-class representative agreements" with plaintiffs in the case, according to the appellate opinion.

Those agreements said that each firm would receive “33⅓ percent” of any attorneys’ fees awarded in the case and that “each of the law firms named herein shall share the fee which is in accordance with their anticipated division of work and responsibility in this matter,” the opinion said.  McElroy Deutsch withdrew from the matter in 2004, and the firm that ultimately became Keefe Law Firm joined the case, the opinion said.  The parties have agreed that Keefe, Zwerling Schachter and Kopelowitz Ostrow have a right to share in the attorneys’ fees, with McElroy Deutsch to receive its fees out of Keefe’s share, according to the opinion.  After the class action settled in 2012, the three firms could not agree on how to split up the attorneys’ fees, the opinion said.

Zwerling Schachter said the apportionment should be based on the hours worked and the responsibility assumed during the case, while Keefe and Kopelowitz Ostrow said the attorneys-class representative agreements required the firms to divide the money equally.  Keefe and Kopelowitz Ostrow in 2013 made an offer of judgment to Zwerling Schachter, under which that firm would have received $600,000 more than if the firms split the fees equally, but Zwerling Schachter rejected the offer, the opinion said.

The firms agreed in 2014 to submit their fee dispute to arbitration.  In 2016, the arbitrator found that “the attorneys-class representative agreements ‘require[d] the parties to share the attorneys' fee award in equal thirds, even if the parties did not share the work and responsibility in the underlying class action equally,’” the opinion said.

The trial court in June 2016 entered orders confirming the arbitration award and denying Zwerling Schachter’s motion to vacate the award.  In November 2016, the court denied a motion from Keefe and Kopelowitz Ostrow seeking to recoup the attorneys’ fees and costs they incurred after Zwerling Schachter rejected their offer of judgment, the opinion said.  On Zwerling Schachter’s appeal of the June 2016 orders, the appellate panel affirmed those decisions by citing in part the attorneys-class representative agreements, saying the panel agreed with the arbitrator that the first sentence of those agreements “is clear in providing that each of the three firms was to receive one-third of a fee award."

“We also agree with the arbitrator that the key phrase in the second sentence is ‘anticipated division of work and responsibility,’” the panel said.  “Finally, we agree with the arbitrator's reasoning that the second sentence did not undercut or modify the clearer first sentence.”  The panel also noted the arbitrator’s findings that there was no evidence that “any of the firms had ‘failed to contribute at all toward earning the fee award,’” and that “the evidence showed ‘each party contributed thousands of hours to the class litigation.’”

“In short, the plain language of the attorneys-class representative agreements and the extrinsic evidence supports an equal apportionment of the fee award,” the panel said.  Keefe and Kopelowitz Ostrow appealed the November 2016 order, but the panel affirmed that ruling as well, saying “the amount of the arbitration award was not sufficient to trigger the shifting of fees and costs under Rule 4:58, the offer of judgment rule.”

The case is Frank K. Cooper Real Estate #1 Inc. et al. v. Cendant Corp. et al., case numbers A-1482-16T3 and A-1579-16T3, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

Defense Claims ‘Overreaching’ Fee Request in ERISA Case

December 5, 2018

A recent Law 360 story by Danielle Nichole Smith, “Hospital Plan Rips ‘Overreaching’ $2.4M Fee Bid in ERISA Suit,” reports that the retirement plan for a Montana hospital told a federal judge that a request for $2.4 million in attorneys’ fees was “grossly excessive” after a $293,946 settlement resolving claims that the plan flouted the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.  The Retirement Plan for Employees of Northern Montana Hospital said in its objection that the $2.4 million fee request was “plainly overreaching” and needed to be reduced, noting that the amount was more than eight times the amount of monetary recovery.  And the proposed class counsel’s lodestar was $2 million more than that of the defendants’ attorneys, the plan said.

“The plaintiff’s attorneys’ fee request is grossly excessive by any measure,” the plan said.  “The fee request exemplifies the problem that led the Supreme Court to mandate that attorneys’ fee awards remain ‘reasonable in relation to the results obtained.’”

The settlement in the case provided $125,776 to named plaintiff Dr. Joel Cleary for retirement benefits he was wrongly denied and $168,170 to a proposed class of 175 plan participants whose benefits had been miscalculated, according to the plan’s objection.  The settlement also provides injunctive relief, requiring the plan to comply with ERISA statutes governing benefit determination and claims procedure, the plan said.  The plan contended, however, that the injunctive measures didn’t provide any meaningful relief or benefit since the plan had already complied with ERISA.  So the injunctive relief didn’t have any monetary value to consider when calculating attorneys’ fees, the plan said.

The Keller Rohrback LLP attorneys representing the proposed class had asked for the fees in November after the settlement with the plan and administrative committee was reached.  In support of their motion, the attorneys described their experience with ERISA cases and the work they performed in the suit.  The attorneys said they devoted a significant amount of time and effort to the case and that the rates they charged were what they typically billed clients whose cases weren’t handled on a contingency basis and had been approved in complex ERISA cases.  The attorneys also requested $75,086 in costs.

In the fee request, the attorneys also noted that the time they devoted to the suit kept them from working on other cases or taking on other representations.  The attorneys said they spent nearly 3,600 hours on the case as of October.  But the plan said that the attorneys’ lodestar amount was unreasonable, arguing that the reasonable hourly rate in Montana for ERISA cases was a lot less than what the attorneys requested.  The defendants’ attorneys only billed a total of $270,500 through October, the plan said.

If the court chose to use the lodestar method, the class’s attorneys’ lodestar had to be adjusted downward considering the results obtained, the plan said.  Additionally, the case didn’t present novel or difficult questions since the defendants didn’t dispute that Cleary was owed benefits or that the proposed class’s benefits had been miscalculated, the plan said.

The plan told the court that the percentage-of-recovery method was the best way to calculate the fees and that the $293,946 should be treated as a “constructive common fund” for determining such a percentage.  Though 25 percent was the “benchmark” for attorneys’ fees in the Ninth Circuit, the plan said it wouldn’t object to a 50 to 75 percent award since the recovery was so modest.

The case is Cleary v. Retirement Plan for Employees of Northern Montana Hospital et al., case number 4:16-cv-00061, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana.

Attorney Fee Info Needed for $182.5M Euribor Settlement

December 3, 2018

A recent Law 360 story by Dean Seal, “$182.5M Euribor Deal Won’t Get OK’d Without Atty Fee Info,” reports that a New York federal judge said he will not grant preliminary approval for a $182.5 million settlement between investors JP Morgan Chase & Co and Citigroup over claims of a conspiracy to manipulate the Euro Interbank Offered Rate without first seeing what the investor's counsel intends to seek in attorneys' fees.  U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel said he thoroughly reviewed the preliminary approval motion and its supporting documents but unless it was an oversight on his part, he was not able to locate the investor attorneys' fees and expenses proposal, leading him to deny the motion without prejudice.

"To folks who make their living bringing to light material omissions by others, these would be fairly glaring material omissions in a submission to the court because the court, in considering preliminary approval, would be deprived of knowing the proposed net settlement funds available to the class," Judge Castel said.

The proposed settlement put before the court less than two weeks earlier would resolve claims from investors in Euribor-linked products that JPMorgan and Citi were among several big banks that conspired to rig the interest rate benchmark, which is used to reflect the interest rate charged on short-term euro loans between big banks.

Making no mention of the merits of the settlement, Judge Castel said the most direct mention of the attorneys' fees proposal came in a proposed "mailed notice" to be sent to potential class members, which contained unfilled blank spaces in lines stating what percentage of the settlement fund would be used for an attorneys' award or incentive awards for the class representatives.  The judge said he hopes to hear back from the investors' counsel that "the court has it all wrong" and that the information he seeks was "disclosed on page such and so of a particular portion of the submissions."

Along with a recently finalized $309 million settlement with Deutsche Bank AG, Barclays PLC and HSBC Holdings PLC, the deal with Citi and JPMorgan, the only remaining bank defendants, would bring the Euribor investors' total recovery up to $491.5 million, although the settlement motion indicated that investors may continue to pursue claims against foreign defendant banks that were dismissed from the action in February 2017 for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The case is Sullivan v. Barclays PLC et al., case number 1:13-cv-02811, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Some Oppose 5 Percent Attorney Fee Set-Aside in Pelvic Mesh MDL

November 30, 2018

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Max Mitchell, “Pelvic Mesh Trial Lawyer Slams MDL Settlements as ‘Puny’ Opposing Leadership’s Fee Petition,” reports that as the pelvic mesh MDL has begun to settle, attorneys on the leadership committee have asked the federal court overseeing the litigation’s massive inventory to set aside 5 percent of the awards for common benefit fees and expenses.  With the settlements already topping $7 billion, that means more than $360 million is set to distributed among the firms.

However, at least two firms are opposing the request, with one saying the hold-back amount is far too much.  Attorneys with Philadelphia-based Kline & Specter filed a response opposing the 5 percent set-aside request.  The highly critical filing contends that the federal cases have settled for “puny” amounts compared to the multimillion-dollar verdicts juries have been willing to award both in state and federal courts.  “The leaders in this litigation did the worst possible thing to the detriment of all plaintiff mesh victims and their attorneys: they settled their inventories way too cheaply, making it difficult for other attorneys to settle their cases reasonably,” attorney Shanin Specter said in the filing.

According to the filing, the average award for the tens of thousands of cases that have settled is about $40,000, while the average award for the cases that have gone to trial is about $9.8 million.  Specter’s firm took a leading role in several pelvic mesh cases that were tried in Philadelphia state court, including winning a $57 million verdict last year.  In the filing, Specter suggests that the set-aside amount be halved from the leadership committee’s request.

The firm’s filing also faults the leadership team with taking too many cases to effectively handle, saying the “discounted settlements were driven by the sheer enormity of the number of claims” and the “inability” of the lawyers to fully work up their inventories.  “It’s been an open secret in this litigation that the ‘leadership’ took too many cases to effectively litigate themselves.  By doing so and by not associating other lawyers to help discover and try their cases, they were forced to settle,” Specter said in the filing.  “This wasn’t bad for ‘leadership’ because a large number of small fees on small settlements is still a large number.  But it mistreated the women they represent. And it mistreated the other plaintiff’s counsel who were stuck behind this low bar set by the leadership.”

Andrus Wagstaff in Colorado also filed a notice of intent to oppose the petition for the 5 percent set aside.  The notice did not outline the crux of the firm’s objection, but the notice did say that it hired Blank Rome attorney Andrew Williamson to represent the firm in the dispute.  Georgia attorney Henry Garrard of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley, who is chairman of the fee and compensation committee, said he plans to file a response, and declined to comment further, other than saying, “There is a lot to the story that’s not in their objection.”

The pelvic mesh MDL consists of seven separate consolidated litigations against some of the largest medical product manufacturers in the country.  According to federal records, the litigation topped out at nearly 107,000 claims, and, as of Nov. 15, the seven consolidated litigations have an inventory of 37,299.

On Nov. 12, Garrard filed the petition requesting the 5 percent award.  According to the petition, 94 law firms submitted more than 900,000 hours of time, and the committee has recognized nearly 680,000 of those hours as contributing toward the litigation’s common benefit.  The petition also noted that the current value of the settlements is roughly $7.25 billion, and the total amount for settlements is expected to be around $11 billion.  With the requested 5 percent set aside, that would make the total amount expected for the common benefit fund to reach $550 million.

The response from Kline & Specter, however, said the MDL leadership failed to secure a global settlement, and that the petition largely ignores the work done in the state court litigation that benefited the federal MDL, such as obtaining the verdicts, which, the filing said, weakened the defendants’ position and drove settlements.  “Given the paltry recoveries for the injured women in this successful-in-the-courtroom, surrender-at-the-settlement-table mass tort, it is more equitable for the common benefit fee to be half of the requested amount and to remit their proportionate share of these saved funds to the injured women,” Specter said in the filing.