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Category: Contingency Fees / POF

Third Circuit Urged to Revive Pelvic Mesh Fee Dispute Case

June 26, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “3rd Circuit Urged to Revive Pelvic Mesh Atty Fee Suit” reports that the Third Circuit should correct a mistake by a New Jersey federal court that allowed Texas law to be used to bless the collection of excessive attorney fees in pelvic mesh litigation against Johnson & Johnson and its Ethicon unit, two women have asserted.  According to a brief, the appellate court should recognize that if the underlying cases were filed in New Jersey, the attorneys should not be allowed to turn around and use Texas law to administer the settlements just so they could collect a higher percentage of the payouts, plaintiffs Debbie Gore and Doris Lance-Smith said.

"This manipulation of the process cannot be allowed by this court, as it would set a dangerous precedent that would allow contingency fee attorneys to file cases in New Jersey, then retreat to other jurisdictions in order to have the settlements 'administered' and 'approved' so that they can circumvent the New Jersey court rules and charge the clients excessive fees and expenses," the brief reads.  U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo in March nixed a proposed class action against Potts Law Firm, Nagel Rice LLP and other firms, saying Texas law governed the claims and permitted the fees.

The judge noted that "the complex settlement process, which plaintiffs consented to after ample opportunity for objection, was reached by negotiations between Ethicon and Texas law firms and was administered by the Texas state court and a Texas special master."  "Indeed, no New Jersey law firms or lawyers were even listed as receiving contingency-based attorneys' fees as part of plaintiffs' settlements," the judge said.  "As such, the state with the most significant relationship to the substantive claims at issue is Texas."

Gore, a Texas resident, and Lance-Smith, an Alabama resident, both retained Texas firms to pursue claims that they suffered injuries from allegedly defective pelvic mesh products, according to court documents.  While Gore and Lance-Smith each filed a master short-form complaint in New Jersey state court in 2014 as part of the litigation, Judge Arleo noted in March that "no litigation activities occurred" in the Garden State beyond those filings.

Fee arrangements in the case allowed the women's lawyers to receive 40% of their settlements, as Texas law has no particular cap on contingent fees, according to court documents.  Under a relevant New Jersey rule, an attorney can collect a fee of 33.33% of the first $750,000 recovered and then smaller percentages for subsequent amounts.  Those fees must be based on the "net sum recovered" after deducting expenses.

Victoria Becomes First Australian State to Approve Contingency Fees

June 19, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Christopher Niesche, “Victoria Becomes First Australian State to OK Contingency Fees” reports that Victoria has become the first state in Australia to allow contingency fees—a change the government says will make bringing class actions easier.  New legislation passed by the Victorian Parliament this week allows the Victorian Supreme Court to order that plaintiffs lawyers in class actions receive a contingency fee—a fee that is calculated as a percentage of the settlement or damages.

“We are removing barriers to class actions to allow people with genuine claims—who may not be in a position to take on the financial risks of a case—to bring their class actions to the court,” Attorney General Jill Hennessy said in a statement.  “We’re improving access to justice for ordinary Victorians by making it easier to bring class actions for silicosis, wage theft, consumer harm and other forms of corporate wrongdoing.”

The reforms came after recommendations from the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC), which found the state’s class action regime is underutilized, with an average of five or fewer class actions filed per year.  The VLRC found the risks associated with class actions could be reduced by allowing lawyers to receive a percentage of any amount recovered in the proceedings for their legal costs, in return for indemnifying the other side’s costs.

The new law comes soon after the national Government introduced licensing requirements for litigation funders and began an inquiry into class actions and litigation funders in a bid to reduce the number of class actions.  Some plaintiff firms have been preparing to make use of the new regime and there is some expectation that more class actions will be filed in Victoria as a result of the legislation.

$88M Cut From $157M Fee Request in Namenda Class Settlement

June 15, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Pete Brush, “$88M Cut From Requested $157.5M Atty Fee in Namenda Deal” reports that a Manhattan federal judge slashed nearly $88 million from a $157.5 million fee award requested by Garwin Gerstein & Fisher LLP and five other firms for guiding wholesalers of the Alzheimer's drug Namenda to a $750 million antitrust settlement with a unit of Allergan PLC.

After hinting she would reduce the payout, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon held Monday that six law firms that alleged Forest Laboratories Inc., a unit of Ireland-based Allergan, thwarted generic competition through unlawful "pay-for-delay" tactics are entitled to $69.538 million.  "It is still a handsome payday for counsel," Judge McMahon wrote, after cutting the request for about 21% of the settlement proceeds for plaintiffs' counsel down to about 9.3%.

The judge approved the lawyers' request for $5.8 million of expenses in the nearly five-year-old litigation, but slashed proposed $150,000 payouts for the two Namenda wholesalers that represented the class — Smith Drug Co. and Rochester Drug Co-Operative Inc. — by 50% to $75,000 each.  "Frankly, this was attorney-driven litigation.  All the class representatives really did was sit for a deposition," she wrote, calling the class reps' contributions "minimal."

Reasoning why she slashed the award, Judge McMahon said that the firms engaged in "duplicative work" — "or, in some cases triplicative or quadruplicative work" — and "inflated" their total number of hours worked.  "Class counsel's time sheets lack sufficient granularity to separate the productive hours from the wasted ones," she wrote.

The wholesalers had claimed Forest deployed a two-pronged strategy for keeping generic rivals to Namenda off the market, including unlawful "pay-for-delay" arrangements and "product-hopping" tactics that shielded its profits long after generic rivals should have developed robust sales.  A not-uncommon effort to settle ahead of trial led to the uncommonly large payout — one of the largest in the history of Hatch-Waxman Act generic-drug approval cases. Allergan admitted no wrongdoing in the deal.

"I fully understand why Forest settled this case for a large number.  Its downside was huge; this was a 'bet the company' case," Judge McMahon observed — awarding the plaintiffs' firms "twice the lodestar" but not "anything like the 4.5 times lodestar requested."

Judge McMahon also didn't like what she characterized as a suggestion that the six plaintiffs' firms should get an outsized payday to make up for the times they don't win.  "I am absolutely unmoved — indeed, I am offended — by the argument that class counsel deserves a humongous fee award in this case because 'the winning cases must help pay for the losing ones,'" she wrote.

Article: Fee Sharing Between Discharged Counsel and New Counsel in Contingent Fee Cases

June 5, 2020

A recent The Legal Intelligencer article by Sarah Sweeney and Thomas Wilkinson of Cozen O'Connor, “Fee Division Between Discharged Counsel and New Counsel in Contingent Fee Cases” reports on the division of attorney fees between discharged counsel and new counsel in contingency fee matters.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When a client terminates, without cause, its legal representation in a contingent fee matter and subsequently retains new counsel from a different firm, the Rules of Professional Conduct related to the division and disbursement of fees impose certain requirements on the successor attorney.  The American Bar Association recently issued Formal Opinion 487—ABA Formal Opinion 487 (Fee Division with Client’s Prior Counsel), June 18, 2019—to identify the applicable rules, and to clarify the duties owed to the client by the successor attorney.

The opinion explains that Model Rule 1.5(e) (or its state equivalent) has no application to the division of fees in cases of successive representation.  Model Rule 1.5(e) applies to the division of fees between lawyers of different firms who are representing the client concurrently or who maintain joint ethical and financial responsibility for the matter as a whole.  Such situations are governed by Rule 1.5(b)-(c), which according to the opinion, require the successor counsel to “notify the client, in writing, that a portion of any contingent fee earned may be paid to the predecessor attorney.”

Specifically, Rule 1.5(b) requires attorneys to communicate the rate or basis of legal fees, and Rule 1.5(c) requires that the written fee agreement include the method of determining the fee.  Both subsections are designed to ensure that the client has a clear understanding of the total legal fee, how it will be computed, and when and by whom it will be paid.  When a client replaces its original counsel with new counsel in a contingent fee matter, the discharged attorney may have a claim for fees under quantum meruit or pursuant to a clause in the contingency fee agreement; and the successor counsel’s failure to communicate to the client the existence of such claim would run afoul of Rule 1.5(b)-(c).  Therefore, even if the exact amount or percentage (if any) owed to the first attorney is unknown at the time, it is incumbent on the successor attorney to advise a contingency client of the existence and effect of the predecessor attorney’s claim for fees as part of the terms and conditions of the engagement from the outset.

While the foregoing ABA guidance is reasonable, Model Rule 1.5(b) and (c) do not provide the most compelling basis to obligate successor counsel to advise the client of predecessor’s possible fee claim.  As explained in Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Opinion 2020-200: Obligations of Successor Contingent Fee Counsel to Advise Client of Potential Obligations to Prior Counsel, “a contingent fee agreement that fails to mention that some compensation may be due to, or claimed by, the predecessor counsel in circumstances addressed by this opinion is inconsistent with Rules 1.4(b) and 1.5(c),” which “mandate that successor counsel provide written notice that compensation may be claimed by Lawyer 1, and explain the effect of that claim on Lawyer 2’s contingent fee.” See also Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Comm. Op. 2004-1 (“In discharging the inquirer’s obligations under Rule 1.1 (competence) and Rule 1.4 (communication), the committee recommends that the inquirer have a thorough discussion with the client about the potentials for a fee and cost claim by the discharged attorney, and how such a claim, if made, might affect the inquirer’s representation of that client and/or the client’s ultimate distribution, if there is any recovery in the client’s case.”). Pennsylvania Rule 1.4(b) is identical to Model Rule 1.4(b).

The role of the successor attorney with respect to the discharged attorney’s claim for fees should also be set forth in the engagement agreement.  The opinion advises that the engagement agreement should expressly state whether the issue is one to be decided between the discharged attorney and the client or, alternatively, whether the successor attorney will represent the client in connection with the resolution of prior counsel’s fee interest.  If the latter, the successor attorney must obtain the client’s informed consent to the conflict of interest arising from his/her dual role “as counsel for the client and a party interested in a portion of the proceeds.” (emphasis in original)  In many situations, the fees paid to the discharged and successor attorneys may not affect the client’s ultimate recovery, and the client may make an informed decision to leave the matter for the two attorneys to determine among themselves.  In resolving any such dispute, both attorneys remain bound by Rule 1.6 confidentiality or pursuant to any confidentiality provisions in any underlying settlement agreement.

Upon recovery, the successor attorney must comply with Rule 1.15(d) by notifying the discharged attorney of the receipt of funds.  However, client consent is required prior to disbursement of any fees that may be payable to the discharged attorney.  If there is a disagreement about the discharged attorney’s claim or the amount owed, the successor attorney must hold the disputed fees in a client trust account under Rule 1.15(e) until the dispute is resolved.

The Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (board) has proposed that the guidance in the opinion be incorporated into the comment supporting Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 governing fees.  Recognizing that the opinion is not binding precedent, the board’s published notice for comment dated Dec. 7, 2019 stated that the opinion represents “helpful guidance to successor counsel and predecessor counsel in this common situation.  The original lawyer in a contingency-fee matter will often assert a lien on the proceeds.  But if the client retains new counsel, that client may not understand there is a continuing obligation to pay the original lawyer for the value that lawyer contributed or was entitled to under the original fee agreement.”

The board has proposed amending Comment [4] of Rule 1.5 to expressly reference the opinion.  The comment period has expired, so practitioners should proceed on the assumption that the board’s recommendation will likely be approved by the Supreme Court.  While adoption of the new proposed comment will not make compliance with all aspects of the opinion mandatory, practitioners would be wise to include a written notice to clients that a portion of the fee may be claimed by predecessor counsel.  In addition, successor counsel should confirm in writing any undertaking to resolve the prior counsel’s fee interest.  Since the opinion characterizes this as involving a conflict of interest requiring the client’s informed consent to a waiver, the successor firm should also confirm that consent in writing.  In this respect the opinion goes further than previous bar association ethics guidance in Pennsylvania.

Inclusion of an express reference to an ABA or other ethics opinion in the text of a comment to a disciplinary rule is highly unusual.  An alternative would have been to instead include a concise summary of that guidance.  In any event, the Disciplinary Board presumably felt it appropriate to supplement the guidance on this important topic to lawyers handling contingent fee cases because lawyers often fail to engage in earnest efforts to resolve the respective fee interests promptly after successor counsel is retained, leaving the unsuspecting client exposed to complications, potential litigation and delays over the allocation of fees and costs following an award or settlement.

When asked by a prospective client to replace the client’s counsel in a pending contingency fee case, attorneys and firms should be mindful of the duties imposed by the opinion on successor counsel, as well as the specific Rules of Professional Conduct in the relevant jurisdiction and any other applicable substantive law or authority.  In many cases compliance with the new guidance will require updating contingent fee agreements, as well as ensuring the client is adequately informed of the prior counsel’s fee interest and how it will be addressed in the event of a recovery.

Sarah Sweeney is professional responsibility and compliance counsel at Cozen O’Connor.  She serves as co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s professional guidance committee.  Thomas G. Wilkinson is a leader of the legal professionals practice group at Cozen O’Connor.  He is a member of the professional guidance committee and the ABA standing committee on professionalism.

Federal Judge: More Needed for $3B Fee Request in Opioid MDL

June 3, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Mike Curley, “Opioid MDL Judge Orders More Briefing on $3B Atty Fees” reports that an Ohio federal judge overseeing sprawling opioid multidistrict litigation adopted the recommendation of a Harvard Law School professor that more information is needed before he can approve a request for a common benefit fund setting aside $3.3 billion in attorney fees.  U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster ordered more briefing following a report from William B. Rubenstein, the professor who was brought in to assess the plaintiffs' request.  The judge issued a set of questions based on the report to the plaintiffs and other interested parties.

Rubenstein told the court in his report that the MDL's "truly unique" structure and nature means the court should proceed cautiously, saying the request for a common benefit fund "tests uncharted waters."  While a common benefit fund is usually put in place in anticipation of an aggregate settlement, at this point in the opioid MDL, it's unclear whether such a settlement is even feasible, what structure it would take, and which defendants will settle, Rubenstein said.

In addition, there are numerous different types of suits in the MDL, some with many plaintiffs and some with few, and dozens of defendants involved in different aspects of the pharmaceutical chain, Rubenstein said.  As such, smaller settlements that might be taxed to support the benefit fund could take very different forms, he said.  "A single common benefit assessment levied on multiple different types of settlements involving many different types of plaintiffs and multiple defendants runs the risk of being too crude an approach," he said.

That many of the plaintiffs include states, counties, cities and tribal governments could pose other difficult legal questions in establishing the fund, he added.  There are also ongoing settlement negotiations going on in the MDL that could be impacted by the establishment of such a fund, Rubenstein said, citing warnings from the National Association of Attorneys General, who suggested the fee might "disrupt" settlement negotiations "irreparably."

To resolve the issues involved, Rubenstein recommended the court seek briefing from the plaintiffs and other interested parties answering questions on how an aggregate settlement might take shape, how likely parties and lawyers in the smaller cases are to reach an agreement on how much to contribute to such a fund, and how much of the fund should go toward the attorneys, given the size of the MDL and the potential size of such a settlement.  Four attorneys general in October unveiled a proposed $48 billion deal with major drug companies and the nation's largest drug distributor, after which drug companies said 7% of the settlement would amount to more than $3.3 billion in fees.

The idea of a common benefit fund has come under fire in recent months. Opioid manufacturers and distributors — including Johnson & Johnson and McKesson Corp. — pounced on the proposal in February, saying it was nothing more than a "transparent" attempt by lawyers on the plaintiffs' executive committee to grab settlement funds.

Rubenstein, who previously worked on the multimillion-dollar NFL concussion settlement and subsequent fee fight, was tapped in March by Judge Polster to help the court decide whether to approve the $3.3 billion in fees.  "A common benefit order is a widely accepted reality in complex MDLs based on the fundamental fairness of recognizing a distinction between those who work the soil and those who grab the fruit," Paul Geller of Robbins Geller, who represents plaintiffs in the MDL, told Law360.