February 11, 2021
A recent Law 360 story by Morgan Conley, “Attys for Southern Co. ‘Clean Coal’ Investors Get $24M”, reports that a Georgia federal judge approved just over $24 million in fees to attorneys for a class of Southern Co. investors accusing the company of misleading them about a botched plan to build a "clean coal" plant in Mississippi, trimming the initial request by about $2.1 million.
In an order granting the attorney fees, U.S. District Judge William M. Ray said the unusually good recovery in the settlement warrants a greater than average take-home for lead counsel from Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. But, the court declined to grant class counsel's full request for a 30% share of the $87.5 million settlement fund because, while the recovery for the class is "commendable," the litigation was settled early enough that class counsel didn't stomach "the riskier stages of litigation."
"Being able to achieve such a favorable recovery so early in the litigation suggests that a continued successful pursuit of the litigation could have yielded an even more favorable result for plaintiffs," Judge Ray said. "That favorable result would then necessarily lead to an increase in the percentage of attorneys' fees. The court, based upon the totality of the factors, is thus satisfied that 27.5% adequately reflects the impressive results of this case."
According to the court, reasonable attorney fees are usually pegged at around 20% to a quarter of the settlement fund, which the court preliminarily approved in October. The court said that although class counsel said a study of attorney fee awards in the Eleventh Circuit put the median amount at 33%, that figure factors in a wide range of settlement sizes and a "closer inspection of the study reveals a more nuanced result."
"Because class action attorney fee percentages vary widely based upon the size of the settlement, it would be more insightful to look at settlements with a larger fund," the judge said. "The same study points out that the average fee percentage is 22.3% when considering only cases with a settlement fund greater than $67.5 million." Judge Ray said he is confident awarding the attorneys slightly above that average will continue to "incentivize high-caliber and vigorous representation" without awarding attorneys with an unnecessarily large payday.
Southern Co. agreed in September to pay $87.5 million to settle claims it misled shareholders about bungled plans to build a "clean coal" power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi — a project the company eventually admitted would cost almost three times more than originally budgeted and would never actually operate as a "clean coal" plant.
The settlement agreement makes up about 16% to 28% of what the class stood to receive in a best-case scenario if litigation continued to play out, according to the opinion. Judge Ray said his rationale for not granting counsel's full 30% fee request is partially based on the risks of further litigation not being fully realized.
One potential threat surfaced when Southern Co. appealed the class' certification to the Eleventh Circuit. But when the settlement deal was reached, no briefs had been filed in the appeal, which was stayed during the negotiations. Class counsel argued the certification challenge posed significant risks to the litigation and supported a higher fee award.
Judge Ray disagreed, saying it might be a different story if the circuit court appeal had gone active and class counsel had overcome the appeal. Or, if the class had defeated a summary judgment bid, the heightened stakes would have been fodder for a high fee award argument, the court said. But since the litigation never reached such a stage, the upper end of the counsel's fee request isn't justifiable, Judge Ray said.