Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Category: Fee Award Factors

$45M Fee Award in $187M LIBOR MDL Settlement

November 25, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Nadia Dreid, “NY Judge ‘Surprised’ By Fee Application in Libor Rigging Case,” reports that a New York federal judge wasn't happy with the amount of hours or law firms on the attorney fee bill she received in the wake of a $187 million deal with JPMorgan and other major financial institutions over claims of interbank rate rigging, but she granted $45 million in fees anyway.  U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said in her opinion that she was "to say the least, surprised to learn from their fee application that [exchange-based plaintiff] class counsel involved twelve additional law firms" and that the work from those firms made up nearly a fifth of the submitted hours.

"The court cannot divine any reason why it was necessary, efficient or in the best interests of the class to have twelve additional law firms litigate this case," the opinion read.  "If anything, the hours were claimed for work that was duplicative, unnecessary and easily could have been performed by the two appointed firms."

Those firms were Kirby McInerney LLP and Lovell Stewart Halebian Jacobson LLP, who were appointed as class counsel to the exchange-based plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation accusing JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank and a handful of other big banks of conspiring to rig the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor.  Judge Buchwald preliminarily approved the $187 million deal in March and gave it her final blessing in September, but she had yet to come to a final decision on attorney fees.  Ultimately, she decided that none of the 15,000 hours of additional work done by outside firms would be used in the lodestar calculations.

The court also had issues with the amount of hours billed by class counsel themselves.  Although she agreed to accept all of the more than 65,000 hours of work from the two firms, the court noted that their bill listed 10,000 hours more than their sister counsel claimed "in support of their fee application for a case of similar magnitude."  It would take a four-person law firm working on the case full-time for roughly nine years — minus a month annually for vacation — to reach the 65,000 mark, according to the court.

"While the sheer quantum of hours suggests some amount of over-litigation, the court will credit [class counsel] the full amount of time they claim," Judge Buchwald said.  The fees that the firms will walk away with comes out to 25% of the $187 million settlement, after the deduction of around $5.6 million in expenses, according to the opinion.

Ninth Circuit Clarifies Fee Calculation Method in Class Coupon Settlements

November 11, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dave Simpson, “9th Circ. Nixes $14.8M Atty Fees in Dishwasher Defect Deal,” reports that the Ninth Circuit sent back a lower court's approval of $14.8 million in fees for the attorneys representing a class of millions of owners of allegedly defective Sears and Whirlpool dishwashers, ordering it to determine the value of the settlement, which provides coupons to much of the class.

In a unanimous, published decision penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth K. Lee, the panel said that while U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin was right to approve the California federal court settlement, the attorney fees were off-base.  He shouldn't have used a lodestar-only calculation, or a calculation based on attorneys' hours worked and their rates, for the coupon portion of the settlement, the panel said.  The judge should have, instead, attempted to determine the value of the coupons and based the attorney fees on that calculation, the panel said.  They remanded the approval of the attorney fees and ordered the judge to recalculate.

Further, it said, the judge was wrong to multiply the attorneys' lodestar by 1.68, disagreeing with, among other things, the judge's lauding of the settlement as "impressive."  "While observing that the parties' respective valuations of the settlement ranged from $4,220,000 to $116,700,000, the court declined to determine where in that spectrum the actual value fell," the panel said.  "Given this enormous spread, without at least estimating the settlement value, the court could not have conducted the necessary evaluation between 'the extent of success and the amount of the fee award.'"

In the case of California residents David and Bach-Tuyet Brown, their KitchenAid dishwasher overheated while they were sleeping in April 2010, filling the house with smoke and causing them to spend $70,000 to replace the entire kitchen and to lose an additional $3,000 in rental income as a result of having to vacate the property for three weeks, according to the complaint.

In September 2015, the parties reached a proposed settlement that was open-ended and involved several elements for owners, court records show. If a person had already had to repair their unit, they would get $200, or more if they saved their repair receipt showing they paid more to have it fixed, according to the deal.  And Sears and Whirlpool also agreed to repair dishwashers that weren't even part of the class but also had fire problems, according to filings in the case.

In August 2016, the lawyers duked it out in court over whether the $15 million fee request baked into the settlement up for final approval was too much. Attorneys for Sears and Whirlpool said that the plaintiffs' attorneys had worked hard, but deserved a fee award of $2 million to $3 million.  The requested amount, the defendants said, would dwarf the benefits received by the class.  The class lawyers fought back, saying the potential value of the uncapped deal was enormous and may cover between 15% and 20% of all U.S. households.

In October 2016, Judge Olguin shut down arguments by Sears Holdings Corp. and Whirlpool Corp. that attorneys at the five firms that worked to litigate the case and reach a deal last year over the allegedly defective washers were asking too much, finding that the arrangement the lawyers reached for the class — cash payments to owners of Kenmore, KitchenAid and Whirlpool home dishwashers to cover repairs or rebates toward buying a new model, plus some insurance-like deals and other protections — was highly beneficial.

The panel quickly shot down the attorneys' arguments that the Class Action Fairness Act is preempted by corresponding state law, noting that the plain language of CAFA makes clear that its attorney fees provisions top any state laws and apply to all federal court class actions.  "Indeed, it would be highly incongruous for Congress to expand federal jurisdiction for class action lawsuits based on diversity jurisdiction, but then in the same statute prevent CAFA's attorney's fee provisions from applying in those diversity jurisdiction-based cases," it said.

The panel then pointed out that precedent mandates the use of a percentage-of-value calculation for any "portion" an award "attributable to the award of the coupons."  The court's decision to use a lodestar calculation for the coupon portion of the deal was, therefore, an error, the panel found.  The panel also shot down the plaintiff attorneys' argument that the settlement provides a "rebate" rather than a "coupon."  It is a coupon, "despite the settlement agreement's refusal to use that term," the panel said.

"To use the 'rebate,' class members must spend hundreds of out-of-pocket dollars to purchase a new dishwasher," the panel said.  "And the rebates expire in 120 days, a third of the useful life of the [credits].  Given that a dishwasher typically lasts at least several years, most consumers likely will not redeem their coupons within 120 days."

Finally, the panel turned to the 1.68 lodestar multiplier, finding that the judge wrongly included the value of the coupon portion of the settlement in determining the 1.68 multiplier for the lodestar value, and also several of its reasons for enhancing the attorney fees cannot be justified, the panel said.  The judge was wrong, for instance, to find that the case was "undesirable" for attorneys to pursue, noting that this very notion is undercut by the fact that five different law firms pursued the claims for many years.

"If the mere fact that the defendants are 'large corporations' were sufficient, then most class action fee awards would automatically qualify for enhancement — contrary to the rule that multipliers are for 'rare and exceptional circumstances,'" the panel said.  "In practice, deep pockets often create an incentive to sue, particularly in the class action context."

The district court had said that the wide gap between the parties' estimated valuations for the deal meant that any attempt to determine a value of the deal "would be imprecise to the point of uselessness."  The panel ordered the court to attempt to determine a value for the deal and to consider whether, as Whirlpool argues, a negative multiplier should apply to the attorney fees.

"It becomes even more critical to crosscheck the lodestar valuation if the parties present widely divergent settlement valuation estimates," the panel said.  "It may admittedly be difficult to determine that amount with precision, but courts must try to do so to ensure the fees are not excessive."

Hagens Berman Says It Earned Every Penny of $48M Fee Request

October 27, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Emily Lever, “Hagens Berman Says It Earned Every Penny of $48M Fees,” reports that Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP continued to defend its demand for $48 million in attorney fees from optical disk drive price-fixing settlements, saying the litigation was high risk and they deserve a high reward.  Hagens Berman, the lead counsel for a class action accusing Samsung, Toshiba, Panasonic and others of colluding to inflate the cost of optical disk drives, hit back at an objector from the class who said they should get nothing.  "This litigation was extremely risky and it obtained an exceptional result," Hagens Berman said in a brief.

The multidistrict litigation, consolidated in 2010, resulted in three rounds of settlements totaling $205 million.  The firm initially secured $48 million in attorney fees, but the Ninth Circuit nixed the award, saying it was much steeper than the original $21 million bid the firm submitted and it needed to provide "further explanation."

The firm is holding on to the $48 million while the San Francisco federal court takes a second look.  But Hagens Berman should have returned the money, and their "defiant" conduct should lead to their fees getting zeroed out, according to objector Connor Erwin.  "They have no legal entitlement to the funds, which belong to the class," Erwin told the court.

Hagens Berman took exception to what they called Erwin's "vacillating arguments."  The firm argues that regardless of whether the lower court ultimately invalidates the award or finds "some impropriety in the fee arrangement," they remain entitled to recovering the value of their services.  And the value of those services is high, they contend, given that they were extraordinarily successful.

The case ended up being much more difficult than Hagens Berman could have reasonably predicted when it bid for a mere $21 million in attorney fees 10 years ago at the outset of the case, the firm argued.  Hagens Berman said that contrary to Erwin's claim that the length and complexity of the case were par for the course and should have been expected, the case was unusually long and treacherous.  The class was denied certification on the first attempt, and the second attempt was only successful because of the firm's hard work, it said.

Hagens Berman also contested Erwin's claim that it was trying to "manufacture" the appearance that it was receiving a lesser amount than it really was by factoring in litigation expenses into its demand after earlier saying it would waive them.  Just because they are waiving expenses does not mean the court shouldn't consider counsel's net gain or loss when assessing what an appropriate fee should be, Hagens Berman said.

Judge: Can Counsel Tack 40% Fee Request on Top of $33M Verdict?

October 23, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Katheryn Tucker, “Judge’s Question on $12M Legal Bill: ‘I Want to Hear Why This Is Something Legitimate’, reports that a big fee was the sticking point during Zoom oral arguments before the Georgia Court of Appeals.  The panel of three—Presiding Judge Sara Doyle, Chief Judge Chris McFadden and Judge Ken Hodges—is being asked to decide whether plaintiffs lawyers can tack on their 40% contingency fee award on top of a $33 million wrongful death verdict.

“I want to hear why this is something legitimate,” Doyle said to Mike Terry of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, arguing for the plaintiff’s side to defend the verdict and attorney fee claim.  Doyle said she understands that plaintiffs lawyers take on the risk of a case with no guarantee of being paid, and that’s “why they get more.”  But why wouldn’t the fee come out of the $33 million judgment, she asked.

Terry said plaintiffs counsel is entitled to the added fee under Georgia law after making a $1 million offer of settlement, then far exceeding that sum at trial.  So the plaintiffs counsel’s math subtracts that $1 million from the $33 million verdict, which makes $32 million, multiplies that by 40%, which is about $12 million, then adds the two together, making $45 million.

On the other side was Laurie Webb Daniel of Holland & Knight, representing the driver who turned left in front of a reportedly speeding motorcycle.  Daniel was hired by the insurance company, State Farm, which now has $45 million on the line between the verdict and the added-on fee award.  Daniel told the panel that the plaintiffs counsel had shown no documentation to justify the fee demand.  Plus she said Terry’s argument had been “based on an erroneous order,” and that “improper material had been presented to the jury.”  She said the judge allowed plaintiffs counsel to question the defendant about her prior driving record and past speeding, which had nothing to do with the case.  “The law does not allow collateral impeachment,” Daniel said.

The case was tried in February 2019 before Spalding County State Court Judge Josh Thacker. The plaintiff is the wife of a man killed 15 years ago when a car turned left in front of his motorcycle.  The jury awarded: $63,000 for medical and funeral expenses, $3.25 million for general estate damages, $4.1 million for wrongful death-loss of wages and $26 million for wrongful death-noneconomic value of the life of Daniel K. Mayfield Jr.

“This was a tragic case of a driver who turned left directly in front of a motorcyclist that she failed to see approaching,” Mayfield family attorney Ben Brodhead of Brodhead Law said after the verdict.  “The case was complicated by three independent witnesses who claimed that the motorcyclist was traveling at approximately 80 mph to 100 mph as he approached the intersection.”  But Brodhead said he was able to establish that “no one observed the motorcycle’s speed in the 10 seconds before the crash.” 

The jury apportioned 3% of the fault to Mayfield and 97% to defendant Vickie Lynn Fain Kennison, the driver who turned left into the path of Mayfield’s motorcycle.  Broadhead said he made requests for the $100,000 State Farm policy limit over the course of a decade of litigation.  He said immediately after the trial that he would be asking for the added 40% fee award in addition to 97% of the verdict, plus interest and litigation expenses.

Virgin Flight Attendants Defend $6M Fee Award in Ninth Circuit

October 21, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Linda Chiem, “Virgin Flight Attendants Defend $6M Atty Fees in 9th Circ.,” reports that Virgin America Inc. flight attendants told the Ninth Circuit that their attorneys were properly awarded $6 million in fees and expenses after they won $77 million in a long-running dispute over California pay and rest breaks, saying their fees were already trimmed down.  The certified class of flight attendants, represented by Olivier Schreiber & Chao LLP, Kosinski & Thiagaraj LLP and Shepherd Finkelman Miller & Shah LLP, filed an answering brief urging the Ninth Circuit to affirm U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar's January order awarding them $5.75 million in attorney fees and $250,775.81 in expense reimbursements.

Virgin America Inc., which merged with Alaska Airlines Inc., had appealed the fee award by arguing that Judge Tigar didn't meaningfully assess or dig into whether the flight attendants' attorneys properly justified their hours and calculations.  But the flight attendants argued that Virgin is merely engaging in "rank speculation" and "conjecture" to push for more cuts to the class counsel fees even though the district court already imposed a "haircut" reduction in their hours and compensation after Virgin's earlier gripes.

"The fundamental problem with this attack is that it ignores that the district court upheld Virgin's specific objections below and, as a result, ultimately reduced class counsel's lodestar more than Virgin proposed," the flight attendants argued.  "It is thus judicially estopped from claiming error here."  The flight attendants argued that the district court acted well within its discretion after carefully and appropriately reviewing their submissions, Virgin's objections, and considering the court's own experience with the action and the relevant law in reaching its determination.

The flight attendants' attorneys had initially requested $13.2 million but were awarded less than half that.  They said Judge Tigar cut down the 5,128 hours of billable time that was compensable to 4,723.345 hours, adjusted some of the hourly rates the class counsel had claimed, and reduced their lodestar, according to the brief.  "The record reveals no grounds to disturb the district court's order," the flight attendants said.  "The court, intimately familiar with this multiyear class action litigation marked by Virgin's own litigation choices that 'undoubtedly contributed to its length and its tone,' was in the best position to assess the fees and expenses to which plaintiffs are entitled under California's fee-shifting statutes."

Named plaintiff Julia Bernstein and flight attendants spearheading the long-running dispute have alleged that Virgin America flouted California labor laws by not paying them for all hours worked, including overtime, and denying them state-mandated meal and rest breaks.

Virgin's appeal of the class counsel fees is separate from its ongoing Ninth Circuit appeal seeking to vacate the $77 million damages the flight attendants won in January 2019.  The Ninth Circuit is considering scheduling oral arguments in that appeal for early 2021, court records show.

Judge Tigar, who rebuffed Virgin's earlier attempts to dismiss the litigation, granted the flight attendants summary judgment on most of their claims in 2018, setting the stage for the subsequent fight over damages.  The judge found that California labor law applied to all work that happened in California and in situations where employment policies were decided from Virgin's previous headquarters in the Golden State.  Seattle-based Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin in 2016.

In his order on the class counsel fees earlier this year, Judge Tigar had acknowledged that the plaintiffs' attorney fee application was too vague, saying "the level of specificity at which plaintiffs have documented their time makes it difficult or impossible for Virgin to raise certain challenges that courts have found justified partial reductions in other cases."  Virgin had argued on appeal that despite that critical flaw, the judge accepted all of the hours that the plaintiffs' counsel claimed and awarded a $5.7 million fee award that was subject to only a 5% general reduction in hours.

But the flight attendants said in their answering brief that they provided the court with detailed charts and summaries of their work.  "In light of the detailed records provided, Virgin's claim that plaintiffs' submissions were 'threadbare' is disingenuous at best," they said.  "This documentation was more than sufficient evidence for the district court to address, as Virgin contends is 'critical,' 'whether the case was overstaffed, how much time the attorneys spent on particular claims, and whether the hours were reasonably expended.'"

Moreover, Virgin argued that the class counsel's flawed lodestar consisted of nearly 4,500 hours of billable time — most of which was billed at an absolute "top of the market" rate of $750 per hour — and the $251,000 in court-related expenses wasn't justified.

"Most of the expenses that the district court awarded were for 'expert fees,' which are not recoverable under black-letter California law," the airline said.  "In addition, the district court erred by ignoring the rule that a party cannot recover expenses without submitting an itemized list and accompanying receipts.  The district court did not identify any exception to this rule, and it candidly acknowledged that plaintiffs' counsel failed to comply with it.  But the court awarded expenses anyway."

But the flight attendants rejected the airline's arguments, saying in the brief that Virgin never raised that argument in the district court so it cannot raise it on appeal.  On top of that, there is no such prohibition on expert fees under California law, they said.

If Virgin wants to play that game concerning attorneys' purportedly inflated hours, then the plaintiffs can "likewise, speculate as to Virgin's reticence to submit its counsel's hours as a benchmark," the flight attendants said, noting Virgin took a "gratuitously contentious approach toward litigation, including unnecessary motion practice."

"Perhaps its counsel assigns partners to do simple tasks; perhaps a significant amount of time was spent pursuing questionable strategies; perhaps its counsel's hourly rates are significantly above its peers in the market," they said.  "Regardless, that Virgin refuses to provide a clear reference point of the expense of litigating this action — which it can easily do — speaks volumes as to the [lack of] merits of its objections."