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Category: Fee Calculation Method

Seeger Weiss Targeted in NFL Concussion Fee Appeal

August 14, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Ryan Boysen, “First Shots Fired in Seeger Weiss Concussion Fee Appeal,” reports that Seeger Weiss LLP has “hoarded” nearly $65 million for its work on the landmark NFL concussion settlement while punishing rival firms by docking their pay over perceived slights, all through an “improper process” that “lacked transparency and basic mechanisms of fairness,” according to the opening briefs in a contentious Third Circuit appeal.

The appeal was filed over a year ago, challenging an order by U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody that created a $112.5 million common benefit fund to pay the 24 firms involved in bringing to fruition the uncapped concussion settlement, which has paid out nearly $660 million in claims since it was approved in 2015.  In opening briefs filed, two groups of law firms and retired football players led by Locks Law Firm and Lubel Voyles LLP took aim at Seeger Weiss’ role in divvying up that money.

The firms argued that Judge Brody essentially gave Chris Seeger carte blanche to award himself and other firms whatever he pleased, then rubber-stamped his decisions with hardly any oversight, violating constitutional due process obligations and binding precedent in the process.  Adding insult to injury, Locks Law said, all of the firms involved in the settlement were required to submit time records to Seeger while he determined their final awards, but to this day no other firm “has seen Mr. Seeger’s records” and “neither will this court: those records were never made part of the record below.”

“The court empowered Mr. Seeger … to reward himself and penalize rivals without any on-the-record scrutiny of his own time records,” Locks Law said.  “The court accepted Mr. Seeger’s [determinations] with only minor adjustments.”  “There is no justification for this manifestly inadequate process,” Locks Law added.

While ostensibly separate, the allegations in the briefs mirror complaints about the settlement as a whole, which many attorneys claim has been marred by a lack of transparency and a seeming willingness on Judge Brody’s behalf to improvise when deciding issues of considerable importance to the class of 20,000 retired players suffering from concussion-related brain damage the deal is meant to compensate.

The briefs also underscore the bad blood that’s been building up for years between Seeger and many of the other lawyers involved in the case.  To take just one example, Locks Law was terminated as class counsel alongside five other firms in May, a move many viewed as retaliation for its request that Judge Brody reconsider new medical guidelines that Locks Law had argued would make it harder for players to get paid.  Prior to that, Locks Law butted heads with Seeger directly when it sought to take over the implementation of the deal, arguing that Seeger was letting the NFL steamroll the players with “scorched earth” legal tactics.  Both of those motions were denied.

In a nod to those broader tensions, Lubel Voyles acknowledged in its brief that while “fee fights in class action litigation are, sadly, not rare,” it is rare “for the optics of a common benefit fee award to be so poor that even class counsel are divided on every aspect of the award, not just allocation of the money.”  Locks Law said that before Judge Brody made a decision on how to apportion the $112.5 million CBF, some firms recommended a special master be appointed for that purpose while Locks Law itself urged the creation of a committee.

Instead, Locks Law said, Judge Brody let Seeger make “the sole determinations of what work performed by other [leading firms] qualified for common benefit compensation in his petition.”  “The district court’s decision to delegate responsibility for that allocation to the largest recipient of those fees, co-lead counsel Christopher Seeger,” was an “improper process,” Locks Law said.

Locks Law said all of the firms applying for those fees had to submit their time sheets to Seeger for him to review, but Seeger’s own records were only ever reviewed in camera by Judge Brody.  After approving more hours for his firm than any other, and awarding a higher lodestar multiple — a common calculation used by law firms to determine fees in many instances — for those hours than to any other firm, Seeger ultimately received about $52 million of the initial $85 million payout from the fund.  His firm has since received $8 million more, and is waiting on Judge Brody to approve more than $4 million on top of that, for a total of nearly $65 million.

Meanwhile, Locks Law has received less than $5 million in common benefit fees thus far, despite representing more than 1,000 players in the litigation compared to Seeger’s 20-or-so clients, a common point of contention raised by many other lawyers involved in the case.  Locks Law says Seeger seized on an interview Gene Locks gave to Bloomberg Businessweek for a 2013 article that “infuriated the NFL” as a reason to justify the low lodestar multiple given to Locks Law, but in its brief the firm said that explanation was “not credible.”

Lance Lubel of Lubel Voyles claims he was cut out of the CBF fees entirely because he objected to the settlement, something he's done frequently, even though his earlier complaints about the deal’s language led to significant safeguards being put in place to protect retired players.  Lubel echoed many of Locks Laws’ concerns with Seeger’s role in the CBF distribution, but went one step further by also challenging a 5% holdback that’s currently applied to each successful monetary award and a 22% fee cap Judge Brody imposed on attorneys representing retired players.

The 5% holdback is being set aside, and Judge Brody has said she’ll rule at a later date on whether or not to tap those funds to continue paying CBF fees for the implementation of the 65-year-long program, money that would presumably only be available to Seeger after Judge Brody axed the other class counsel firms in May.  Lubel said the $112.5 million should be enough money to compensate the lead firms over the entire course of the settlement’s lifespan.

As to the 22% cap on attorney fees, which works out to 17% after the holdback is applied, Lubel said Judge Brody “has, in the spirit of helping class members, gutted their chances of qualifying for an award through the claims process.”  That’s because many retired players require expensive medical tests before they can qualify for an award, and the price of those exams can easily reach $10,000 or more.  For various reasons, a player’s attorney is often the only party willing and able to front those funds, Lubel said.  But artificially capping their fees at a relatively low 17% rate makes them less willing to spend that money to get the ball rolling on a client’s claim, he continued.

The case is In re: National Football Players' Concussion Injury Litigation, case number 18-2012, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Judge Scrutinizes $68M Fee Request in Wells Fargo Settlement

August 2, 2019

A recent The Recorder story by Alaina Lancaster, “Judge Scrutinizes Plaintiffs’ $68M Fee Request in Wells Fargo Settlement,” reports that disputes over $68 million in attorney fees in a $240 million class action settlement against Wells Fargo & Co. have spurred a federal judge to consider setting new precedents for contract lawyer fees.  In a fairness hearing, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar of the Northern District of California took issue with a motion for attorney fees filed by San Francisco’s Lieff Cabraser.  The case involves a settlement with Wells Fargo shareholders over the financial institution’s widespread opening of unauthorized accounts to reach sales quotas and artificially inflate the company’s stock.

As co-lead counsel in the litigation dating back two years, Lieff Cabraser had calculated a fee for its contract attorneys that was about nine times higher than the attorney’s rate.  Tigar suggested to Richard M. Heimann of Lieff Cabraser that contract attorney fees should be no different than a plane ticket and calculated as a cost.  With no law or ruling that reflects such a shift in procedure, Heimann asked how it was fair that his team’s fees should suffer because the judge wanted to change the rules.  “If I think that should be the rule, how could I ever do that without an order?” Tigar responded.

Co-lead plaintiffs Fire & Police Pension Association of Colorado and the City of Birmingham Retirement & Relief System represented a class of shareholders who brought the suit to hold Wells Fargo’s directors accountable for putting “unrelenting pressure” on sales members to cross-sell eight products per account holder, resulting in the creation of falsified accounts, according to the consolidated complaint.  Saxena White in Boca Raton, Florida, is co-lead plaintiffs counsel alongside Lieff Cabraser.

The judge thanked Ted Frank of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute’s Center for Class Action Fairness for raising the issue in his motion opposing the attorney fees.  Frank pointed out that the co-lead counsel paid contract attorneys between $40 and $50 an hour but requested about $415 an hour to cover their investment.  “The unreasonableness of co-lead counsel’s fee request is confirmed by the lodestar crosscheck,” Frank wrote in his opposition to the motion.  “Using these rates, the lodestar figure is exaggerated by at least $5.5 million, but the precise amount is unclear due to counsel’s failure to submit daily billing records.  This means the lodestar multiplier is actually about 4.04.”

Heimann argued that the work and the overhead costs for staff and contract employees are the same in regard to training, supervision and providing workspaces.  Tigar said the law firm wouldn’t contract out staff if it weren’t more profitable.  “Are you telling me with a straight face that you don’t make more money on contract lawyers?” the judge asked.

Heimann said that taking advantage of contract employees is only marginally more profitable—about 10% to 20% more than staff attorneys—but the primary reason the firm hires contract workers is to handle fluctuating caseloads.  Tigar also set out to address another objection mentioned in Frank’s opposition over a 5% fee allocated to 12 law firms who brought similar cases in Delaware courts.  “The gravy train is so heavy that co-lead counsel has agreed to pay law firms that brought other cases even where they provided no common benefit, who represent plaintiffs who lack any colorable claims,” Frank wrote.

Heimann confirmed the Delaware counsel did not work on the case, and Tigar said it sounded to him like the attorneys were paid to withdraw their litigation, so as not to obtain a ruling that could impact the outcome of this case.  “I can imagine a circumstance in which a class action lawsuit is filed and the claims are clearly unsupported by the law,” the judge said.  “Most sensible judges could see the claims aren’t good, but say you have one case where the lawyers clearly have some momentum, and you just go pay them off.  That’s not good for the development of the law and doesn’t lead to a just result.  Why shouldn’t I be worried about that?”

Eleventh Circuit Scraps Attorney Fee Award in Home Depot Litigation

July 26, 2019

A recent Daily Report story by R. Robin McDonald, “11th Circuit Scraps $15M Attorney Fee Award in Home Depot Litigation” reports that a federal appeals court has vacated a $15.3 million legal fee award and remanded it with instructions to reduce it in litigation stemming from a  2014 data breach that impacted 56 million Home Depot customers.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit determined that the fee award to counsel representing a slate of financial institutions that sued Home Depot over the breach should have been based solely on the lawyers’ hourly rates and time spent litigating the case and should not have included any financial enhancement.

Holding that the legal fees were part of a separate contractual deal not included in the final settlement, Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote that, “It was an abuse of discretion to use a multiplier to account for risk in a fee-shifting case.”  Tjoflat was joined by Judge William Pryor and Judge Ronald Lee Gilman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Ken Canfield, a partner at Atlanta’s Doffermyre Shields Canfield & Knowles, and co-class class counsel for the financial institutions, said, “The Eleventh Circuit affirmed that Judge Thrash was correct in deciding every argument that was presented to  him.  The fee award was vacated based on a new argument Home Depot made for the first time on appeal.  We are confident that Judge Thrash will again make the right calls on remand after a complete record is put before him.”  Canfield argued the case at the 11th Circuit and is co-lead counsel for the consumer plaintiffs in the Equifax data breach litigation.

The legal fees at issue were calculated as a lodestar, which is based on lawyers’ hourly rates and time but traditionally includes a financial enhancement to compensate plaintiffs lawyers for the risk they assumed when they signed onto the litigation.

The multidistrict litigation on behalf of financial institutions that sought damages stemming from the data breach settled in 2017 for $25 million.  U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Thrash Jr., who presided over the Home Depot data breach cases, set the fee award after plaintiffs attorneys agreed, at the request of Home Depot lawyers, to negotiate the specifics of “reasonable legal fees,” costs and expenses after closing the settlement deal.  But Home Depot reserved the right to object to any fee request—and ultimately did so after class counsel requested $18 million, according to Tjoflat.  Home Depot countered that reasonable legal fees should be about $5.6 million.

Thrash stepped in after lawyers on both sides were unable to agree on a dollar amount.  He accepted the lodestar proposed by class counsel—about $11.7 million—as “an appropriate measure of the time expended by the plaintiffs in this case,” Tjoflat said.  Thrash then applied the same 1.3 multiplier that had been used in a parallel settlement compensating Home Depot consumers whose financial and personal data had been compromised by the breach, bringing the total to $15.3 million.

“The Home Depot argued that class counsel was not entitled to a multiplier,” Tjoflat said.  “Home Depot did not suggest that a multiplier was prohibited, only that it was not warranted” and that financial institution  lawyers “did not achieve a great result.”  Thrash also rejected arguments by Home Depot lawyers that counsel for the financial institutions should be the same as the fees paid to consumer class counsel

Thrash said in awarding the fees that financial institution counsel expended more effort and more time than consumer lawyers in settling the cases and that “dealing with [banks] rather than consumers added difficulty to the process of litigating this case.”  Thrash also cross-checked his lodestar award, including the fee enhancement, against a separate percentage calculation based on the class settlement benefits.  Thrash ultimately found that the $15.3 million award was only slightly more than one-third of the settlement benefits, which Thrash determined was reasonable.

“It is hard to imagine how the settlement agreement could be any clearer that Home Depot will pay the attorney’s fees, and that payment will not come out of the class fund,” Tjoflat said.  “A settlement agreement is a contract, … and the parties’ intent seemed to be for the fees to be paid separately by Home Depot—i.e., a fee-shifting arrangement.”

“The District Court’s only stated reason for using a multiplier was the exceptional risk taken by counsel in litigating the case,” Tjoflat continued.  “And risk, according to the Supreme Court, is not an appropriate basis for enhancing an attorney’s fee in statutory fee-shifting cases.”

Attorney Fees Trimmed in Tesla Salespeople Settlement

July 12, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Linda Chiem, “Atty Fees Trimmed in $1M Telsa Salespeople Settlement” reports that a California federal judge trimmed the fees and costs awarded to attorneys representing a class of former Tesla sales advisers accusing the electric carmaker of overtime and meal and rest break violations, chastising the attorneys for "unreasonable" requests before ultimately approving an overall $1 million settlement.  U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley awarded plaintiffs' attorneys at Amartin Law PC and Brennan & David Law Group $160,895 in attorney fees and $13,146.49 in litigation costs, which falls short of the $256,689 in fees and $15,208.91 in costs they had requested in January.

Judge Corley also cut by half the incentive awards for named plaintiffs Brian Wilson, Carrie Hughes and Katia Segal from the requested $10,000 to $5,000 apiece for serving as class representatives in the wage-and-hour action.  The judge also signed off on the overall settlement, but not before calling out the class counsel for discrepancies in their filings.

Judge Corley said the class counsel failed to reasonably explain their lodestar calculations and submitted billing records with "numerous excessive and block billing entries" that didn't adequately break down the time spent working on this specific case or included excessive costs for travel or other expenses, according to the order.  Attorney fees awarded using the lodestar method count "the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by [a] reasonable hourly rate" determined by the court.

"The discrepancy with respect to plaintiffs' lodestar and billing records is just the latest example of plaintiffs' counsel's carelessness in the presentation of the settlement to the court," Judge Corley said.  "Given the court's concerns, the court finds that the lodestar method, rather than the percentage of the fee method, is the most appropriate method of calculating attorneys' fees in this particular case."

She also ripped the attorneys for trying to collect fees on work the court ordered them to redo after their first motion for preliminary approval was rejected in June 2018 because it didn't explain the logic behind the deal and why it was a good result for both sides.  Judge Corley tentatively approved the deal last September after the attorneys reworked their motion in response to her concerns.

"Counsel's request for fees in excess of $36,000 for the work spent redoing the motion for preliminary approval, traveling to the second preliminary approval hearing, responding to the court's request for a status update, and traveling to and from San Francisco for the status conference is thus unreasonable," Judge Corley said.

Additionally, the plaintiffs' request for $10,000 apiece in incentive awards for the named plaintiffs was too much, the judge said, considering that each of the plaintiffs attested to spending between 75 and 90 hours on this action — the equivalent of two 40-hour weeks of work — but none of them were ever deposed or attended the mediation.  "Under these circumstances, the court finds that plaintiffs' generic statements regarding how they assisted the attorneys in the litigation fail to justify the requested $10,000 incentive award," Judge Corley said.

"The court is mindful that participation in wage-and-hour actions involves reputational risk, but finds that the risk here is not so great as to justify deviating from the standard $5,000 incentive award," she said.  The $1 million deal covers 282 class members, most of whom live in California, who accused Tesla of misclassifying showroom owner advisers and sales advisers as exempt from overtime under California's "commission salesperson exception."

That exemption only applies if sales advisers make at least 1.5 times the minimum wage and if over half of their compensation comes from commissions.  The plaintiffs maintained that their commissions failed to make up over half of their income so they should not have been denied overtime or proper meal and rest breaks, according to court documents.

$75M Fee Award Draws Judicial Scrutiny in State Street Case

July 4, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Aaron Leibowitz, “$75M Fee Award in State Street Row Faces Judge’s Scrutiny,” reports that a Boston federal judge heard arguments on whether to reduce a $75 million attorney fee award for three firms that brokered a $300 million class action settlement with State Street Corp., saying the firms may have misled him about how fees are typically calculated in massive deals like this one.

In the first of up to three days of hearings, lawyers representing Labaton Sucharow LLP, Thornton Law Firm and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP said the 25% cut of the settlement that they received was reasonable under the circumstances, even in a so-called "megafund" settlement worth hundreds of millions of dollars   Some experts have suggested attorneys should receive a relatively smaller percentage of the total award when a settlement is that large.  Richard Heimann, an in-house attorney representing Lieff Cabraser, said the firms made note of those expert opinions when they first filed their fee request in 2016, and never had any intention of leading the judge astray.

"We discussed all this in the briefs," Heimann told U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf. "We were hardly hiding from your honor."  But Judge Wolf wondered why the firms had failed to mention in those briefs that a study they cited found that, in settlements ranging from $250 million to $500 million, the average fee award was 17.8%, well below the 25% they requested after their $300 million settlement.  The judge said he "basically trusted" the firms' own calculations at the time, suggesting it would have been difficult to reject their proposal given that multiple regulatory agencies had already reviewed it.

But a lot has changed since then, the judge noted. He has since vacated his original attorney fee award in the wake of a Boston Globe report that raised questions about the double-billing of attorneys' hours and a special master's investigation that found additional billing issues.

"I know much more than I knew in 2016," the judge said.  The special master, retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, held in his report that the 25% figure the firms used for attorney fees was proper, a point that his attorney emphasized again in court.  But Judge Rosen has maintained that Judge Wolf should lower the fee award by as much as to $10.6 million, including more than $4 million for hours that were allegedly double-billed and $2.3 million for so-called contract attorneys at Thornton who were paid a higher rate than he said they should have earned.

As the hearing wore into the late afternoon, attorneys for the three firms described their billing practices in detail and grappled with the varying definitions of contract attorneys versus staff attorneys.  Judge Rosen has suggested only that the billing for contract attorneys was improper, but the arguments also addressed rates charged for some staff attorneys who pored over documents in the case.

Joan Lukey of Choate Hall & Stewart LLP, representing Labaton, said the firm defines staff attorneys as those who are not on track to become partners but receive full benefits and do in-depth document work. In the State Street case, some received more than $400 an hour, she said.  "It troubles me when I hear suggestions that they should be treated as something other than what they are, which is very skilled and talented attorneys," Lukey said.

Frank Bednarz, a representative of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute — a nonprofit firm that has provided amicus guidance to Judge Wolf in the case — countered that those rates were far higher than what staff attorneys should be charged.  A more appropriate figure, he said, would be around $200 an hour.

A representative for Labaton told Law360 after the hearing that the firm hopes Judge Wolf ultimately accepts the special master's recommendations.  "Counsel for Special Master Rosen highlighted some of the factors supporting the reasonableness of the court’s original award of a 25% fee to class counsel," the firm said.  "That included the special master’s view that the underlying State Street action hinged on a complex and challenging case, with novel legal issues, at substantial risk of success, and the excellent work done by counsel in obtaining a record recovery for the class — against a highly formidable adversary."

Representatives for other parties in the case did not immediately return requests for comment after the hearing.  The underlying suit, filed in 2011, alleged that State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade.

The hearing will continue with witness testimony on some of the key issues that Judge Rosen flagged in his report, including allegedly false representations made to the court by Thornton's Garrett Bradley, a former Massachusetts state representative.  Judge Rosen's attorney, William Sinnott of Barrett & Singal PC, said that there was "no legitimate basis" for Bradley to sign the fee declaration he submitted in the case, in part because the firm did not have any hourly clients.  "It was just so outrageously inaccurate," Sinnott said.

The case is Arkansas Teacher Retirement System v. State Street Corp. et al., case number 1:11-cv-10230, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.