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Category: Fee Calculation Method

Judge Erred By Limiting Attorney Fees in Probate Matter in California

September 7, 2018

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Judge Erred By Limiting Fee to 10 Percent of Minors’ Recovery,” reports that the law firm founded by veteran personal injury Ian “Buddy” Herzog was shortchanged by a Los Angeles Superior Court who awarded it only 10 percent of the $18 million settlement it negotiated for its minor clients, despite a contingency fee agreement calling for 40 percent, the Court of Appeal for this district has held.

The unpublished opinion was filed Wednesday.  In it, Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild of Div. One noted that under Probate Code §3600 and §3601, a court, in approving the compromise of a minor’s claim, must determine what are “reasonable” attorney fees, and pointed to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955, which sets forth guidance for trial judges in determining reasonableness.  A 10 percent fee, she said, was unreasonable in light of the contingency fee agreement, the risk the company took in taking the case on a contingency basis, and other factors.

Herzog, Yuhas, Ehrlich & Ardell of Santa Monica represented the wife and four minor children of Rainer Schulz in a wrongful death suit, after the wealthy German businessman crashed his Cessna 750 jet while attempting to land at a small German airport.  The action against various companies was brought on a products liability theory.  Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Fahey apportioned $1 to Schulz’s widow, Silke Schulz, and the remainder of the $18,125,000 to the couple’s four minor sons.

He did not credit the contingency fee agreement which the widow and the chief executive of a company the Schulzes owned negotiated with the Herzog firm.  Under it, the firm was to receive 31 percent of the proceeds if the case were settled at least 30 days before trial and 40 percent after that point.  Although settlement came a few days before trial, the Herzog firm indicated its willingness to accept a 31 percent share.

Fahey said:  “Turning to the issue of attorney’s fees, the Court is not bound by a contingency agreement when considering the best interests of the minors.  Attorney fees must be carefully scrutinized and adjusted if warranted.  Here, the attorneys hired by Silke did a good job in investigating this case.”  He added:“But paying these attorneys their requested $5 million in fees out of the settlement proceeds would be excessive, to the substantial detriment of Rainer’s sons and contrary to this Court’s duty [to] assure that no injustice is done to them.”

Two of the Schulzes’s sons have permanent disabilities as a result of being born prematurely.  Rule 7.955(a)(2) sets forth: “The court must give consideration to the terms of any representation agreement made between the attorney and the representative of the minor.…”

Rule 7.955(b) lists 14 non-exclusive factors for courts to consider when determining what fee will be reasonable, including the amount of the fee in proportion to the value of services, the experience of the attorney and the amount of time and labor involved.

Rothschild declared: “We conclude the trial court gave too little consideration to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(a)(2).…In addition, the court did not acknowledge the factors listed in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(b).  Although these factors are not mandatory, they provide a guide to the considerations relevant to determining whether a fee protects the interests of a minor while allowing an attorney to obtain a fair recovery.”

She continued: “All of these factors support a recovery greater than 10 percent.  One of the two attorneys who primarily worked on the case, Ian Herzog, had 47 years of experience in aviation accident cases, and the other, Thomas Yuhas, had 37 years of experience.  Both attorneys also have many years of experience as pilots, which undoubtedly gave them insight as to the causes of the crash.  In this case, both sides agree that the risk of loss was substantial.  When viewed from the perspective of the time it was signed, the representation agreement thus realistically evaluated the high risk that there could be no recovery at all or one substantially lower than was achieved.”

She noted that the firm advanced more than $300,000 in costs.  In determining the potential for a minor being taken advantage of, the rule counsels, the court should look to the “relative sophistication of the attorney and the representative of the minor.  Rothschild said that Silke Schulz is a highly sophisticated executive who took over the company after her husband’s death.  And who made an informed decision to enlist the services of a firm willing to take the case on a contingency basis.

The jurist noted that rule 7.955 had superseded prior local rules setting the baseline contingency award for minor clients, often at 25 percent.  She drew an analogy to class action attorney fee awards, which have a 25 percent starting point in the Ninth U.S. Circuit and some California courts.  She wrote: “We acknowledge that what is reasonable in applying the factors in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955 in any particular case may comprise a range of percentages.  Under the facts of this case, however, 10 percent was not within that reasonable range.  Although the trial court would be acting within its discretion to award less than 31 percent, we note that 31 percent is not out of line with awards in class actions, which, like this case, involve attorney fees to be paid by a protected class and that require court approval.”

The case is Schulz v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., B277493.

Fee Agreement Issues in Opioid Litigation in Some Texas Counties

August 23, 2018

A recent Forbes story by Daniel Fisher, “Lawyers for Texas Counties in Opioid Cases May Not Have Valid Contracts, reports that a number of Texas counties including Montgomery County, a sprawling suburb north of Houston, may have invalid contracts with their outside lawyers because they haven’t been approved by the Texas Comptroller as required under state law.  More than a dozen counties represented by the law firms Haley & Olson and Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones filed suit without first obtaining the Comptroller’s approval for their contingency fee contracts.  Months later, those contracts still haven’t been approved, possibly putting the suits in peril.

In a 2012 decision involving similar litigation by counties over the mortgage crisis, a federal court stated the requirements under Texas law “must be satisfied before a Texas county can retain outside counsel on a contingency fee basis.”  In another decision that year, a Texas state court judge declared the contract between Harris County and its contingency fee lawyers void because it hadn’t been approved.

Texas passed extensive reforms to its rules on hiring outside lawyers starting in 1999, after private attorneys caused a political uproar by collecting $3.3 billion in fees for representing the state in its lawsuit against the tobacco industry.  Former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales ultimately went to prison for illegally attempting to divert $500 million of those fees to a friend.

The new rules in Texas included a maximum contingency fee of 35%, strict requirements for keeping time and expense records, and a hybrid method of calculating fees that includes a “base fee” determined by actual hours worked times a multiplier of up to four to reflect the risk of taking on the case.  The final fee charged to the government must be the lower of the percentage of the award or the base fee and multiplier, and the fee can only reflect work done by partners and employees of the contracting firms.

Texas legislators were concerned about the possibility of excessive fees and political payoffs in the wake of the scandals surrounding the tobacco litigation and Morales’ criminal trial, said Charles Silver, a professor at the University of Texas Law School and prominent legal affairs expert.  Most trial lawyers in Texas are Democrats and the governor at the time was George W. Bush, a Republican.  “The legislature was dominated by Bush and the Republicans, and they just didn’t want to be supporting plaintiff attorneys who were supporting the Democratic party,” Silver said.

Regardless of the motivating factors, comptroller approval and billing records are the law in Texas, and even considered public records.  Montgomery County’s lawyers seem to agree: The contract says they will comply with Section 2254.104(a) of the Texas Government Code, including maintaining “current and complete written time and expense records” that will be available to county or state officials “at any time upon request.”

Despite this requirement, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney John J. McKinney, in an Aug. 14 letter, said “no documents exist that are responsive” to a request for billing records.  It’s not surprising counties might balk at complying with the recordkeeping requirements of Section 2254, Silver said.  “Lawyers don’t like others knowing how much time and effort they’re expending, whether on the plaintiff or defense side,” he said.

The hours compiled to calculate the base fee could be an issue in opioid litigation, however.  Unlike many lawsuits in which a law firm represents a single government entity suing over a single claim, opioids law firms have bundled large numbers of municipal clients and are working closely with national law firms that control the federal multidistrict litigation in the court of U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster in Ohio.

One sign of the cooperation among law firms is Montgomery County’s lawsuit, filed Dec. 13 in federal court in Houston.  It is an almost word-for-word copy of the lawsuit filed by three different law firms, including Dallas-based Simon Greenstone, on behalf of Bowie County more than two months before.

A close examination of the billing records might reveal how much time Montgomery County’s lawyers spent in the early stages of the litigation, and whether that is justified given evidence they used a borrowed complaint.  The other 12 counties might also want to compare their base fee calculations with each other to make sure their lawyers aren’t double-billing hours across the entire group.

Other Texas counties including Dallas and Harris have obtained Comptroller approval of their contracts.  And an attorney retained by Clay County (another client of Haley & Olson and Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones) said they would submit the contract to the state during a January meeting when Clay County Commissioners Court approved hiring the firms. Clay County’s contract has not yet been approved.

The stakes for the counties could be high if defendant companies challenge the status of their representation.  When private lawyers representing several Texas counties attempted to assemble a statewide class action in litigation against Merscorp, a mortgage registry, the federal judge who examined Texas law said it wasn’t possible because each county needed the Comptroller’s approval before joining the class.  Under the law of the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, so-called “opt-in” class actions aren’t allowed under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Texas judge who declared Harris County’s contract with private lawyers void nevertheless allowed the case to proceed because the complaint was also signed by the county attorney’s office. Montgomery County’s complaint is signed only by the private lawyers.

Judge Slashes Attorney Fees in Anthem Data Breach Class Action

August 17, 2018

A recent story in The Recorder by Amanda Bronstad, “Federal Judge Approves Anthem Data Breach Case, Slashes Attorney Fees,” reports that after chastising plaintiffs lawyers in the Anthem data breach settlement for their excessive billing, a federal judge has awarded them $31.05 million and approved the $115 million deal.  In a order, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California approved the fees after concluding that the results were “exceptional.”

Koh had hired a special master to review the billing records submitted by plaintiffs lawyers, who asked for $38 million for their work on the case.  The special master had recommended cutting more than $9 million based largely on the billable hours, but Koh based her decision on a percentage of the fund—about 27 percent.  Although still a reduction from the original request, the award is higher than the special master’s recommendation and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s 25 percent benchmark.

“Here, based on the court’s familiarity with the case, the choice of a percentage does not strike the court as arbitrary or unconnected from the performed work in a way that would create a windfall for class counsel,” Koh wrote.  Also, Koh approved the settlement, the largest ever in a data breach case.

As to the fee order, he noted that Koh didn’t adopt all of the special master’s findings.  “We’re pleased that the judge saw to go with a benchmark,” he said.  “Obviously, we’d like more.  We always want more.  We’ve asked for more.  But I didn’t read the tea leaves one way or the other.  We didn’t know what to expect.  I think she spent her time, gave a well-reasoned opinion for the final order and judgment and, on the fees, as well.”

Koh brought in a special master in February after telling the four lead plaintiffs lawyers she was “deeply disappointed” in their decision to bring in 49 additional law firms on the case.  The special master, retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg, now at JAMS, proposed a 10 percent cut to the billable hours and suggested that the contract attorney rates, which averaged $360 per hour, be set at $156 instead.  Plaintiffs lawyers continued to press for their initial request, while Frank’s objector thought the award should have been closer to 15 percent of the fund.

In this week’s order, Koh continued to have reservations about the rates billed for contract attorneys—remarking “how striking the markup is”—and set an hourly rate at $240.  She also agreed that the hours were “almost necessarily excessive,” particularly given that there were 53 law firms on the case.  She found that was especially true with hours billed for depositions and settlement.  She cut that amount by 13 percent.

She approved a fee award that is more than the Ninth Circuit’s benchmark, however, citing the “novel legal issues and technical subject matter” and the risks inherent in a data breach case.  She noted that while the fee percentages were higher in data breach settlements with Home Depot and Target, those cases also included claims by financial institutions that skewed the compensation to consumers.  She also approved more than $2.1 million in costs and expenses and nearly $600,000 in service awards to 105 named plaintiffs.

In her approval of the settlement, Koh found that amendments in April resolved her concerns about potential money left over from a $15 million fund in the settlement earmarked for out-of-pocket costs.  The original settlement called for $3.3 million going to cy pres organizations, but the amendments said two organizations, the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, would receive no more than about $417,000.

Judge Cuts $100M in Fees in $3B Petrobras Securities Settlement

June 27, 2018

A recent Reuters story by Alison Frankel, “Judge in $3B Petrobras Securities Case Cuts Class Lawyers’ Fees by $100M,” reports that on the attorney fee award in the Petrobras securities class action settlement.  The views expressed in this post are not those of NALFA.  The article reads:

Jeremy Lieberman and his partners at the securities class action firm Pomerantz are about $171 million richer, after U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of Manhattan issued a decision granting final approval of a $3 billion securities class action settlement against the Brazilian energy company Petrobras and one of its auditors.  Pomerantz, one of three lead firms in the case, did the bulk of the work, so it’s receiving the lion’s share of the total $186.5 million Judge Rakoff awarded class counsel for obtaining an “exceptional” result in a risky case without a foreordained outcome.  You might expect Lieberman to be a very happy man today.  He’s not – and it’s not just because Judge Rakoff awarded Petrobras class counsel nearly $100 million less than the $284.4 million they requested.

Lieberman told me that what bothers him wasn’t so much the result as the process.  I’ll explain below how Judge Rakoff got to $186.5 million, but Lieberman’s complaint is that the judge did not honor Pomerantz’s fee agreement with its U.K. pension fund client, lead shareholder Universities Superannuation Scheme.  When USS retained Pomerantz, the fund rejected Pomerantz’s initial fee suggestion and instead, as class counsel recounted in their memo requesting $284.4 million in fees, brought in former U.S. pension fund official Keith Johnson of Reinhart Boerner Van Dueren to advise the U.K. fund on appropriate fees for its class action lawyers.  Their eventual sliding-scale deal, which granted Pomerantz a declining percentage of the recovery as the size of the settlement fund increased, would have netted lead counsel 9.4 percent of the $3 billion settlement, or $284.5 million.  Judge Rakoff took that pre-negotiated fee deal into account when he appointed USS a lead plaintiff in the Petrobras case.

The judge, as Pomerantz and the other lead counsel acknowledged in their fee petition, was not required to defer to USS’s fee agreement with Pomerantz.  Federal judges, after all, are supposed to look out for the interests of all class members, not just lead plaintiffs.  But Pomerantz and the other firms argued that Judge Rakoff should give considerable weight to the USS fee deal, especially because it was negotiated before the litigation began.

Pomerantz partners relied on the terms of their USS fee deal when they made decisions about how to litigate the case, the fee memo said.  To finance the expensive undertaking, they pledged their personal assets to assume a crushing debt load, “in large part informed by the ex ante fee agreement that was previously reviewed (and commended) by (Judge Rakoff).”

But when it actually came time to award fees, the judge said Pomerantz’s pre-negotiated fee deal was “at best just one factor” to consider in the tapestry of litigation events “that provide a much better indication of what was the value of the attorneys’ work to the class as a whole than any before-the-fact private agreement reached with an individual plaintiff.”

Instead, as I’ll explain, Judge Rakoff based his fee award on class counsel’s lodestar billings, boosted by a multiplier to reflect the excellent result they obtained.  Rakoff used the 1.78 multiplier Pomerantz, Labaton and Motley Rice had originally suggested, when they analyzed lodestar billings as a cross-check on their fee request for the 9.4 percent of the settlement, the percentage Pomerantz had negotiated with lead shareholder USS.

Lieberman told me he’s distressed at the short shrift Judge Rakoff gave to Pomerantz’s fee agreement with its client and believes that, in the long run, disregarding such agreements undermines the legitimacy of class actions.  Federal judges, as the class action bar is all too aware, are pushing for more transparency in these cases, pressing for details on relationships between lead plaintiff candidates and their firms, referral fees paid to firms that don’t have a role in the litigation, and dubious dismissals.  Lieberman said judges should similarly recognize that arms-length fee agreements between institutional investors and their lawyers enhance the professionalism of the class action bar.

“Fee awards can’t be random in high-stakes litigation.  It shows a lack of respect for the process, to just say, ‘Oh, I’ll figure it out afterwards,’” Lieberman said.  “If you want class action work to be taken as a serious industry, you have to have a systematic way to assure in advance how lawyers will be paid.  If we’re trying to clean up the business, let’s clean it up in all ways.  No more randomness at the end.”

Lieberman said he believes Judge Rakoff acted with good intentions.  He also acknowledged the inescapable truth of the judge’s point that he’s awarding a tremendous amount of money to plaintiffs’ firms.  (Rakoff’s exact words: “It is important to also remember that we are dealing here, not just with percentages, billable rates, and multipliers, but with very large amounts of money in absolute terms that plaintiffs’ counsel will be receiving under any analysis.”)

But he said – and this is a legitimate point – that disregarding lead plaintiffs’ pre-negotiated fee agreements can distort the way class counsel litigate a case.  “I was thinking for three years my fee agreement was going to be honored,” he said.  “The future of our firm was on the line.  We did that because we thought our agreement with the client would be honored.”

For a contrary take, I went to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which filed a thought-provoking objection to the Petrobras settlement, protesting class counsel’s fee request, among other things.  In an email responding to Lieberman’s argument, CEI lawyer Anna St. John said it’s important to remember that USS isn’t the only client in this class action, which is being settled on behalf of all Petrobras shareholders.  USS, St. John wrote, “is just one of more than 1 million potential class members who are the clients that Pomerantz is supposed to represent,” she said in her email.  “That agreement also does not protect those absent class members, who like in this case, are taken advantage of when lawyers seek to recover windfall hourly rates.”

CEI’s objection urged Judge Rakoff not to defer to the USS fee agreement because the class as a whole didn’t negotiate the deal and wasn’t apprised of its terms.  “If it fails to preclude a windfall hourly rate, then it does not satisfactorily protect the class’s interests,” the filing said.  “Class counsel fear that there is no value to ex ante vetting if courts can ‘simply upend (agreements) by the subjective post hoc determinations.’ Not so; a negotiated fee can reasonably serve as a ceiling even if it is inappropriate to employ it as a floor.”

Judge Rakoff’s award of $186.5 million, as I mentioned, was based on lodestar billings by class counsel, but he used a very unusual process to review their bills.  Rather than appoint a special master – presumably at the expense of class members – to comb through the timekeeping records submitted by plaintiffs lawyers, the judge asked defense lawyers for Petrobras and its auditor to do it.  “The court took this step because of defendants’ intimate knowledge of various aspects of the case, and the court’s confidence was rewarded by the highly professional way in which defendants’ counsel undertook their court-directed task,” he wrote.

Defense lawyers found some hinky charges, like the seven days a contract attorney claimed to have spent reviewing the third amended complaint – after the complaint had been filed.  Class counsel voluntarily adjusted their lodestar report to eliminate some of the questionable hours uncovered by the defense firms but protested other supposedly inflated charges.

Judge Rakoff then waded into the time records himself.  He ended up focusing on class counsel’s $28 million in billing for foreign contract lawyers who cannot practice in New York and nearly $100 million in bills for contract lawyers.  He shifted the foreign lawyers’ bills to a reimbursable litigation cost (which means no multiplier) and cut contract lawyers’ fees by 20 percent. He also imposed an additional 50 percent cut on bills by contract lawyers acting as translators.  Those cuts brought the total lodestar down from $159.5 million to $104.8 million.  When the judge applied the 1.78 multiplier, the total came to the aforementioned $186.5 million.

Judge Rakoff said any more would be a “windfall” to plaintiffs lawyers who were already “highly incentivized to heavily litigate this huge case regardless of the expected fee award.”  Jeremy Lieberman begs to differ.

Judge Wants Detailed Billing Records in Anthem Data Breach Class Action

June 15, 2018

A recent The Recorder story by Ross Todd, “Judge Again Says She’s ‘Disappointed’ in Plaintffs Lawyers in Anthem Data Breach Case ,” reports that the federal judge overseeing litigation targeting Anthem Inc. with data breach claims on continued her grilling of plaintiffs lawyers who represent the health insurer’s customers about the number of firms who worked on the case.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh asked lead plaintiffs counsel, Eve Cervantez of Altshuler Berzon and Andrew Friedman of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a string of detailed questions about which lawyers submitted bills on work settling the litigation, who defended depositions of name plaintiffs and who handled basic discovery tasks.  Koh previously grilled the lead plaintiffs for having 49 other firms beyond those on the four-firm plaintiff steering committee she appointed.

After Cervantez said that 27 firms had worked on the “crisis” of getting through millions of pages of discovery, Koh stopped the plaintiffs lawyer.  “Is that how you run most of your cases?  You have 27 firms doing document review?” the judge said.

Cervantez said it didn’t matter who did the work or the firm where they practiced, but “were the hours expended reasonable.”  “How is that consistent with the conversation that I had with you and Mr. Friedman at the selection of counsel hearing?” asked Koh, who initially trimmed the lead plaintiffs proposed six-member steering committee to two firms.

Plaintiffs struck a $115 million settlement deal with Anthem last June, which included a proposed $38 million in attorney fees, or 33 percent of the total settlement.  The deal provided two years of credit monitoring and identity protection services to Anthem customers whose personal data was compromised in the 2015 breach, and creates a $15 million fund to reimburse customers for things such as falsified tax returns.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Class Action Fairness filed an objection last year on behalf of Adam Schulman, an attorney at the Washington, D.C., organization, partially because of the fee request.  Schulman claimed fees should be closer to $13.8 million and questioned why 49 other firms not appointed by the court stood to earn a total of $13.6 million in fees as part of the settlement.

Koh told plaintiffs counsel that she was “deeply disappointed” about the number of firms brought on to handle the case at a hearing in February.  At Schulman’s request, she appointed a special master, retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg, to comb over the fee request.

Kleinberg, who is now a mediator and arbitrator at JAMS, pointed to duplicate efforts and excessive billing rates for contract lawyers in suggesting in April that the fee award be trimmed to $28.59 million. 

Koh didn’t tip her hand on where she will ultimately come out on the fee request, but she did indicate that she’ll rule on final approval of the deal by late July.  She asked the plaintiffs to hand over detailed records about document review, depositions and post-settlement work.

“I would like to be able to see who did what work when at what hourly rate and for how many hours,” she said.  “I think I’ve already indicated that I’m disappointed, but it is what it is.”