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Category: Fee Recommendation

Ninth Circuit: $6M Fee Award Does Not Create ‘Windfall’

April 12, 2021

A recent Metropolitan News story, “$6 Million Attorney Fee Award Would Not Create ‘Windfall’,” reports that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, has reversed an order for a $4 million payment to the attorneys for the plaintiffs in a class action against Experian Information Solutions, Inc., a consumer credit reporting company, that resulted in the creation of a $24 million settlement fund, holding that the District Court judge failed to adequately explain why he was departing from the standard 25 percent cut for the lawyers.  Signing the majority opinion were Ninth Circuit Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz and Sixth Circuit Judge Eugene E. Siler, sitting by designation. Judge Daniel P. Collins dissented.

The settlement was reached in a case that was initially dismissed with prejudice by the judge then handling it, Andrew J. Guilford of the Central District of California, now retired.  After the Ninth Circuit on May 17, 2019, reversed the dismissal, Guilford certified a class of about 100,000 persons whose credit histories were damaged by reports of unpaid debts to a loan company, although the debts were disputed and the company, which was facing possible criminal prosecutions, had gone out of business.

The defendant, headquartered in Orange County’s City of Costa Mesa, agreed to a settlement of the action brought against it by Demeta Reyes, a resident of Georgia, under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”).  Replacing Guilford as the judge presiding in the case was Stephen V. Wilson.  An award of 25 percent of the recovery—which would be $6 million—would give the lawyers a windfall, noting that the lodestar value of their services was $2,085,843.50.

To award them $6 million, he noted, would mean use of a multiplier of 2.88, while an award of $4 million would entail “a more reasonable lodestar multiplier of 1.92.”  “By any measure, class counsel was successful,” Hurwitz and Siler wrote in a memorandum opinion.  They quoted an expert witness as saying that the settlement’s “structure...is the FCRA gold standard,” with class members each receiving a check for at least $270 without having to make a claim.

“To reach that result, class counsel assumed significant risk,” the majority opinion says, noting that contingency representation stretched over a four-year period, counsel advanced more than $100,000 in costs and expenses, and other work had to be declined.  “Experian deleted more than 56,000 delinquent loan accounts after this litigation began,” the opinion notes.  “Before deletion, those delinquent accounts depressed class members’ credit scores.”

 It goes on to say: “The 16.67% fee award falls below the market rate fee award in FCRA class action settlements. And no windfall is apparent.  Assuming a 25% award, the lodestar crosscheck returns a multiplier of 2.88. Similar lodestars are routinely approved by this court.”

It adds: “The district court’s reliance on megafund and wage and hour cases to find a windfall for class counsel was somewhat inappropriate here.  First, megafund cases are usually those with settlements exceeding $100 million….Here, the settlement is about a quarter of that.  Megafunds are more often a reflection of class size than class counsel’s efforts….Moreover, the complexity of this case is similar to a wage and hour dispute the district court cited where a 2.87 lodestar multiplier was approved, but not the ‘ordinary wage-and-hour dispute’ that the district court also cited.”  The memorandum opinion does not expressly direct an award of $6 million, instead remanding “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

Collins said in his dissent: “The majority nonetheless concludes that the district court abused its discretion because the settlement here was under $100 million and because multipliers of 2.88 or more have been allowed in other cases….But the fact that we have upheld higher multipliers in some cases does not mean that district courts lack discretion to conclude that a lower multiplier would be more reasonable in a given case.  By essentially ordering the district court to allow this high multiplier, the majority usurps the discretion that we have said belongs to the district court.

“Because the district court had discretion to conclude that a benchmark award that was nearly three tunes the lodestar amount would be unreasonable, and that a smaller (but still generous) multiplier was more appropriate, the district court did not abuse its discretion by ordering a $4,000,000 fee.”  Guilford set forth Reyes’s factual contentions in his order certifying the class.

Lieff Cabraser Can’t Freeze $1M Fee Reduction During Appeal

March 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Brian Dowling, “Lieff Cabraser Can’t Freeze $1M State St. Fee Cut Amid Appeal,” reports that Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP failed to persuade a Massachusetts federal judge to freeze $1.1 million of its fee slated for repayment in the wake of an overbilling scandal connected to a $300 million settlement with State Street Corp.  The firm, one of three ordered to repay seven-figure sums to the settlement fund, had sought to keep the money in escrow as it asks the First Circuit to review Senior U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf's reallocations of the fee award.

Denying Lieff Cabraser's motion in a 57-page order, Judge Wolf said the firm isn't likely to succeed on appeal and also faces no threat of irreparable harm if the money isn't frozen.  Instead of facing the tough odds of potentially having to recoup distributed settlement funds from the class, Lieff Cabraser would get any increase ordered by the First Circuit from its co-counsel, Labaton Sucharow LLP and Thornton Law Firm LLP.

Labaton Sucharow and Thornton received the bulk of the blame for improprieties and overbilling practices and repaid much higher sums to the settlement fund when Judge Wolf slashed the fee award from $75 million to $60 million in February 2020.  The two firms did not appeal the reallocation but supported Lieff Cabraser's request for a stay, Judge Wolf noted.

"The repeated, egregious misconduct of Labaton and Thornton alone caused the court to decide that it was most appropriate to award $60,000,000," Judge Wolf said. "If the court had allocated an additional $1,140,000 to Lieff, it would have reduced the awards to Labaton and Thornton by that amount."

Judge Wolf disputed Lieff Cabraser's arguments that the court violated noticing requirements in sanctioning it with the lower fee award.  There was no sanction, Judge Wolf said, just the court taking into account "proven misconduct of Labaton and Thornton in deciding to make a new fee award."  The court explained that its review of the attorney overbilling referred to Lieff Cabraser's conduct as "deficient" rather than as "misconduct" delineating that the firm's shortcomings were not critical to the new lower fee award.

The underlying suit, filed in 2011, alleged that Boston-based State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade. State Street settled the claims in 2016 for $300 million.  Judge Wolf approved the initial $75 million fee in 2016 but vacated that order after allegations of double-billing surfaced in a 2016 Boston Globe report.  He appointed retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen as a special master to investigate the fee.  The firms admitted to overstating their billing but contended the $75 million fee was still proper.

Judge Rosen in 2018 recommended the firms disgorge just over $10 million, but Judge Wolf's 160-page order in late February ruled that the cuts should be even deeper and took the firms to task in the process.  Also before Judge Wolf is a legal fight between Thornton and its liability insurer over whether the company, Continental Casualty, can avoid covering the firm's attorney fees stemming from the court-ordered overbilling probe.

$503M Syngenta Attorney Fee Dispute Moves to Tenth Circuit

March 12, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Cara Salvatore, “10th Circ. Wary of Moving $503M Syngenta Fee Brawl, reports that law firms vying for slices of a $503 million fee award from a Syngenta megasettlement over a GMO seed launch told the Tenth Circuit they're being stiffed while other plaintiffs' firms overpay themselves, but the panel questioned whether the tangled issue is even ripe for appeal.  The panel heard more than three hours of arguments on the long-ago-predicted war among lawyers for farmers who sued Syngenta over its premature introduction of modified seeds that led to China slamming its doors to all U.S. corn, affecting even farmers who never used the seeds.

The $1.5 billion settlement resolved cases in federal and state courts, but there are now sub-battles between plaintiffs' counsel that have been placed into a Kansas bucket, an Illinois bucket, a Minnesota bucket, and an IRPA bucket — for independently retained attorneys, as distinct from class counsel.  But lawyers representing these independent plaintiffs say their thousands of cases helped drive Syngenta to settle, and they've appealed their allotment to the 10th Circuit.

In the Kansas bucket, two groups called the Toups/Coffman lawyers and the Hossley-Embry lawyers say they put in work reasonably worth $25.17 million, but have been allocated the equivalent of pennies.  Eric Alan Isaacson, a lawyer representing Toups/Coffman and Hossley-Embry, told the panel, "Mitch Toups' law firm put 20,000 hours into the case, and Richard Coffman's law firm put 13,000 hours into the case. ... Divide those 33,000 total hours by 9,000 clients, you've got less than four hours apiece. That is a reasonable amount."

But those firms were neither class counsel nor lead counsel for a bellwether federal trial or uncompleted state court trials in Minnesota, said U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Bacharach.  They also weren't coordinating as class members do; they "were litigating individual cases," he said.  "They were spending these thousands of hours in a very inefficient way, that's my point," the judge said.  Isaacson pushed back. "Having individual actions was an important part of the pressure that was put on Syngenta.  Special Master [Ellen] Reisman found it was an important part of effecting the settlement," he said. "You need to pay the lawyers at least their lodestar."

In March 2019, a judge adopted five lead firms' recommendation on how to allocate $247 million of the money, including their recommendation that $214 million go to them.  U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum agreed to a six-tier structure proposed by those firms, under which the remaining $33 million would be split among 59 other firms.  The top-tier firms are multiplying their own lodestars by three, a grossly excessive self-payment, Isaacson told the panel.

Judge Lungstrum gave 49% of the fee payout to the Kansas bucket because that money was "going to be covering the allocations to lawyers like Toups/Coffman, who had thousands of clients in Illinois state court.  And then [the other plaintiffs' lawyers] turn around and take the time and the hours they've been talking about and give themselves the money," Isaacson said.  But all three members of the panel saw a fly in the ointment, first noticed by U.S. Circuit Judges Carolyn McHugh and Jerome Holmes.

"We don't know yet what the sum certain is for any of the attorneys in this case, because we don't know what the allocation is yet for the IRPA pool," said U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn McHugh.  "That raises the issue of whether we have jurisdiction over these appeals," U.S. Circuit Judge Jerome Holmes chimed in a minute later.  "There's been a lot of ink spilled; there's been a lot of hours from talented counsel spent on this appeal.  If we determine that we don't have appellate jurisdiction over this, what is our option?"  "One option — it may be the draconian one, but it may be the necessary one — is to dismiss these appeals," Judge Holmes continued. "What are we to do?"  Isaacson said they could simple abate the appeal — that is, put it on ice.

Bradley Wilders of Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP, representing a group of plaintiffs' firms that favor the current fee allocations, said the $60.4 million IRPA bucket payouts are basically a clerical problem done according to formula.  "There is a sum certain as to the three jurisdictional pools; there's no argument on that," he said.  But regardless, he said a minute later, "I do think you have the authority to abate" the appeal.  Whatever happens, the status quo shouldn't be reversed, Wilders said.

"No one was better equipped than the special master who oversaw the settlement negotiations and the three trial judges ....in three jurisdictions to make these particular findings," he said.  Wilders also cast doubt on Isaacson's group's lodestar.  "They only served 870 plaintiff fact sheets ... out of their 9,000 clients, yet they report 22,000 hours on plaintiff fact sheet work," he said.  "They reported $687 an hour for the task of file management."

$1.2B Valeant Settlement Earns Robbins Geller $157M Fee Award

February 2, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Dean Seal “Final OK on $1.2B Valeant Deal Earns Robbins Geller $157M”, reports that a New Jersey federal judge gave final approval to a $1.2 billion settlement of an investor action against Valeant Pharmaceuticals, landing lead counsel Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP a hefty payday.  U.S. District Judge Michael A. Shipp overruled objections from two investor plaintiffs when he granted a special master's recommendation to approve the deal reached in December 2019 between investors and the pharmaceutical company that became known as Bausch Health Cos. Inc. in 2018.

The nearly five-year-old lawsuit claimed Valeant used a clandestine network of pharmacies to push high-priced drug prescriptions, sending the stock plummeting once price-gouging allegations surfaced.  Investor plaintiff Cathy Lochridge had lodged an objection to the 13% attorney award for Robbins Geller and local lead counsel Seeger Weiss LLP, arguing that the $157.3 million request was too high considering that the settlement "captures just 3% of class damages," but Judge Shipp said it was also the ninth-largest securities class action recovery ever.

"As Lochridge correctly notes, 'what is important is that the district court evaluate what class counsel actually did and how it benefited the class,'" the judge said.  "Here, lead counsel obtained a $1.21 billion all-cash recovery for the benefit of over 400,000 members."

The stock-drop litigation represents consolidated claims by investors who saw Valeant's stock price slide from more than $250 a share in 2015 to below $10 two years later.  The company has been fined by regulators and sued by investors who said it defrauded the market.  Investors claimed that Valeant had employees work under aliases for a company called Philidor Rx Services LLC that used deceptive practices to block generic alternatives from competing with Valeant's branded drugs.  Valeant allegedly duped insurers by changing prescription codes to ensure they were filled with Valeant-branded drugs and making claims for unrequested refills, investors said, and covered up the scheme by lying about the pharmacies' ownership and issuing a series of false statements to investors.

In December 2019, Bausch announced that it had agreed to resolve the case with a $1.21 billion settlement while admitting no liability and denying all wrongdoing.  Last June, a special master issued a report recommending final approval of the settlement, plan of allocation and attorney fees and expense reward, leading to objections from two plaintiffs.

The first, from brokerage firm Timber Hill LLC, objected to the settlement itself as well as the plan of allocation, arguing against the plan's imposition of an "arbitrary" 5% recovery cap on options investors while permitting common stock and debt investors to take the remaining 95%.  The cap demonstrated that options investors were not adequately represented in the settlement, Timber Hill said, asking that the cap be increased to around 9.5%.

Judge Shipp overruled the objection, saying that Timber Hill's expert had originally supported an options cap in the 5% range and that he found the plan to be "fair, reasonable and adequate."  The second objector, Lochridge, had asked that the attorney fee award be reduced to 6% of the settlement fund, or around $72.6 million, arguing that "this is the lowest ever return on class damages for a billion-dollar securities settlement."

Judge Shipp disagreed, saying Lochridge's low recovery argument was based on "new and inconsistent" analysis from Timber Hill's expert and speculation that Valeant could have agreed to a higher settlement amount despite its uncertain financial position.  The judge also found that the hefty settlement fund and low number of objectors and opt-outs weighed in favor of approving the award, as did the complexity and duration of the litigation and lead counsel's devotion of more than 75,000 hours to the case.

Lieff Cabraser to Appeal Attorney Fee Reduction Before Paying It

January 27, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Chris Villani, “Lieff Wants To Appeal $1M State St. Fee Cut Before Paying It,” reports that Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP asked a federal judge to hold off on ordering the firm to pay out a $1.1 million chunk of its fee for work on a years-old $300 million settlement with State Street Corp. so it can ask the First Circuit whether the repayment is justified.  In the latest salvo stemming from revelations of overbilling and other improprieties largely laid on its co-class counsel, Labaton Sucharow LLP and Thornton Law Firm LLP, Lieff Cabraser told U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf that once the money goes out, the firm is not likely to get it back.

Lieff Cabraser is appealing its part of the overall fee reduction order by Judge Wolf that slashed the tab owed to it, Labaton Sucharow and Thornton Law from $75 million to $60 million.  "Under the fee order, absent a stay, Lieff Cabraser's escrowed funds will be distributed to the class before the First Circuit can rule on the firm's appeal from the court's decision to penalize Lieff Cabraser," the firm said.  "Recovering those funds from the class, once distributed, will be impossible — effectively mooting the appeal."

But the vast majority of the money ordered repaid can go out right away, Lieff Cabraser argued, so the class of consumers who alleged they were swindled by State Street and Employee Retirement Income Security Act lawyers who worked on the case can get the rest of the money without any delay.  Putting a pause on the $1,139,4572 of Lieff Cabraser's money would not inconvenience anyone in line for a payout since it would take some time to distribute the funds even if the firm was not appealing, it said.

"Complete settlement distributions — especially those involving settlement funds in the hundreds of millions of dollars — commonly take years, not months," the firm said.  The case has wound through the court system since the suit, led by the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System, was first filed against State Street in 2011.  The parties reached a $300 million settlement and Judge Wolf approved a $75 million fee in 2016.  The order was vacated after allegations of double-billing surfaced in a Boston Globe report.

Judge Wolf appointed retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen as a special master to investigate, and the probe ran up a seven-figure tab paid by the firms under investigation.  In a February order, Judge Wolf took Labaton Sucharow and Thornton Law to task, saying they repeatedly violated the rules of professional conduct by overbilling and failing to disclose a $4.1 million finder's fee paid to a lawyer who did not work on the case.  Lieff Cabraser's appeal is the only one to come from Judge Wolf's order and challenges a narrow set of issues pertaining only to findings related to the firm and alleged violations of Rule 11, which concerns representations made to the court in civil cases.

Judge Wolf indicated he would retain counsel to represent himself and his order before the First Circuit, but no attorney appearance has been entered on the First Circuit docket and no one filed an opposition to Lieff Cabraser's appeal.  It was also unclear, both to Lieff Cabraser and to the First Circuit, whether Judge Wolf's order last February was "final."  The firm told the appellate court it felt it had to treat the February order as "final" lest it lose the chance to appeal altogether, but Judge Wolf entered a "final judgment" on Jan. 19 of this year and Lieff Cabraser acknowledged to the First Circuit that the question of whether an actual appealable order existed last summer was murky.

In September, the First Circuit said it would dismiss the appeal without prejudice, writing that "the district court appears to have simultaneously treated its order as both final and non-final; that is, the court sought to retain counsel to file a brief in this court in support of its order and at the same time has issued several post-fee orders, the cumulative effect of which may well be to alter the fee ruling."  With the final judgment entered, Lieff Cabraser plans to revive its appeal, which has centered on due process issues and is a matter of first impression in the circuit.

A strict adherence to notice requirements in Rule 11 matters is necessary, Lieff Cabraser argued, because "sanctions imposed on the court's own motion circumvent the adversarial process, putting the district court in the position of being the 'accuser, fact-finder and sentencing judge all in one.'"  Five circuits, the firm has argued, have found that sanctions like the ones imposed by Judge Wolf are problematic "when a court fails to set out the precise issues to be considered."

"This issue has not directly been addressed by the First Circuit," the firm said, "although the circuit has noted that 'judges must be especially careful where they are both prosecutor and judge.'"  The underlying suit alleged Boston-based State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade.  The law firms admitted to overstating their billing but contended the $75 million fee award initially approved by Judge Wolf was still proper.  The special master, Rosen, recommended in 2018 that the firms disgorge just over $10 million, but Judge Wolf's 160-page order in late February ruled that the cuts should be even deeper.