A recent Law 360 story by Ryan Boysen, “Ex-NFLers Blast Seeger Weiss for Concussion Holdback Fees,” reports that retired NFL players and law firms active in the historic concussion settlement are raising alarms over Seeger Weiss LLP's request to levy a 5% fee on injured players' payouts to fund its future work on the case, calling it a cynical cash grab that's unsupported by facts. Seeger Weiss has already faced years of attacks accusing the firm of burning through the lion's share of a $112 million attorney fee fund with hardly any oversight. A series of opposition briefs filed reiterated concerns over an alleged lack of transparency in Seeger Weiss' billing practices and argued the stakes of the latest request are even higher than the previous ones.
The $112 million fund was paid for by the NFL, but the money Seeger Weiss is now requesting would come from the injured players themselves, as well as their lawyers, in the form of a 5% haircut levied on the awards of all players who successfully get paid from the uncapped settlement program. That haircut has already been applied to the roughly 1,150 players who've had $788 million worth of claims approved thus far, resulting in $37 million sitting in an account and awaiting a decision by U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody. If she grants Seeger Weiss' request, that money would be released and the haircut would also be applied to all players who get paid in the future. Seeger Weiss said it anticipates it will need between $2 million and $2.5 million per year to cover the costs of its settlement-related work.
The lawyers behind the filings said that, if granted, the 5% haircut would essentially reward Seeger Weiss for spending the NFL's money as quickly as possible by allowing the firm to collect millions of dollars from the concussion settlement annually for the rest of the program's lifespan, 61 years, even as the work required to oversee the case declines precipitously going forward.
The objecting firms are Locks Law Firm, Langfitt Garner PLLC, Girardi Keese, Lubel Voyles LLP and Goldberg Persky & White PC, as well as a handful of retired players who are not represented by counsel and are led by Mary Andrie-Brooks. An outspoken critic of the settlement, Brooks is the daughter of famed defensive end George Andrie, a member of the Dallas Cowboys' legendary Doomsday Defense who died in 2018.
Gene Locks of Locks Law Firm served alongside Seeger Weiss' Chris Seeger as co-lead class counsel in the case until last year, when Judge Brody abruptly terminated Locks and all of the other lawyers in that role except for Seeger. In an interview, Locks said Seeger's latest request makes no sense. "Chris Seeger has submitted no budget for this whatsoever," Locks said. "It's an open-ended annuity for his firm for the next 61 years." "Ninety-eight percent of the work in this case is done," Locks added. "It's outrageous to continue to bill for whatever's left at the rates he's seeking, while providing no details whatsoever as to why it's actually necessary."
Seeger has vehemently denied all the allegations in previous attacks on his fee requests, saying his detractors fail to appreciate the immense amount of work it takes to oversee the complicated and contentious settlement. Touting the nearly $800 million paid out by the program thus far, Seeger said in a statement that the haircut is "appropriate as it will ensure work performed by any firm over the settlement's 65-year life is compensated fairly."
Any money generated by the haircut would almost certainly be available only to class counsel, however. That means only Seeger Weiss would have access to the money because it is the only remaining class counsel firm, although Seeger Weiss said in its request that it may hand off that role to another firm at some point. The settlement was approved in 2015 and put to rest claims that the NFL knew for decades about the long-term dangers of repeated concussions, but did nothing to warn its players.
The uncapped program covers a class of about 20,000 retired NFL players, all of whom are potentially eligible for payments ranging from a few thousand dollars to $5 million, depending on their age and the severity of their football-related brain injuries. The $112 million common benefit fund was set up to pay attorneys for work that broadly benefits the class as a whole, as opposed to work that involves shepherding a single player's claim through the Byzantine program.
After the settlement was finalized, mass tort fee expert William B. Rubenstein of Harvard Law School said the $112 million fund should be enough to cover class counsel fees for the program's 65-year lifespan, which began counting down in 2017. But just three years into that timeline, only $13 million remains in the fund. That number will be further reduced to $6 million if Seeger Weiss' pending fee requests for about $7 million are granted.
Seeger Weiss has already taken home roughly $66 million from the fund, while about 20 other firms split approximately $33 million for their work on bringing the deal to fruition. The 5% haircut fee was conceived of as a Plan B, something that could be tapped into if class counsel costs exceeded Rubenstein's predictions.
In his request, Seeger said Rubenstein's predictions were unrealistic and estimated that he will continue to spend between $2 million and $2.5 million per year on concussion settlement-related work for the foreseeable future. The 5% haircut, he said, is the only way to make sure he's paid for that work.
The firms that filed opposition briefs, however, said Seeger has presented no evidence whatsoever to back up that assertion. Seeger's request runs 51 pages, but nearly all of that space is spent rehashing the work he's already done on the settlement. The firms opposing the 5% haircut said that's highly misleading because the number of new claims being submitted by players has slowed "to a trickle," and all of the major issues that initially sparked major battles between players' attorneys and the NFL have now been settled, for better or for worse.
"Seeger continues to bill hours upon hours for work that seems to be making no impact on the greater good," Locks Law wrote. The attorneys that oppose Seeger also said an analysis of his previous fee requests seems to indicate he's dramatically marking up the hourly rates charged by his attorneys. Langfitt Garner said Seeger appears to be charging $260 an hour for paralegals and about $485 an hour for associates, roughly 10 times the going rate for both roles in Manhattan, one of the nation's priciest legal markets.
"These numbers suggest mark-ups that are no longer reasonable in light of the fact that class counsel has already received fees in excess of $63 million, and the fact that class counsel now demands that pro se players and counsel to players pay its fees and expenses," Langfitt Garner wrote in its opposition.
Langfitt Garner said Seeger Weiss should only receive 20% of the $37 million that's currently been collected from the 5% haircut, and the rest should be returned to players. Going forward, Seeger Weiss should only receive a 1% haircut rather than 5%, Langfitt Garner said, and even that should only be done as a last resort. The firm added that Seeger Weiss should be required to submit a detailed budget plan if it wants to access any of that money, a request echoed by other firms that filed opposition briefs.