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Category: Fee Request

$175M in Attorney Fees in $10B VW Settlement

March 22, 2017

A recent Courthouse News Services story by Nicholas Iovino, “Lawyers Share $175M Payday in VW Settlement,” reports that a federal judge awarded $175 million in attorneys’ fees and costs to lawyers that helped secure a $10 billion settlement in the Volkswagen diesel-gate scandal.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer approved the $10 billion package in October 2016 as part of a larger $15 billion deal, which included $4.7 billion in air quality improvement programs to mitigate the impact of cars that violated emissions standards.

The $15 billion deal was the most costly settlement Volkswagen has paid thus far for its use of emissions-cheating software in some 11 million cars worldwide.  The German automaker has paid more than $20 billion in U.S. civil settlements and criminal fines, and U.S. prosecutors have charged six of its executives over their roles in the scandal.

As part of the $15 billion deal approved last year, Volkswagen agreed to spend up to $10 billion buying back or modifying nearly 600,000 2-liter diesel engine vehicles tainted by defeat devices.  Defeat devices allowed the cars to mask emissions during tests while spewing up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide on the road than allowed under federal law.

Breyer found $167 million in attorneys’ fees and $8 million in costs requested by the plaintiff class lawyers was “reasonable and fair” given the “extraordinary result” achieved for the class.  The judge said the settlement put owners of affected vehicles back into the same position they were in before the scandal was made public in September 2015.  Volkswagen offered to buy back cars based on their pre-public scandal value or to repair them with EPA-approved emissions-reducing modifications.

Awarded attorneys’ fees make up 1.7 percent of the $10 billion settlement package.  The award will be shared among 21 law firms that made up the plaintiff class steering committee, headed by lead counsel Elizabeth Cabraser of Lief Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

The lawyers and their staff worked 98,000 hours litigating the case and negotiating the settlement.  They expect to spend an additional 21,00 hours processing claims over the next 26 months, according to Breyer’s March 17 ruling.

The average hourly rate for class attorneys’ work was $529, amounting to a $63.5 million lodestar, or total cost of litigation hours.  Breyer found applying a 2.63 multiplier to the lodestar was justified given “the complexities of this case and the extraordinary result achieved for the class.”

Lead attorney Elizabeth Cabraser said in an emailed statement, “The award will be allocated by lead counsel among firms who performed authorized common benefit work, based upon relative value of contributions to the case and time that was reported and complied with guidelines set forth by the Court.  These fees will not be deducted from any class member’s recovery amount.”

Judge Reduces Fee Request in Rita’s Water Ice Class Action

March 21, 2017

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by P.J. D’Annunzio, “Lawyers Want $1M Fee, Get $651K in Rita’s Class Action,” reports that the attorneys handling the Rita's Water Ice class action over the company sending unsolicited text messages asked for $1 million in fees, but a federal judge said that price is too steep.

On March 16, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted class counsel's request for $40,000 in expenses and $10,000 in incentive awards, but denied their request for $1 million in legal fees, instead awarding them $651,000.  That reduced fee represents roughly 22 percent of the litigation's settlement fund.

According to Savage's opinion, more than 110,300 people are eligible for a piece of the $3 million settlement fund, and of those noticed, roughly 25,500 filed valid claims.  "The amount each class-member claimant will receive is not significant, but rather modest," Savage said, and because there were more claimants than class counsel had anticipated, each would get less than previously thought.

"Counsel claim that they extracted the largest settlement possible for the class in light of Rita's ability to pay," Savage said.  "Yet, rather than adjust the attorney fees to increase the amount available to the class, counsel propose a lesser recovery for the class members."

The class action was filed in 2015 by Sherry Brown and Ericka Newby.  The two claimed that Rita's sent them "Cool Alerts" text messages announcing when certain water ice flavors and other products were available at local stores.  They alleged that the lists were generated using a database of telephone numbers that the owners did not provide to Rita's.  They also claimed that they kept receiving messages after texting "STOP" in response to the texts' instructions to stop receiving future notifications.

A settlement agreement was reached between the parties in March 2016 and was approved by the judge shortly thereafter. Brown and Newby received $5,000 each as class representatives.

Nortel Creditors Challenge $4M in Fees in Chapter 11 Case

March 20, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Matt Chiappardi, “Nortel Creditors Seek $4M Cut to Indenture Trustee Fee Bid,” reports that two hedge funds that held senior notes issued by a Nortel Networks Inc. unit pushed the Delaware bankruptcy court to cut their indenture trustee’s roughly $8 million attorney fee request in half, arguing that Delaware Trust Co. didn’t properly discharge its duties.

During a daylong hearing in Wilmington, PointState Capital LP and Solus Alternative Asset Management LP argued that roughly $4 million of Delaware Trust’s fee request comes from work connected to the defunct telecom’s official committee of unsecured creditors, the massive allocation dispute to decide how to divide $7 billion in sale proceeds among Nortel’s global units, fighting to protect its legal fees, or other duplicative efforts, none of which benefited the noteholders directly.

The hedge funds argued that as an indenture trustee, Delaware Trust has a duty of undivided loyalty to its constituency, but didn’t manage its professionals in such a way that limited the scope of their work to tasks directly benefiting the noteholders, and is looking for an outsized fee that doesn’t comport with its role in the case.

Arguing for the hedge funds, attorney James C. Tecce of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP stressed that the dispute was not about the “qualifications, caliber or integrity” of the counsel Delaware Trust retained, but how the trustee chose to utilize them and whether the fee request, some of which could be taken out of their recoveries, now pending is reasonable.

“This is not an objection we took lightly,” Tecce told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross.  “The duty was not properly discharged … [professionals] were not managed in a way to avoid duplicating expenses.”  Delaware Trust countered that its fee bid was indeed reasonable, calling the Nortel case “unprecedented, complex and massive,” and arguing that it, and its predecessor Law Debenture Trust Co. of New York, “carried the torch” for the noteholders throughout the eight-year-long case.

Decisions about where to focus efforts were prudently made on a day-to-day basis throughout the case, and that work ultimately led to the noteholders receiving a full recovery on their roughly $300 million in claims, Delaware Trust attorney Daniel A. Lowenthal of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP said in court.  “The irony is that now that they are receiving a 100 percent recovery, they now object to the amount of the work done,” Lowenthal said.  “These are the same holders who demanded we not sit on the sidelines.”

The issue stems from an objection the hedge funds lodged against Nortel’s Chapter 11 plan, which Judge Gross confirmed in January, not to the strategy itself, but to the fees, and how it plays out could have wide-reaching implications for indenture trustee fees in bankruptcy cases.

Indenture trustee attorney fees that are not covered by a debtor’s estate are typically paid by the noteholders or charged against their recoveries, but the hedge funds argue that the full amount of such costs are not reasonable when the indenture trustee is also working as a member of a statutory committee with different or overlapping constituents.

The hedge funds additionally argue that the indenture trustee is mischaracterizing its arguments, claiming that they object to its decision to sit on the unsecured creditors committee when they only take issue with charging fees for work there.  They also contend that the indenture trustee hadn’t kept the hedge fund in the loop about the expenses, only springing them at the end of an eight-year case.

Delaware Trust took issue with that argument, asserting that the noteholders were informed about the expenses at periodic intervals during the case.  Judge Gross did not rule, but did question whether the hedge funds were engaging in a “hindsight exercise.”  He said he would issue a decision in writing shortly.

The fee dispute is only one of several vestiges left hanging after Nortel came to a major peace deal that allowed for confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan earlier this year for a case that has been pending since 2009.  The major sticking point was how to divide more than $7 billion raised in asset sales, a good potion of it intellectual property transactions, among the various Nortel units around the globe, a dispute that was adjudicated through an unprecedented simultaneous cross-border trial in Delaware and Toronto in 2014.

Professional fees throughout the case have been estimated to exceed $2 billion, making it one of the most expensive Chapter 11 cases in history.  The case is In re: Nortel Networks Inc. et al., case number 1:09-bk-10138, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.

Judge Highlights Excessive Billing in Sprint Litigation

March 15, 2017

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Joe Palazzolo and Sara Randazzo, “One Lawyer, 6,905 Hours Leads to $1.5 Million Bill in Sprint Suit,” reports that, Alexander Silow, a contract lawyer for a Pennsylvania plaintiffs’ firm, clocked 6,905 hours of work on a shareholder lawsuit against former executives and directors of Sprint Corp. related to its 2005 merger with Nextel.  Averaging about 13 hours a day, Mr. Silow reviewed 48,443 documents and alone accounted for $1.5 million, more than a quarter of the requested legal fees, according to court documents.

“Unbelievable!” is how Judge James Vano in Kansas described the billing records.  And he meant it.  “It seems that the vast amount of work performed on this case was illusory, perhaps done for the purpose of inflating billable hours,” Judge Vano, who sits in Olathe, Kan., wrote in a Nov. 22 opinion.

Courts often slash what they see as excessive billing in securities and other litigation, but rarely are they so scathing, legal experts said.  Judge Vano’s ruling might have gone unnoticed but for a recent disclosure about Mr. Silow by the law firm where he worked: He was disbarred in 1987 and practiced law illegally for decades.

The revelation, contained in a February letter to Judge Vano, could ​rupture​ a settlement in the Sprint case, and provide grist for corporate groups and others that have highlighted alleged abuses in the civil-justice system, fueling current momentum for legislative change.

A Republican bill passed by the House of Representatives would make it harder to file class actions, curtailing lawyer-driven litigation that provides little benefit to shareholders and consumers, its supporters say.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer-rights advocates say the legislation would reduce access to the courts and blunt litigation that has improved corporate governance and forced companies to pull unsafe drugs and faulty products from shelves.

Courts regularly bless multimillion-dollar fee awards in recognition of the risk plaintiffs’ firms take by fronting the costs for litigation.  But fee experts said bill-padding is pervasive in class actions and shareholder suits because billing records aren’t reviewed by clients and are scrutinized only when a judge needs to approve a settlement or award fees after trial.

William G. Ross, a law professor at Samford University in Alabama who has written two books on attorney billing, said his most recent survey of lawyers showed that two-thirds were personally aware of bill-padding and more than half admitted they sometimes performed work they otherwise wouldn’t have done had they been charging a flat fee.

Mr. Silow had been working as a contract attorney for at least eight years when staffing agency Abelson Legal Search placed him at the Weiser Law Firm PC in Berwyn, Pa., in 2008, according to a Feb. 3 letter from the firm to Judge Vano.  The law firm was contacted last month by a third party it declined to name and learned that no one with Mr. Silow’s name was listed in a state database of licensed lawyers, Robert B. Weiser, co-founder of the firm, said in the letter.

Mr. Weiser said Mr. Silow presented himself to the firm as Alexander J. Silow, but “was in actuality named Jeffrey M. Silow” and confessed he had been disbarred when the firm confronted him, the letter said.  The firm has since ended its relationship with Mr. Silow and alerted authorities, it said.

Pennsylvania’s attorney discipline office confirmed Mr. Silow was disbarred in 1987 but could provide no additional information.  Mr. Silow didn’t respond to emails and calls seeking comment.  Abelson Legal Search didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Weiser said in the letter that his firm stands by the accuracy of Mr. Silow’s billing records in the Sprint lawsuit, which alleged the company directors and officers concealed problems created by the merger with Nextel.  The company posted a nearly $30 billion loss as a result of the deal.

The lawsuit sought to claw back profits from former Sprint directors and officers, who it accused of incompetence and self-dealing.  But a settlement reached last year was more modest.  Sprint agreed to changes to its corporate governance and the composition of its board of directors.

Judge Vano approved the deal in his November ruling but slashed the proposed legal fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys from $4.25 million to $450,000.  “The focus appears to have been upon an easy, cheap settlement in the first instance,” Judge Vano wrote.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers—Mr. Weiser’s firm, Florida lawyers Alison Leffew and Bruce G. Murphy and the Kansas City firm Dollar Burns & Becker LC—have appealed Judge Vano’s ruling on the fees.  They argued the results of the settlement, rather than the hours billed, justified the amount sought.

In court documents, Mr. Weiser and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers representing a Sprint shareholder said Mr. Silow’s “extensive document review” enabled them to make “well-informed decisions.”

Michael Hartleib, a Sprint shareholder who objected to the settlement, asked the Kansas appeals court last month to return the case to Judge Vano’s court so he can reconsider the deal in light of the new evidence showing Mr. Silow had no license to practice law.

MetLife Faces $6.2M in Attorney Fees

March 9, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Bonnie Eslinger, “MetLife Faces $6.2M in Atty Fees Over Ponzi Scheme Ruling,” reports that a California judge tentatively ordered MetLife Inc. and various subsidiaries to pay $6.2 million in attorneys’ fees on top of a $7.2 million judgment in a “hotly contested" case blaming the insurer for the loss of a retired woman’s savings in a Ponzi scheme.

Christine Ramirez claimed the insurer and its subsidiaries, along with an agent who ran MetLife’s Los Angeles operations, sold her unregistered securities alongside her insurance policies.  Those unregistered promissory notes put her money into an alleged $216 million Ponzi scheme, the suit said.

In August, a jury found the defendants liable for Ramirez's losses in the amount of $240,000 and awarded her $15 million in punitive damages saying MetLife owed $10 million, unit MetLife Securities owed $2.5 million and unit New England Life Insurance Co. owed $2.5 million.  A state court judge subsequently reduced the award to $7,196,710, telling Ramirez that if she didn’t consent to the remittitur, he would grant the insurer's motion for a new trial on grounds of excessive punitive damages.

A hearing was held on Ramirez’s motion for attorneys' fees of $7 million.  At the start, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kenneth Freeman issued a tentative written ruling, shaving fees related to attorney hours spent working on a separate, related case against MetLife, in which Ramirez was a putative class member, but finding the time invested in the case to be reasonable.

“In assessing reasonableness, the time required by the opposing party's tactics may also be highly probative,” Judge Freeman wrote in his written tentative opinion.  "Here, it goes without saying that this case was, and remains, very hotly contested.  The MetLife defendants litigated their clients’ case extensively, and there were never any frivolous arguments raised.”

The judge also doubled Ramirez’s lodestar attorneys' fees figure of $3,112,138, saying the requested 2.0 multiplier is appropriate in light of the novelty of the issues presented in the case, the skill of counsel, the extent that the case precluded the attorneys from taking on other clients, and the fact that the case was taken on a contingency basis.  Additionally, the results achieved in the litigation were notable, the judge said, even with the award reduction.  “The significant result warrants a multiplier in this case,” he wrote.

During oral arguments, an attorney for MetLife, Cheryl Haas of McGuireWoods LLP, disputed that any multiplier should be awarded, calling the $6 million a “windfall.”  “A multiplier is simply not justified,” Haas said.  “The prevailing party is only entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees.”

Judge Freeman said he would issue a final ruling after he considered supplemental filings from the parties, but he didn’t offer much hope for a different outcome.  "The tentative is very clear on the court’s reasoning and frankly I doubt there’s anything you’re going to offer in the way of a supplemental brief that will change the court’s tentative,” the judge said.

The case is Hartshorne et al. v. MetLife Inc. et al., case number BC576608, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.