Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Category: Fees & Common Fund

$203M Attorney Fee Request in Flint Water Settlement

March 10, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Plaintiffs Counsel in Flint Water Settlement Seek $200M in Attorney Fees,” reports that plaintiffs lawyers who obtained a settlement in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis litigation are asking for more than $200 million in attorney fees.  The request, outlined in the filing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, is part of a $641.25 million settlement with the state of Michigan, former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the city of Flint and several individual government defendants.

The fee request would include an estimated $40.6 million in common benefit fees to lead counsel and others who spent five years litigating both a class action and individual cases.  The fees also would provide a fee award to class counsel and cap contingency rates of individually retained counsel at 27%.  In all, the fees could total nearly $203 million, according to the motion.

“Plaintiffs’ counsel have worked on a contingency basis for more than five years now, without compensation of any kind, to achieve this remarkable result,” the fee motion says.  “The fee proposal is designed to provide reasonable and fair compensation to plaintiffs’ counsel and to ensure equitable treatment for all who make claims under the settlement.”  U.S. District Judge Judith Levy has scheduled a fairness hearing, including potential approval of the fees, for July 12.

In April 2014, state officials decided to shift Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River despite studies warning the corrosive nature of the river water could send lead into the drinking water.  Early on in the litigation, co-lead counsel Ted Leopold, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and Michael Pitt, of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni & Rivers in Royal Oak, Michigan, had a protracted fight with co-liaison counsel Hunter Shkolnik, of New York-based Napoli Shkolnik, over potential fees.  Meanwhile, the Flint water cases dragged through several procedural hurdles, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversing some key rulings.

The partial settlement, filed in court Nov. 17, excludes two engineering firm defendants and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  On Jan. 21, Levy preliminarily approved the settlement, 79.5% of which provides a compensation fund for minors.  The settlement also includes subclasses of adult residents, businesses and property owners.  Signing the fee motion were lawyers at 20 law firms, including Leopold, Pitt, Shkolnik and co-liaison counsel Corey Stern, of New York’s Levy Konigsberg.

The motion requests a 6.33% common benefit assessment, divided equally between co-lead counsel and co-liaison counsel, with higher percentages imposed on lawyers retained after July 16, 2020.  Lead counsel said they provided $7 million upfront expenses and invested 182,571 hours of work—about $84 million in an estimated lodestar, which is the billing amount multiplied by the hourly rate.  The requested fees, which are more than double the lodestar, are justified given the length and risks of the case, the number of defendants, the complexity of the issues and litigation that involved more than a dozen appeals, Leopold said.  “The work speaks for itself,” he said.

The fee motion says lawyers with individual cases would have a 27% cap on their contingency fees.  Michigan law caps contingency fees at one-third of a recovery amount.  “For the vast majority of the cases and the lawyers who did not work on the common benefit, we didn’t think it would be fair to the clients to take 33%,” Leopold said.

The fee request also takes into account the fact that the work isn’t over.  Levy has scheduled the first bellwether trials to occur in October.  Many of the settlement’s beneficiaries also are minors who do not have lawyers and will need help from lead counsel during the claims process, Shkolnik said.  “There’s going to be a whole new round of work that’s going to be done for individual cases to process them as if we represent them,” he said.

Class Counsel Spar Over $800M in Fees in Roundup MDL

March 8, 2021

A recent WSJ story by Sara Randazzo, “Roundup Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Spar Over $800 Million in Fees,” reports that plaintiffs’ firms that led the legal campaign against Bayer AG are fighting over $800 million in fees from the Roundup weedkiller litigation, arguing that they deserve a bigger slice of one of the largest-ever corporate settlements than firms that joined later.

The high-stakes dispute is coming to the fore eight months after Roundup’s maker, Bayer, announced that it would pay up to $9.6 billion to resolve 125,000 cancer claims brought by dozens of law firms.  The fee fight underscores increasing tension between law firms that do the in-court work necessary to win cases and those that advertise to sign up scores of clients.

The Roundup deal isn’t a single, all-encompassing pact that needs signoff from a court but instead a series of confidential settlements between Bayer and the many law firms with eligible clients.  Some of those firms spearheaded the litigation, but most signed up clients later in the process, building on work already started.

Six law firms appointed by a federal court as leaders in the litigation are asking a judge to set aside 8.25% of the Bayer settlements into a fund to be distributed among those firms and others that handled the brunt of the work.  Under their proposal, those firms would get a share of the fund and reap whatever fees they agreed upon with their clients.  Plaintiffs' lawyers often take a cut of more than 30% from such settlements.

The leadership firms, led by Andrus Wagstaff PC, Weitz & Luxenberg PC and the Miller Firm, argue that they invested at least $20 million and years of time to build a case linking Roundup to cancer.  They described the common-benefit fund as a sort of “tax” on law firms that waited until the litigation was successful before getting involved.

Several law firms have objected, saying the court doesn’t have the power to create the common fund—estimated at $800 million.  They say the leadership team is trying to double-dip, speculating that their confidential deals with Bayer are already more lucrative than those that other firms received.  “They’ve already been adequately compensated multiple times over,” Melissa Ephron, a Texas lawyer objecting to the extra fees, said at a virtual court hearing on the matter.

The confidential nature of Bayer’s settlements means the public is unlikely to know each law firm’s take and how much money the affected plaintiffs who blame their cancer on Roundup use will personally receive.  Bayer hasn’t conceded that its weedkiller can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and will continue to sell the product without a cancer-warning label.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco, who oversees around 4,000 Roundup cases filed in federal court, raised doubts that he has the authority to require every law firm striking a deal to give up 8.25%.

“They all got their settlements because you achieved such a good result.  There’s no question about that,” he said during the hearing, but added that he wasn’t convinced it was appropriate for the leadership to get a windfall.  The fight highlights a dynamic playing out more in recent years in large cases alleging harms from drugs or everyday products.  A sophisticated ecosystem of advertisers and marketers sign up plaintiffs in bulk and pass them off to lawyers who file claims in court, often with little vetting on the strength of the cases. The rising number of plaintiffs can help pressure companies to settle.

The lead lawyers for Roundup plaintiffs pointed to this dynamic to bolster their argument for why they deserve more money than the more than 500 other law firms with Roundup clients.  After the lead firms had some key early success in the litigation, “a tsunami of advertising resulted in thousands of new lawsuits filed by law firms that had hedged their bets,” the leadership team wrote in a January filing.

Working Paper: Judicial Guide to Awarding Attorney Fees in Class Actions

March 7, 2021

A recent Fordham Law Review working paper by Brian T. Fitzpatrick, “A Fiduciary Judge’s Guide To Awarding Fees in Class Actions (pdf),” considers the fiduciary role of judges in awarding attorney fees in class action litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  Professor Fitzpatrick concludes his article:

If judges want to act as fiduciaries for absent class members like they say they do, then they should award attorneys’ fees in class actions the way that rational class members who cannot monitor their lawyers well would do so at the outset of the case.  Economic models suggest two ways to do this: (1) pay class counsel a fixed or escalating percentage of the recovery or (2) pay class counsel a percentage of the recovery plus a contingent lodestar.  Which method is better depends on whether it is easier to verify class counsel’s lodestar (which favors the contingent-lodestar-plus-percentage method) or to monitor against premature settlement (which favors the percentage method) as well as whether it is possible to run an auction to determine the market percentage for the contingent-lodestar-plus-percentage method.  The (albeit limited) data from sophisticated clients who hire lawyers on contingency shows that such clients overwhelmingly prefer to monitor against premature settlement, since they always choose the percentage method.  Whether the percentage should be fixed or escalating depends on how well clients can do this monitoring.  Data from sophisticated clients shows both that they choose to pay fixed one-third percentages or even higher escalating percentages based on litigation maturity just like unsophisticated clients do, and they do so even in the most enormous cases.  Unless judges believe they can monitor differently than sophisticated corporate clients can, judges acting as good fiduciaries should follow these practices as well.  This conclusion calls into question several fee practices commonly used by judges today: (1) presuming that class counsel should earn only 25 percent of any recovery, (2) reducing that percentage further if class counsel recovers more than $100 million, and (3) reducing that percentage even further if it exceeds class counsel’s lodestar by some multiple.

Brian T. Fitzpatrick is a professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville.

Lead Counsel Defends $800M Fee Request in Roundup MDL

February 19, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Lead Counsel in Roundup MDL Defend $800M Fee Request,” reports that lawyers defending as much as $800 million in proposed common benefit fees from settlements with Monsanto insisted that the law firms objecting to their request had painted “an incomplete and inaccurate picture” of the Roundup litigation.  More than a dozen law firms had objected to the fee request, with one of them calling the request a “money grab” by lead counsel in the multidistrict litigation.  In a response, lead counsel insisted that the award was justified.

They said Bayer, which owns Monsanto, would not have entered into settlements last year but for their work, which included obtaining three Roundup verdicts.  “The pleadings and affidavits submitted by the objectors present an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the Roundup litigation,” they wrote.  “The simple fact remains that all Roundup attorneys and plaintiffs have benefitted from MDL leadership’s efforts—irrespective of whether or where their cases are filed or unfiled and whether their individually retained attorneys have cases pending in the MDL, have formally availed themselves of MDL work product, or have entered into a formal participation agreement.”  Lead counsel are Robin Greenwald, of Weitz & Luxenberg in New York; Michael Miller, of The Miller Firm in Orange, Virginia; and Aimee Wagstaff, of Andrus Wagstaff in Lakewood, Colorado.

Bayer announced in June that it planned to settle about 125,000 Roundup claims for an estimated $10.9 billion, which included a class action settlement that lawyers later withdrew.  The settlements were not part of a global agreement, however.  Lawyers, including lead counsel, conducted their own negotiations, which have been confidential, and many cases remain unsettled.

In a Jan. 11 motion, lead counsel sought an 8.25% assessment on Roundup settlements to pay for fees and expenses spent on the “common benefit” of all lawyers.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California, overseeing the Roundup multidistrict litigation, filed a Jan. 26 order asking lawyers to address four questions about the holdback request, including whether it is even necessary and, if so, how much, and whether it should be lower than the proposed 8% in fees and 0.25% in expenses.  He also asked whether he could issue a holdback “without understanding how much of a premium co-lead counsel has already received on their settlements compared to the typical settlement.”

Several firms criticized the request, particularly on top of an estimated $2 billion in attorney fees they claimed that lead counsel made from contingency fee contracts associated with their own cases, which settled last year for greater amounts than Monsanto is now offering.

In their response, lead counsel noted that the proposed holdback includes an assessment on their own cases, and would compensate about 20 firms not in leadership.  They also said that the assessment pertained only to about 400 law firms that had done one of the following: had at least one case pending in the multidistrict litigation, signed a participation agreement, used “work product” in the multidistrict litigation, or sought help from Kenneth Feinberg, the special master, in settlement negotiations.

“The circumstances of this litigation warrant an expansion of the current scope of the holdback to encompass the entire universe of settlements, because all Roundup plaintiffs have undoubtedly benefited from the efforts and expenditures of common benefit attorneys,” they wrote.  “Indeed, the extensive work that this court has conducted in issuing opinions and managing the litigation have had a direct effect on each and every Roundup case or claim, irrespective of whether or where an attorney might have filed his or her cases.”  Many of the objecting firms had insisted they did not use discovery in the multidistrict litigation and that lead counsel purposely kept the experts to themselves.  Lead counsel countered that they had made work product available on a firm website and provided a “trial package” and experts.

Addressing the objections of specific firms, lead counsel said that Beasley Allen had a pending case in federal court that is part of the trial pool and had coordinated with Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the lead counsel firms, to obtain experts in its state court cases.  Beasley Allen also had asked for an 8% holdback in the multidistrict litigation against Johnson & Johnson over talcum powder, they wrote.  They also attacked the objections of The Lanier Law Firm as “untrue and baffling” given that the firm reached out to lead counsel to retain their experts for upcoming Roundup trials in Missouri state courts.  The Lanier Law Firm also had sought a 10% holdback in multidistrict litigation over DePuy Orthopaedics’ Pinnacle hip implants.

In an email, W. Mark Lanier called the comparison “apples and oranges,” given the amount of work done in the hip implant cases, and disputed claims that he used experts from the multidistrict litigation.  “I find the pleading and allegations a bit baffling as well,” he wrote. “I personally had been told most every expert was being pulled by MDL leadership, and non-MDL cases would have to find their own experts.”  Chhabria has scheduled a March 3 hearing on the fee dispute.

Fee Dispute Looms Over $800M in Fees in Roundup MDL

February 5, 2021

A recent Law.com story by ‘Money Grab’: Objections Fly Over $800M in Fees for Lead Counsel in Roundup MDL”, reports that lawyers are pushing back against a request in the multidistrict litigation over Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide to turn over portions of their settlement amounts to provide lead counsel with what some estimate to be $800 million in attorney fees.  More than a dozen firms with thousands of lawsuits across the country, including Beasley Allen, The Lanier Law Firm and Gibbs Law Group, filed objections to a Jan. 11 motion that lead counsel filed asking for an 8.25% assessment on their Roundup settlements to pay for fees and expenses spent on the “common benefit” of all lawyers.

Many said the holdback for so-called common benefit fees equates to $800 million for lead counsel—what one attorney called a “colossal amount.”  “This court should not condone what is essentially nothing more than a money grab,” said Karen Barth Menzies, of Gibbs Law Group in Oakland, California, who filed an objection on behalf of her firm and two others.  Menzies insisted that the $800 million is on top of an estimated $2 billion in attorney fees that lead counsel made from contingency fee contracts associated with their own cases, which they settled last year for greater amounts than Monsanto is now offering.

In June, Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, announced it planned to settle about 125,000 Roundup claims for an estimated $10.9 billion.  The agreements were not part of a global settlement, however.  Lawyers have conducted their own negotiations, which have been confidential, and many cases remain unsettled.  Many lawyers objecting to the common benefit fee assessment argue that lead counsel settled their own cases for much more than everyone else.

“Now you have a defendant who’s offering people $45,000 for a cancer case,” said Hunter Shkolnik, of Napoli Shkolnik.  His New York firm filed an objection with appellate attorney Thomas Goldstein, of Goldstein & Russell in Washington, D.C.  “And there was no common benefit tax associated with those initial billions of dollars in cases that were settled,” Shkolnik said.  “They intentionally did not tax their own cases and put them into the fund.  You now have the next series of cases settling at much smaller amounts, and they’re seeking 8% common benefit.”

Lead counsel—Robin Greenwald, of Weitz & Luxenberg in New York; Michael Miller, of The Miller Firm in Orange, Virginia; and Aimee Wagstaff, of Andrus Wagstaff in Lakewood, Colorado —declined to comment about the objections.  They are due to respond Feb. 18.  In their request, lead counsel noted that the proposed holdback, of 8% in fees and 0.25% in expenses, includes an assessment on their own cases.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California, overseeing the Roundup multidistrict litigation, has his own questions—including whether a holdback is even necessary and, if so, how much it should be.  On Jan. 26, he asked lawyers to address four questions he had about the lead counsel’s request, including whether he could issue a holdback “without understanding how much of a premium co-lead counsel has already received on their settlements compared to the typical settlement.”  He also asked, “If a hold-back is truly warranted, why shouldn’t it be much lower than the 8% requested by co-lead counsel?”

The objections are the latest dispute among plaintiffs lawyers over common benefit fees, used to reimburse lead counsel in multidistrict litigation for costs and fees associated with discovery, trials and settlement.  Much of that work ends up benefiting lawyers not in leadership positions in the event they want to pursue trials or settlements of their own cases.

In their fee motion, however, lead counsel emphasized that six firms, including their own, did most of the work in the Roundup litigation, including in state courts.  Other firms, they noted, did not want to take the risks early on in the litigation.  “The world was watching this litigation; there can be no doubt that it was high risk for contingency fee lawyers, which explains why all the heavy lifting and lion’s share of litigation costs and risks were left to the MDL leadership,” they wrote.

A “tsunami of advertising” following their big wins, such as the Roundup verdicts in 2018 and 2019, led to thousands more cases filed by “law firms that hedged their bets and previously sat on the sidelines,” they wrote.  “That argument doesn’t at all describe us,” said Rhon Jones, of Beasley Allen in Montgomery, Alabama, who filed an objection to the holdback.  “We very much want to try our own cases and work our own cases, so I don’t see where any of that applies to Beasley Allen.”

Many of the objectors, like Beasley Allen, have cases in state courts that they say are not subject to multidistrict litigation—a response to one of Chhabria’s questions asking whether the holdback should apply to state court cases.  Jones estimated that as much as 90% of the cases over Roundup are in state courts. His own firm, he said, has only six cases in the multidistrict litigation, but 2,000 in state courts, mostly in Missouri.

Many firms argued that Chhabria, as a federal judge, did not have jurisdiction over state court cases, particularly where plaintiffs firms that did not sign any participation agreements with lead counsel.  “We’re not saying they didn’t do good work—there is going to be a common benefit order in the Roundup case,” said Shkolnik, who said he has 100 Roundup cases in the multidistrict litigation but several thousand lawsuits in state courts in Missouri.  “I just question whether or not the court has jurisdiction to apply to purely state court cases.”

Not only did some law firms claim they did not use discovery obtained in the multidistrict litigation, but they insisted that lead counsel purposely kept the experts to themselves and attempted to get other lawyers to refer cases to them.  Several firms submitted declarations, including Mikal Watts, of Watts Guerra in San Antonio, and W. Mark Lanier, of The Lanier Law Firm in Houston, stating they not request help from lead counsel in the multidistrict litigation.  Watts and Lanier both noted, however, that leadership also did not offer them “a trial packet, discovery documents, transcripts, or any other MDL work product,” according to their declarations.

In his objection, filed on behalf of her own firm and seven others, Arati Furness, of Dallas-based Fears Nachawati, wrote that lead counsel “refused to help any of the Roundup victims they do not represent,” and some even solicited referrals from other firms “to enhance their own settlements.”  “In some instances,” she wrote, lead counsel “attempted to push firms into settlements with threats that they were going to be left out in the cold with no experts, no depositions, and no trial package.”  Chhabria has scheduled a March 3 hearing on the fee dispute.