February 16, 2021
A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Litigation Funder Wants Cut of $350M Shire Deal,” reports that law firm lender Counsel Financial Services asked a Florida federal judge for permission to intervene in a dispute over divvying up attorney fees from a $350 million whistleblower settlement with biotech company Shire, alleging the law firm Barry A. Cohen PA should be forced to direct any fees it receives to pay back a $43.8 million line of credit.
Counsel Financial says it loaned money to the Cohen firm in February 2009 in exchange for a secured interest in the firm's assets, which includes legal fee proceeds. In January 2019, the company obtained a $43,778,684 judgment against the Cohen firm, which previously represented whistleblower Brian Vinca in his suit against Shire.
"Counsel Financial thus has an interest in the legal fees that will be awarded to [the Cohen firm] in this action," the company said in the motion. "Consequently, Counsel Financial seeks to intervene to ensure that its interest in the legal fees obtained by [the Cohen firm] in connection with this matter are rightfully directed by this Court to Counsel Financial directly from the court registry."
The motion is the latest development in a fight over fees from the $350 million settlement, which was announced in August 2016 and resolved claims stemming from Shire's sales and marketing practices around Dermagraft, a skin substitute the company picked up when it acquired Advanced BioHealing Inc. — now known as Shire Regenerative Medicine Inc. — as part of a $750 million deal in 2011. Vinca and co-plaintiff Jennifer Sweeney filed the first of the six False Claims Act suits against Shire that led to the settlement.
Kevin J. Darken, who represents Vinca's former counsel, says Vinca's current attorneys, Noel McDonell of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen and Bryen Hill of Mahany Law, have tried to cut him and the Cohen firm out of a fee award. Darken has asked the court to disqualify McDonell and Hill for allegedly using stolen confidential emails to challenge the charging lien filed by Darken, Cohen and Saady & Saxe PA for a cut of the attorney fees.
McDonell and Hill have accused Darken and Kevin M. Cohen, the representative for Barry Cohen's estate, of conspiring to a fee-splitting scheme of the proceeds. Vinca, who fired his attorneys in March 2018, is suing Darken, the Cohen firm and Saady & Saxe for malpractice, claiming they cost him the full whistleblower's cut of the Shire settlement. Vinca claims his former counsel's failures forced him to share the whistleblower award of the Shire settlement with the five other relators who filed FCA suits after he did.
Generally, the first whistleblower to file gets about 20% of the government's recovery, and any subsequent whistleblowers do not receive a cut. But in this case, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. decided to divvy up the proceeds, in part because of deficiencies in the initial eight-page complaint from Vinca and Sweeney, according to McDonell. Vinca and Sweeney shared more than $50 million from the settlement, while the other whistleblowers shared approximately $30 million.
The six whistleblower lawsuits that led to the settlement all alleged misconduct by Shire from 2007 through the beginning of 2014, including that it paid illegal kickbacks to get health care providers to use or overuse Dermagraft, marketed Dermagraft for uses not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, inflated the price of the drug and spurred the coding of Dermagraft-related reimbursement claims for payouts higher than what was appropriate.
McDonell told Law360 that Counsel Financial's claim has no bearing on this lawsuit because Vinca was not a party to the financing contract between Counsel Financial and the Cohen firm. "As Magistrate Judge Porcelli noted in June of 2019, the matter at issue is the merits of a charging lien filed against relator Brian Vinca by former counsel, and to what extent compensation is appropriate," McDonell said. "Accordingly, on behalf of Brian Vinca, we are confident that CFS has, as Judge Porcelli so aptly put it, 'no dog in this fight.'"