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Category: Lodestar Crosscheck

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.

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.

$110M Fee Request Trimmed in $650M Facebook Biometric Settlement

February 26, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “$650M Facebook Privacy Deal OK’d, $110M Atty Fees Trimmed,” reports that a California federal judge praised a $650 million settlement resolving claims that Facebook's facial recognition technology violated Illinois users' biometric privacy rights, calling it a "landmark result," but he trimmed the $110 million requested attorney fees to $97.5 million.  U.S. District Judge James Donato gave his final stamp of approval to the multimillion-dollar deal resolving claims under the "new and untested" Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, calling it a major win for consumers in the "hotly contested" area of digital privacy.

The settlement will put at least $345 each into the hands of 1.6 million class members who filed claims, according to the order, and Facebook has agreed to set its "face recognition" default setting to "off" for all global users and delete all existing and stored face templates for the class members.

But Judge Donato also cut back the $110 million in attorney fees that class counsel at Edelson PC, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP and Labaton Sucharow LLP asked for, saying the $650 million size of the settlement fund is not a typical case that warrants the use of a 25% contingency fee as a benchmark.  The judge said in this case it would be more appropriate for him to adjust the benchmark percentage or employ the lodestar method instead to avoid "windfall profits" for class counsel.

"To be clear, the court recognizes the skill, dedication and hard work class counsel brought to this case and their clients," Judge Donato said.  "The fact that the court cannot in good conscience award fees on the presumption of a 25% contingency cut should not be read as detracting from that in any way."

"It is simply a matter of fairness and proportion," the judge said.  He said a 25% presumption is just too big to be applied to a settlement fund as large as this one.  The class counsel spent more than 30,103 hours on the case, according to the order — including 9,577 hours by Robbins Geller, 8,103 hours by Labaton Sucharow and 12,423 hours by Edelson.

The judge adjusted the percentage rate from 16.9% of the settlement fund to 15%, giving the class counsel $97.5 million in attorney fees, according to the order.  The judge said he also cross-checked that number with a lodestar calculation and found the award to be more reasonable than the one requested.  But the judge said 15% of the attorney fee award will be held back pending further order.  He granted the class counsel's request for $915,000 in expense reimbursement, finding sufficient documentation, according to the order.

The judge also reduced the incentive awards for the three class representatives — Nimesh Patel, Adam Pezen and Carlo Licata — from the requested $7,500 each to $5,000 each, saying that even though the requested amount would be a "minuscule proportion" of the settlement, it's still too high in comparison to the amount other class members will receive.

Judge Donato praised the parties' "proposed array of innovative ways to reach class members" and notify them of the settlement, including by direct email, Facebook's newsfeed notifications, publication in Illinois newspapers, a settlement website and an internet ad campaign.  "These were robust measures, and they paid off in spades," the judge said.

Apple Challenges $87M Fee Request in iPhone Settlement

February 18, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Apple, Ky. AG Rip Class Attys’ $87M Fee Bid in IPhone Deal,” reports that Apple and the Kentucky attorney general joined objectors in urging a California federal judge to reject class counsel's $87.7 million fee bid for cutting a $310 million deal resolving claims over slowed iPhones, slamming it for being millions above the benchmark and padded by unsupported rates.  During a three-hour hearing, Christopher Chorba of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, counsel for Apple, argued that awarding the fee request would set a "very bad precedent" because class counsel overlitigated the case and shouldn't be awarded for its conduct.

He also said it would result in a net reduction of between $19 and $20 for class members who would otherwise receive more than $100 per claim.  Chorba also argued that class counsel failed to go through the factors warranting its large fee request and that its lodestar calculation is unsupported by the billing submissions.  "We're not saying they shouldn't get any fees," Chorba said.  "The fees are just so outside the norm and so in excess of what would be appropriate."

If approved, the settlement would resolve dozens of consumer protection lawsuits that were filed in 2018 after Apple admitted to issuing software updates that slowed certain iPhones.  The suits allege that Apple designed its software updates to slow down some phone models, nudging consumers to buy newer iPhones.

In May, Apple reached a deal to settle the case for $500 million but objected to the plaintiffs' request for $87 million in attorney fees, asking the court to cut it down by at least $7 million.  Since the settlement was announced, dozens of people have objected, arguing that it doesn't do enough for class members and doles out too much to class attorneys.  In December, the federal government also made clear in a filing that it does not object to the proposed settlement itself but views the fee request as over the top.

During a hearing on the deal's final approval, class counsel Mark Molumphy of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy LLP argued that the fee award is warranted because the case was exceptional and the risks were great, particularly since the plaintiffs' firms were working on a contingency basis.  He also noted that it's the "first and largest" settlement of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claims at issue and that class counsel secured significant recovery that's nearly half of the potential $1 billion damages at issue.

Molumphy argued that a 28% fee award is supported by a lodestar cross-check for the three years of litigation, which included "World War III" discovery, 18 motions, including a motion to dismiss, and what he called Apple's unreasonable litigation demands.  "Frankly there was no roadmap.  There's not a case in which there was a government investigation or plea.  We were the leaders in this case," he said.  "We created a roadmap for others, including government investigation that followed us."

But Apple, the state of Kentucky and multiple class members objected to the size of the fee award and how class counsel proposed to calculate it.  Four attorneys representing objecting class members argued that the 3.5% claims rate was "puny" and the fee request should not be based on the initial $500 million deal because Apple is only paying $310 million due to the low claims rate.

The objectors also argued that a fee recovery of between 10% and 18% is more in line with case precedent, and they slammed class counsel for not submitting detailed billing.  They said the information class counsel provided appears to inflate the hourly rate of staff attorneys to $350 per hour when those attorneys likely received less than $50 per hour for their work and that it appeared to include work by dozens of attorneys who weren't authorized to bill for their time.

John Pentz, counsel for two objectors, pointed out that the alleged billing padding caused U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh to "hit the roof" when she presided over Anthem's $115 million data breach deal, and noted that of the eight contract attorneys billed by Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP only one is listed on the firm's website.  He also said class counsel didn't explain why those who first filed lawsuits in state court were entitled to a cut of the fees.

Another attorney, Robert William Clore of Bandas Law Firm PC, argued on behalf of objector Alexis West that based on class counsel's own information, the aggregate potential damages at issue were over $4 billion, not $1 billion, and the $310 million represents only 5% of the potential $4 billion damages.

Philip R. Heleringer of the Office of the Kentucky Attorney General echoed other objectors' comments and emphasized that the court has a fiduciary duty to step in for absent class members in situations in which there is a "tension" between class counsel and class members.  Heleringer pointed out that in In re. Yahoo litigation, a court rejected a fee request that had a $10 million discrepancy between the lodestar and fee request, but class counsel's fee request in this case is five times larger than the lodestar.

Heleringer also argued that the settlement does not guarantee class members will receive $310 million.  He said the court should use base lodestar without a multiplier.  He added that there are no rare or exceptional circumstances here and that it's not enough that class counsel is going up against a well-heeled, well-resourced opponent to warrant a multiplier or that it's fighting on a contingent basis, particularly since 81 firms initially filed lawsuits over it.

Ninth Circuit Clarifies Fee Calculation Method in Class Coupon Settlements

November 11, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dave Simpson, “9th Circ. Nixes $14.8M Atty Fees in Dishwasher Defect Deal,” reports that the Ninth Circuit sent back a lower court's approval of $14.8 million in fees for the attorneys representing a class of millions of owners of allegedly defective Sears and Whirlpool dishwashers, ordering it to determine the value of the settlement, which provides coupons to much of the class.

In a unanimous, published decision penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth K. Lee, the panel said that while U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin was right to approve the California federal court settlement, the attorney fees were off-base.  He shouldn't have used a lodestar-only calculation, or a calculation based on attorneys' hours worked and their rates, for the coupon portion of the settlement, the panel said.  The judge should have, instead, attempted to determine the value of the coupons and based the attorney fees on that calculation, the panel said.  They remanded the approval of the attorney fees and ordered the judge to recalculate.

Further, it said, the judge was wrong to multiply the attorneys' lodestar by 1.68, disagreeing with, among other things, the judge's lauding of the settlement as "impressive."  "While observing that the parties' respective valuations of the settlement ranged from $4,220,000 to $116,700,000, the court declined to determine where in that spectrum the actual value fell," the panel said.  "Given this enormous spread, without at least estimating the settlement value, the court could not have conducted the necessary evaluation between 'the extent of success and the amount of the fee award.'"

In the case of California residents David and Bach-Tuyet Brown, their KitchenAid dishwasher overheated while they were sleeping in April 2010, filling the house with smoke and causing them to spend $70,000 to replace the entire kitchen and to lose an additional $3,000 in rental income as a result of having to vacate the property for three weeks, according to the complaint.

In September 2015, the parties reached a proposed settlement that was open-ended and involved several elements for owners, court records show. If a person had already had to repair their unit, they would get $200, or more if they saved their repair receipt showing they paid more to have it fixed, according to the deal.  And Sears and Whirlpool also agreed to repair dishwashers that weren't even part of the class but also had fire problems, according to filings in the case.

In August 2016, the lawyers duked it out in court over whether the $15 million fee request baked into the settlement up for final approval was too much. Attorneys for Sears and Whirlpool said that the plaintiffs' attorneys had worked hard, but deserved a fee award of $2 million to $3 million.  The requested amount, the defendants said, would dwarf the benefits received by the class.  The class lawyers fought back, saying the potential value of the uncapped deal was enormous and may cover between 15% and 20% of all U.S. households.

In October 2016, Judge Olguin shut down arguments by Sears Holdings Corp. and Whirlpool Corp. that attorneys at the five firms that worked to litigate the case and reach a deal last year over the allegedly defective washers were asking too much, finding that the arrangement the lawyers reached for the class — cash payments to owners of Kenmore, KitchenAid and Whirlpool home dishwashers to cover repairs or rebates toward buying a new model, plus some insurance-like deals and other protections — was highly beneficial.

The panel quickly shot down the attorneys' arguments that the Class Action Fairness Act is preempted by corresponding state law, noting that the plain language of CAFA makes clear that its attorney fees provisions top any state laws and apply to all federal court class actions.  "Indeed, it would be highly incongruous for Congress to expand federal jurisdiction for class action lawsuits based on diversity jurisdiction, but then in the same statute prevent CAFA's attorney's fee provisions from applying in those diversity jurisdiction-based cases," it said.

The panel then pointed out that precedent mandates the use of a percentage-of-value calculation for any "portion" an award "attributable to the award of the coupons."  The court's decision to use a lodestar calculation for the coupon portion of the deal was, therefore, an error, the panel found.  The panel also shot down the plaintiff attorneys' argument that the settlement provides a "rebate" rather than a "coupon."  It is a coupon, "despite the settlement agreement's refusal to use that term," the panel said.

"To use the 'rebate,' class members must spend hundreds of out-of-pocket dollars to purchase a new dishwasher," the panel said.  "And the rebates expire in 120 days, a third of the useful life of the [credits].  Given that a dishwasher typically lasts at least several years, most consumers likely will not redeem their coupons within 120 days."

Finally, the panel turned to the 1.68 lodestar multiplier, finding that the judge wrongly included the value of the coupon portion of the settlement in determining the 1.68 multiplier for the lodestar value, and also several of its reasons for enhancing the attorney fees cannot be justified, the panel said.  The judge was wrong, for instance, to find that the case was "undesirable" for attorneys to pursue, noting that this very notion is undercut by the fact that five different law firms pursued the claims for many years.

"If the mere fact that the defendants are 'large corporations' were sufficient, then most class action fee awards would automatically qualify for enhancement — contrary to the rule that multipliers are for 'rare and exceptional circumstances,'" the panel said.  "In practice, deep pockets often create an incentive to sue, particularly in the class action context."

The district court had said that the wide gap between the parties' estimated valuations for the deal meant that any attempt to determine a value of the deal "would be imprecise to the point of uselessness."  The panel ordered the court to attempt to determine a value for the deal and to consider whether, as Whirlpool argues, a negative multiplier should apply to the attorney fees.

"It becomes even more critical to crosscheck the lodestar valuation if the parties present widely divergent settlement valuation estimates," the panel said.  "It may admittedly be difficult to determine that amount with precision, but courts must try to do so to ensure the fees are not excessive."