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Class Counsel Says He Was Cheated Out of $2.6M in Attorney Fees

January 9, 2020 | Posted in : Class Action / MDL, Contingency Fees / POF, Fee Agreements, Fee Allocation / Splitting, Fee Award, Fee Calculation Method, Fee Dispute, Fee Entitlement, Hourly Rates / Hourly Billing, Lodestar / Multiplier, Quantum Meruit

A recent Daily Report story by Greg Land, “Lawyer Booted From Class Action Says He Was Cheated Out of $2.6M in Legal Fees,” reports that a Georgia law firm is accused of scheming to cheat its former co-counsel out of nearly $2.6 million in legal fees, according to a series of court filings related to an $80 million MetLife class action settlement.  The court awarded more than $26 million in attorney fees as part of the July settlement, but M. Scott Barrett of Barrett Wylie in Indiana said his share awarded—more than $134,000—is a fraction of what he really should have gotten.

In a series of filings entered after the settlement was approved, Barrett said he was an integral part of the plaintiffs’ team until the lead lawyer, John Bell Jr. of Augusta’s Bell & Brigham “orchestrated” his removal.  Barrett said Bell—with whom he has a long history of co-counseling on class actions—had insisted that any fees he ultimately received would be totally at Bell’s discretion, “if and when there might be a fee.”

When Barrett protested, Bell purportedly manipulated the lead plaintiff and class representative, Laura Owens—whom Barrett had never met—to terminate his representation, which he was obliged to do.  Barrett argued that, his withdrawal notwithstanding, he should be paid 10% of the fee award, not a figure calculated on the hours he put into the case.

“Between April 24, 2014, and May 8, 2017, Barrett was actively involved in the prosecution of this matter,” said his September motion asking the court to allocate fees.  “During that time, over 140 docket entries were made, including multiple declarations from Barrett. Motions to dismiss and for summary judgment had been filed, responded to, and successfully defeated.  Discovery had been completed and an initial motion to certify the class had been filed.”

The settlement agreement approved by U.S. District Judge Richard Story of Georgia’s Northern District allocated $25 million in fees and $1.6 million in expenses to the plaintiffs’ counsel—nine lawyers, including Barrett.  The others include Bell and his partner, Leroy Brigham; Jason Carter and Michael Terry of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore; Cleveland, Georgia, solo Todd Lord; William Dobson and Michael Lober of Lober & Dobson in LaFayette, Georgia; and Oxendine Law Group principal John Oxendine.

Ruling on a motion by the plaintiffs’ counsel, U.S. District Judge Richard Story of the Georgia’s Northern District used the “lodestar” method to calculate Barrett’s portion of the award based on the hours he reported working on the case, rather than on a percentage basis of the fee award.  In his final order approving the settlement, Story specified that the issue of Barrett’s fees would not delay the settlement of the class’ claims.  In a Dec. 26 order, Story said Barrett’s share came to $134,311.

Barrett’s lawyer, Cochran & Edwards partner R. Randy Edwards, said in a motion to reconsider that the judge should at minimum reopen discovery and allow in evidence “because the court’s quantum meruit analysis is devoid of crucial and necessary findings of fact required under [federal rules] and to make an equitable allocation.  “This lack of findings has led to the anomalous result that Barrett’s allocation should be a scant one half-of one percent of the total attorneys’ fee.  How can this be?” Edwards said.

In response, the remaining plaintiffs lawyers argued that well-settled Georgia law makes clear that an attorney discharged from a case before it is resolved is not entitled to a contingency fee.  Further, they said, Barrett has provided “no evidence of any services he actually rendered for the benefit of Ms. Owens or the class she represents.”  Story has not yet ruled on Edward’s Dec. 31 motion.

Barrett filed another motion on Jan. 7 in opposition to Story’s division of fees after the plaintiffs filed a motion to approve it, arguing that “limited discovery and an evidentiary hearing” will allow the court to determine a proper split.  “Alternatively,” it said, “if the court is not inclined to do this, Barrett asks that he be allocated 10% of the total amount of the fee awarded as a minimum allocation.”

In an interview, Edwards said that—should those efforts prove unavailing—he can “virtually guarantee” that there will be an appeal.  The 10% figure, he said, is based upon Barrett and Bell’s “17-year track record of working together on these types of cases.”  As detailed in Barrett’s September motion for allocation, Bell, Barrett and three other lawyers not involved in the MetLife case began working together on retained asset account class actions several years ago.

They originally had a co-counseling agreement that any fee awards would first split 10% to each firm, with the remainder based on hours billed.  Bell became “dissatisfied” with the original arrangement, and it was reworked so that local counsel and the referring lawyer would each get 10% off the top.  Bell’s firm got 50% of the balance, Barrett’s got 30%, with the by then two remaining members splitting the last 20%.