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Law Firms Tussle Over Share of $8.3M in Attorney Fees

October 12, 2020 | Posted in : Contingency Fees / POF, Ethics & Professional Responsibility, Expenses / Costs, Fee Allocation / Fee Apportionment, Fee Award, Fee Dispute, Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR, Fee Entitlement, Fee Fund, Fee Request, Fees & Misconduct, Practice Area: Class Action / Mass Tort / MDL, Settlement Amount / Data

A recent Law 360 story by Emillie Ruscoe, “Fee Bid is ‘Unseemly Mudslinging.’ ICO Suit Co-Counsel Says,” reports that part of a co-lead counsel team accused their counterparts of "unseemly mudslinging" in a dispute over distribution of the $8.3 million counsel fee they earned in a settlement of allegations that Swiss blockchain company Tezos Stiftung's 2017 initial coin offering violated federal securities laws.

Lawyers from Block & Leviton LLP and Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP told U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero to deny a September motion for counsel fees filed by attorneys from Hung G. Ta Esq. PLLC, LTL Attorneys LLP, the Restis Law Firm PC and Lite DePalma Greenberg LLC, telling the magistrate judge that the fee request "is devoted to unseemly mudslinging, inaccurate accusations of deceit, and unfounded claims of violations of the rules of professional conduct."

The Hung G. Ta Esq. PLLC-helmed attorney group filed their counsel fee request in September, asking U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg to order Block & Leviton to put funds back into the escrow account holding $8.3 million that the plaintiffs' counsel team was awarded for its work on the case.  In a memo accompanying the counsel fee motion, the HGT Law group told Judge Seeborg that "Block & Leviton has proceeded, without HGT Law's authority, to distribute attorneys' fees to itself and several other firms with which it is aligned," asking the judge not to permit "such brazen misconduct."

HGT Law said the Block group had "proceeded to unilaterally distribute fees" so that Block & Leviton and Hagens Berman received 25% of the total fee, and 50% of the fee went to Robbins Geller, which is not docketed in the matter but was also involved in the case, according to the co-lead counsel team.  "This proposal is irrational and unreasonable," the HGT group contended, suggesting that Block & Leviton was trying to "maintain good relations with Robbins Geller and ensure favorable treatment from Robbins Geller in other cases."

Two days after the counsel fee motion was filed, court records show, Judge Seeborg referred the case to Judge Spero for resolution of the attorney fees dispute.  "This development is unwelcome, and its disposition ought not involve the intervention of this court," Judge Seeborg said in the same order vacating the Oct. 29 hearing on the motion that HGT had requested.

The Block group apologized to the court "that counsel were unable to work things out among themselves" and promised to work with the magistrate judge to resolve the issue in good faith.  "The court should not have to deal with this dispute.  It is always unseemly for lawyers to be squabbling over a multimillion-dollar award of attorneys' fees," the Block group said.

The Block group contended that HGT Law knew since December 2019 that it could expect to receive a quarter of the counsel fee.  "The [HGT Law group] never proposed a different fee allocation until after fees were awarded and sat on its hands until B&L sought to distribute the money consistent with [co-lead plaintiff] Trigon's allocation," the Block group claimed.

The Block group also said that "The Ta Group's wild accusation that 'Block & Leviton (and the other firms in the Block group) have attempted to deceive HGT Law, and have violated numerous ethical duties and guidelines of this district' is absolutely false."  The Block group also said that it "reiterates its willingness — if the Ta Group would like to withdraw its motion without prejudice — to resolve this dispute either through further informal discussions or through more formal [alternative dispute resolution] mechanisms."

Records show the parties to the case reached a $25 million cash settlement agreement in March, ending claims that the Tezos defendants held an unregistered securities offering in July 2017.  The $8.3 million counsel fee comprised a third of the settlement fund, and the attorneys who worked on the case on behalf of the proposed investor class would also get $300,000 to cover their litigation costs, according to the settlement terms.