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Category: Fee Award Data

10 Largest Class Action Attorney Fee Awards in U.S. History

June 20, 2021

A recent Bloomberg Law story by Roy Strom, “Meet the Professor Big Law Hires to Collect Nine-Figure Fees,” reports on attorney fee awards in the 10 largest class action recoveries in the U.S. have paid class counsel a range of fee when measured as a percentage of the settlement amount:

As stated in the article, there is no central authority to track class action settlements and attorney fee award data.  We at NALFA, would like to to be this authority.  As a non-profit group, we can worked with outside groups and individuals to promote and promulgate empirical research and data on attorney fee awards in a range of underlying litigation practice areas.

NALFA: Hourly Rates Above National Averages in Large Chapter 11 Cases

May 6, 2021

A recent The American Lawyer story by Dan Roe, “Kirkland and Weil’s Fees in Chapter 11 Work Highlight Big Law Allure to Bankruptcy,” reports that even as the number of commercial Chapter 11 bankruptcies has dropped in recent months, large bankruptcies have continued to churn out big fee packages for some law firms—one reason why firms are continuing to invest and hire in their bankruptcy practices.  For instance, a glance at law firm fees in two cases—the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Sears, filed October 2018, and the May 2020 J.C. Penney bankruptcy—reveal the cases have totaled more than $150 million for law firms since they beganMost of the money has gone to Am Law 200 firms, with some partners billing for more than $1,500 per hour.

Representing Sears Holdings Corp., Weil, Gotshal & Manges emerged as the biggest fee-earner in the Southern District of New York bankruptcy case, with more than $80 million in fees and expenses paid through the end of February 2021. Its partners billed between $1,695 and $1,200 per hour, while associates charged $1,100 to $595.  Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld also made out big on the Sears bankruptcy.  Representing the bankruptcy’s unsecured creditors, the law firm received $48 million in total compensation through the end of February 2021 with a blended rate of $853 per hour.

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, representing Sears, received almost $20 million, although most of it was completed before last year.  Its attorneys averaged $790 per hour, with partners topping out at $1,650.  And Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz did $873,000 worth of work representing Sears, with a blended rate of $1,287 and partners billing up to $1,500.  Meanwhile, the J.C. Penney bankruptcy has generated more than $28 million in fee revenue for law firmsRepresenting J.C. Penney, Kirkland & Ellis took most of the spoils with two massive fee applications totaling $20.9 million, with a blended attorney rate of approximately $1,000.

Cooley and Cole Schotz represented the creditor committee, with the former firm taking home $4.2 million in fee revenue with a blended rate of $970 average billing rate.  Cole Schotz earned $2.1 million for work it performed in the second half of the year, maintaining a $643 average hourly rate per attorney.  Katten Muchin Rosenman put in 1,318 professional hours to earn $1.1 million in fee revenue while representing J.C. Penney, averaging $960 per attorney per hour, while Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, representing the store’s subsidiaries, cleared $827,000 for its work in the second half of 2020, averaging just over $1,000 for its hourly rate.

The J.C. Penney restructuring also benefitted smaller-sized firms such as the New York law firm Herrick Feinstein, whose attorneys billed around $500 per hour for $1.5 million in fees.  The opportunity for large fee awards in Chapter 11 work continues to drive a flurry of bankruptcy partner hires.  In the last week, Willkie Farr & Gallagher added a three-partner bankruptcy group from Morrison & Foerster who represent creditor committees in high-profile cases and Sidley Austin hired Tom Califano, previously global co-chair and U.S. chair of DLA Piper’s restructuring group.  Last month, Kirkland brought on Christine Okike from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

"Our analysis, from our most recent litigation hourly rate survey, shows that all these Chapter 11 bankruptcy rates are well above the approximate national averages," said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  "In fact, hourly rates in large Chapter 11 bankruptcies, may be one of the highest rate-charging practice areas, " Jesse wondered.

For more on NALFA's national averages, visit NALFA Releases 2020 Average Hourly Rates in Litigation.

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.

Nelson Mullins Discloses Hourly Rates in Patent Fee Request

March 1, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Mike Scarcella, “Denied a Seal, Nelson Mullins Reveals Rates in Fee Petition in Patent Suit,” reports that, for at least the second time in the span of a year a federal trial judge refused to let a major U.S. law firm keep hourly rates and other billing-related information secret as part of an effort in court to squeeze legal fees from an opponent.

Denied its bid for secrecy, one of the firms, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, last week resubmitted its attorney fee petition fully unredacted in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.  The other firm, King & Spalding, abandoned an effort last year in Washington’s federal trial court after a judge said he would unseal supporting records showing hourly rates if the firm wanted to press its fee request.

Nelson Mullins sought $292,340 from a private plaintiff who filed patent claims against the motorsports company Simpson Performance Products and an engineer there.  The law firm won a key ruling in early February, but the court, just one day after the fee petition was filed, denied the request.  King & Spalding had sought $665,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after successfully obtaining records in a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Specific hourly billing rates and other internal records about fees generally are not things that law firms and lawyers are eager to discuss out in the open.  Indeed, both Nelson Mullins and King & Spalding had argued hourly rates and other billing documents were sensitive business records that should be kept confidential.  Still, information about billing often becomes public as a matter of routine in any number of settings, including in bankruptcy filings, certain types of litigation and in some law firm contracts with government clients.

A bankruptcy case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas recently showed hourly rates for Kirkland & Ellis partners to be between $1,085 and $1,895, and associates’ hourly rates between $625 and $1,195.  In California, a federal judge last month ordered legal fees to be paid to a team from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher that successfully represented Rachel Maddow as a defendant in a defamation case.  Gibson Dunn partner Theodore Boutrous Jr., prominent for his First Amendment advocacy, was shown as billing $1,525 hourly last year.

Nelson Mullins “asks the court to seal the amount of attorneys’ fees being requested—the very substance of the relief that it is seeking from the court—along with how it calculated the fees (counsel’s hourly rates and the time expended during their representation),” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Bell wrote in a Feb. 24 order.  “Thus, the effect of a request to seal this information is tantamount to a request to issue a secret order, as the court could not even grant much less fully discuss the merits of [the legal fee] request without disclosing the amount of fees requested along with counsel’s hourly fees, etc.”

In the King & Spalding matter, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said “the records that plaintiff asks to keep under seal go to the very heart of what is before the court: questions concerning the reasonableness of plaintiff’s counsel’s hourly rates and the reasonableness of the time they expended on this matter.”

Both judges declined the invitation to seal the law firms’ hourly rates and other records.  In the case involving King & Spalding, the firm dropped its move to get fees after Mehta said he would unseal rate information if the firm moved forward.  Those details remained sealed.  “Once a matter is brought before a court for resolution, it is no longer solely the parties’ case, but also the public’s case,” wrote Bell, a former McGuireWoods partner who’d spent more than 10 years in the firm’s Charlotte office before joining the bench in 2019.

Bell said that “except in very limited circumstances, the court’s business must be conducted openly, with public access guaranteed to instill confidence in the fairness of the proceedings and inform the public about the law.” He added: “[B]y choosing to seek attorneys’ fees in an open court, Simpson must necessarily disclose the amount of the award it seeks and the underlying basis for its fees.”  To “avoid any surprise,” Bell said he would allow Nelson Mullins to withdraw its motion for legal fees or refile it in an unredacted form.  That firm submitted 85 pages of arguments, declarations and billing records to back its request for fees.

“The rates charged by defendants’ counsel were well within, if not below, the range typically charged for complex litigation in North Carolina,” wrote Charlotte-based Nelson Mullins partner Craig Killen, who said he billed at $425 hourly for the case.  Another partner, Robert McWilliams, billed at $405 on the case.  Three associates billed at hourly rates between $320 and $345, according to the law firm’s motion for fees.

In arguing for fees, the Nelson Mullins team trumpeted the “unusual questions” raised during the patent litigation.  “This case was pending over two years and proceeded through the extended period of discovery,” Killen wrote in a court filing.  Nelson Mullins said its request for fees “is made with some reluctance because Simpson has no interest in ‘punishing’ an individual plaintiff.”  But, the law firm said in its court filing, “much of the expense incurred by the defense could have been avoided if plaintiff had not pressed unreasonable and objectively baseless positions.”

On the day after refusing to allow Nelson Mullins to file its billing records under seal, Bell, the trial judge, rejected the firm’s request.  “In the exercise of its discretion, the court does not find this case to be exceptional,” Bell wrote in an order last week.  “While the court determined that defendants were fully entitled to summary judgment (and to be clear does not intend by this decision to indicate that it has any uncertainty over that conclusion), defendants have not shown that plaintiff pursued her claims frivolously, for an improper purpose or in bad faith.”