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Category: Fee Cap / Fee Limits

$203M Attorney Fee Request in Flint Water Settlement

March 10, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Plaintiffs Counsel in Flint Water Settlement Seek $200M in Attorney Fees,” reports that plaintiffs lawyers who obtained a settlement in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis litigation are asking for more than $200 million in attorney fees.  The request, outlined in the filing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, is part of a $641.25 million settlement with the state of Michigan, former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the city of Flint and several individual government defendants.

The fee request would include an estimated $40.6 million in common benefit fees to lead counsel and others who spent five years litigating both a class action and individual cases.  The fees also would provide a fee award to class counsel and cap contingency rates of individually retained counsel at 27%.  In all, the fees could total nearly $203 million, according to the motion.

“Plaintiffs’ counsel have worked on a contingency basis for more than five years now, without compensation of any kind, to achieve this remarkable result,” the fee motion says.  “The fee proposal is designed to provide reasonable and fair compensation to plaintiffs’ counsel and to ensure equitable treatment for all who make claims under the settlement.”  U.S. District Judge Judith Levy has scheduled a fairness hearing, including potential approval of the fees, for July 12.

In April 2014, state officials decided to shift Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River despite studies warning the corrosive nature of the river water could send lead into the drinking water.  Early on in the litigation, co-lead counsel Ted Leopold, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and Michael Pitt, of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni & Rivers in Royal Oak, Michigan, had a protracted fight with co-liaison counsel Hunter Shkolnik, of New York-based Napoli Shkolnik, over potential fees.  Meanwhile, the Flint water cases dragged through several procedural hurdles, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversing some key rulings.

The partial settlement, filed in court Nov. 17, excludes two engineering firm defendants and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  On Jan. 21, Levy preliminarily approved the settlement, 79.5% of which provides a compensation fund for minors.  The settlement also includes subclasses of adult residents, businesses and property owners.  Signing the fee motion were lawyers at 20 law firms, including Leopold, Pitt, Shkolnik and co-liaison counsel Corey Stern, of New York’s Levy Konigsberg.

The motion requests a 6.33% common benefit assessment, divided equally between co-lead counsel and co-liaison counsel, with higher percentages imposed on lawyers retained after July 16, 2020.  Lead counsel said they provided $7 million upfront expenses and invested 182,571 hours of work—about $84 million in an estimated lodestar, which is the billing amount multiplied by the hourly rate.  The requested fees, which are more than double the lodestar, are justified given the length and risks of the case, the number of defendants, the complexity of the issues and litigation that involved more than a dozen appeals, Leopold said.  “The work speaks for itself,” he said.

The fee motion says lawyers with individual cases would have a 27% cap on their contingency fees.  Michigan law caps contingency fees at one-third of a recovery amount.  “For the vast majority of the cases and the lawyers who did not work on the common benefit, we didn’t think it would be fair to the clients to take 33%,” Leopold said.

The fee request also takes into account the fact that the work isn’t over.  Levy has scheduled the first bellwether trials to occur in October.  Many of the settlement’s beneficiaries also are minors who do not have lawyers and will need help from lead counsel during the claims process, Shkolnik said.  “There’s going to be a whole new round of work that’s going to be done for individual cases to process them as if we represent them,” he said.

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.

Article: The Right Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?

February 7, 2021

A recent New York Law Journal article by Milton Williams and Christopher Dioguardi, “Retaining the ‘Right’ Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?,” reports on different retainer types in New York.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

This article evaluates which type of retainer agreement gives attorneys the best chance to preemptively shield their retainer fees before a client ends up in bankruptcy or the Department of Justice seizes and forfeits the client’s assets.

The scenario is this: A struggling business on the precipice of bankruptcy, or a criminal defendant whose property is subject to forfeiture, would like to hire you.  The prospective client has funds available to pay its legal fees, but what if you and/or the client expect that bankruptcy trustees or the Department of Justice will soon claim those funds for themselves?

At the outset of an engagement, an attorney can structure his or her retainer agreement to protect the retainer to the greatest extent possible in the event the client’s creditor comes knocking.  New York law recognizes three types of retainers: “classic,” “security,” and “advance payment.”  And under New York law, a retainer fee is shielded from attachment so long as the client does not retain an interest in the funds. See Gala Enterprises v. Hewlett Packard Co., 970 F. Supp. 212, 219 (S.D.N.Y. 1997).  For this reason, described in more detail below, it is the “advance payment” retainer agreement that will likely provide the most protection.

The ‘Classic’ Retainer

This type of retainer is typically a single, up-front payment to the lawyer simply for being available to the client—the attorney commits to future legal work for a specific period of time, regardless of inconvenience or workload constraints.  The classic retainer is not for legal services, and is therefore earned upon receipt, whether or not the attorney performs any services for the client (i.e., it is nonrefundable). See Agusta & Ross v. Trancamp Contr., 193 Misc.2d 781, 785-86 (N.Y. Civ. Ct. 2002) (general retainer compensates a lawyer for “agree[ing] implicitly to turn down other work opportunities that might interfere with his ability to perform the retainer-client’s needs” and “giv[ing] up the right to be retained by a host of clients whose interests might conflict with those of the retainer-client”).

Because the classic retainer is earned upon receipt and is nonrefundable, it without a doubt provides the most protection against would-be creditors.  However, the classic retainer is really only “classic” in the sense that it relates to antiquity.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation in the modern practice of law where a client would want to pay a classic retainer.  And attorneys would be remiss to draw up a nonrefundable classic retainer agreement unless certain specific conditions are met.

In general, under New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(d)(4), “[a] lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge or collect … a nonrefundable retainer fee.” Further, under Rule 1.16(e), fees paid to a lawyer in advance for legal services are nonrefundable only to the extent they have been earned by the lawyer: “upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall promptly refund any part of a fee paid in advance that has not been earned.” See also Matter of Cooperman, 83 N.Y.2d 465, 471 (1994) (holding that nonrefundable retainer fee agreements clash with public policy and transgress the rules of professional conduct; affirming lower court decision that the use of nonrefundable fee arrangements warranted two-year suspension.); Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219 (narrowly construing the holding in Cooperman, and holding that only retainers with express non-refundability language are invalid per se).

The Security Retainer

While the classic retainer might offer the attorney the most security, the security retainer offers little defense against a client’s future creditors.  Typically, payments pursuant to a security retainer are placed in an escrow or trust account to be drawn upon only as the fee is earned.  In other words, the security retainer remains the property of the client until the attorney applies it to charges for services rendered.

So long as the client retains an interest in escrowed funds, the escrow account is attachable.  Under New York law, a security retainer may be attached so long as it is subject to the client’s “present or future control,” or is required to be returned to the client if not used to pay for services rendered. See, e.g., Lang v. State of New York, 258 A.D.2d 165, 171 (1st Dept. 1999); Potter v. MacLean, 75 A.D.3d 686, 687 (3d Dept. 2010) (defendant owed more than $20,000 in arrears on child support obligations and subsequently paid law firm a $15,000 retainer fee; the court found that the retainer fee, which was held in escrow, was subject to restraining order); M.M. v. T.M., 17 N.Y.S.3d 588, 599 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015) (wife’s restraining notice against husband’s attorney’s security retainer was valid and enforceable); see also Pahlavi v. Laidlaw Holdings, 180 A.D.2d 595, 595-96 (1st Dept. 1992) (judgment debtor deposited $50,000 with his attorney after receipt of a restraining order and the court ordered his law firm to return them).

The Advance-Payment Retainer

Similar to the security retainer, the advance-payment retainer is a fee paid in advance for all or some of the services to be performed on a specific matter.  However, unlike a security retainer, ownership of the advance-payment retainer passes to the attorney immediately upon payment in exchange for the attorney’s promise to provide the legal services.  This type of retainer is likely the best way to ensure that the client has sufficient funds to pay for expected legal services.

Under an advance-payment retainer agreement, the law firm places the money into its operating account and may use the money as it chooses, subject only to the requirement that any unearned fee paid in advance be promptly refunded to the client upon termination of the relationship (recall Rule 1.16(e)).

A client’s contingent future interest in an advance-payment retainer, if any, that would be refunded if the firm’s services were prematurely terminated is not a sufficient basis for attachment. See Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219.  Therefore, the most secure option will likely be to require an advance payment for all services to be rendered, commonly referred to as a flat or fixed fee.  In other words, a creditor would not be able to seize such a retainer, even if part of the retainer may yet be refundable.  In Gala Enterprises, the court held that because a $150,000 flat fee as well as a $500,000 flat fee were subject to refund only if the legal services were prematurely terminated, the fees were therefore not attachable.

However, just because a client has paid an advance-payment retainer, does not mean that the retainer is untouchable.  Two specific possibilities come to mind.  First, Gala Enterprises illustrates that law firms might need to defend against fraudulent conveyance claims.  That being said, if the retainer is not excessive or unreasonable, the attorney is in a good position to defend against any such claims.  It goes without saying, when establishing a flat fee—or any fee for that matter—the fee must not be excessive. See Rule 1.5(a) (“[a] lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an excessive [] fee …”).

Second, attorneys of course must not accept funds that may have been obtained by fraud. See, e.g., S.E.C. v. Princeton Economic Intern. Ltd., 84 F. Supp. 2d 443 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (lawyer who blindly accepts fees from client under circumstances that would cause reasonable lawyer to question client’s intent in paying fees accepts fees at his peril.).

Conclusion

In sum, we offer this advice:

  1. Review the Rules of Professional Conduct and case law cited herein, as well as the relevant New York State Bar Association ethics opinions, specifically: Ethics Opinion 570, June 7, 1985; Ethics Opinion 816, Oct. 25, 2007; Ethics Opinion 983, Oct. 8, 2013; and Ethics Opinion 1202, Dec. 2, 2020.
  1. Be transparent and direct with prospective clients regarding retainer agreements.
  2. A reasonable advance-payment retainer for all services to be rendered will give attorneys the most protection against future unknown creditors.
  3. Make clear in the retainer agreement that the client acknowledges and agrees that the advance-payment will become the law firm’s property upon receipt and will be deposited into the law firm’s operating account, not into an escrow account or a segregated bank account.
  4. Acknowledge in the retainer agreement that the client may be entitled to a refund of all or part of advance payment based on the value of the legal services performed prior to termination.

Milton Williams is a partner and Christopher Dioguardi is an associate at Walden Macht & Haran LLP in New York.

Polsinelli Sued Over Billing Issues

January 22, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Craig Clough, “Polsinelli Says Clients’ ‘Slacking Off’ Claims are “Meritless”, reports that Polsinelli PC urged a Pennsylvania federal judge to toss a lawsuit accusing the firm of overcharging and underperforming while representing a pharmacy and its former CEO in an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, saying claims the firm "slack[ed] off" are not plausibly alleged.  Philidor Rx Services LLC and former CEO Andrew Davenport said in the suit that Polsinelli shifted much of its legal work to another firm and added unnecessary third-party legal fees, but those arguments don't belong in a breach of contract claim, Polsinelli said.

"Plaintiffs do not allege that Polsinelli breached any specific provision of the engagement letters but instead allege that it negligently performed its obligations such that Philidor allegedly paid more than it should have," Polsinelli said.  "That is a negligence claim.  And as explained below, plaintiffs' negligence claim fails for multiple reasons."

Philidor and Davenport alleged in their November lawsuit that Polsinelli transferred much of its legal work to another firm working on their case, WilmerHale, which charged by the hour and added unnecessary third-party fees.  This way, Polsinelli received the same $14 million capped flat fee, and WilmerHale billed more hours than anticipated, the complaint said.

Davenport was convicted in 2018 for his involvement in a $9.7 million kickback scheme after the SEC investigated Philidor's relationship with Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc.  Philidor hired Polsinelli and former partner Jonathan N. Rosen in 2016 when the SEC investigation was first launched.  Gary Tanner, a former Valeant executive who was a co-defendant in the investigation and trial, hired WilmerHale. Tanner and Davenport agreed to have a joint defense with WilmerHale and Polsinelli attorneys, with Philidor agreeing to pay the flat fee for Polsinelli and the hourly fees for WilmerHale.

The investigation eventually led the government to charge Davenport and Tanner with honest services wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in 2017.  Philidor claims that once Polsinelli realized the case would likely face trial, the capped flat fee agreement was looking "less and less lucrative" to the firm.  Polsinelli began pushing work to WilmerHale and adding third-party legal fees for work the plaintiffs say the firm should have been able to do in-house and should've been included in the $14 million they paid, such as hiring an outside counsel for Davenport's defense, the complaint alleges.

Philidor was charged over $5 million in expert fees instead of the $2 million initially agreed to and more than $13 million in counsel fees instead of the $2 million agreed to, among other millions of dollars in third-party fees, the complaint alleges.  The company is accusing Polsinelli of one count of breach of contract, one count of unjust enrichment and a third count of mismanagement of litigation.  Philidor is asking for damages in the form of the costs of suit and the counsel fees they were charged because the firm's effort "represented a slacking off and willful rendering of imperfect performance."

Polsinelli said all the claims are "meritless," including the negligence claim, which is time-barred and fails even if it wasn't.  Under Pennsylvania law, there is a two-year statute of limitations for tort claims, and because the trial wrapped in May 2018, all of the alleged breaches occurred before then and the claim is untimely, Polsinelli said.  Under Pennsylvania law, the plaintiffs must also allege Polsinelli failed to "exercise ordinary skill and knowledge" to properly plead the negligence claim, but the claim does not make that allegation, Polsinelli said.  The firm also argued, among other things, that the unjust enrichment claim should be tossed because it "is a quasi-contractual doctrine that does not apply in cases where the parties have a written or express contract."

Fees Capped at 25 Percent in $2.67B BCBS MDL Settlement

November 17, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Ala. Judge Wary of Second-Guessing $2.67B BCBS Deal,” reports that a federal judge in Alabama cautioned an attorney for non-consenting class members about second-guessing "the tactical decisions of class counsel" in a proposed $2.67 billion multidistrict class settlement for alleged overpayments to Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurers.

U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor made the point during a video-conference preliminary approval hearing in the Northern District of Alabama for the settlement of a suit filed in January 2013, targeting allegations that the insurers divvied up the nation and conspired to restrain competition among themselves and from other insurers, causing damages estimated at between $19 billion and $38 billion.

The settlement, reached after more than eight years of battling, would provide proportional payouts to tens of millions of business and individual BCBS subscribers, while also establishing court-ordered reforms prohibiting anti-competitive conduct, including ending a Blues practice of requiring members to derive at least two-thirds of their revenues from "Blue branded" services.

Attorneys for the class hailed the deal as historic — potentially reshaping competition in the health insurance industry and increasing consumer choice.  But attorneys for three Blues customers told the judge their clients declined to support the deal based on a "lack of openness" in negotiations and requirement to release individual claims in order to participate in the settlement.

"I feel like I'm dealing with a college football team that has 70 players and the flag comes from the sideline and three of the players don't like the coach's call and want to see the playbook, which is all well and good," Judge Proctor said, "but I've got to make a decision here in the near future about whether to give preliminary approval."

Under the settlement, individual class members and their past costs for Blue Cross coverage, either through workplace or individual plans, will be developed from insurer records, with protection for sensitive information. Individuals will also have an opportunity to submit individual claims if they choose.

No more than 25% of the $2.67 billion will go toward attorney fees and expenses, with 93.5% of an estimated $1.9 billion in payouts expected to go to fully insured individuals or business premium-payers and the balance to self-insured individuals.