January 14, 2022
A recent Reuters story by Allison Frankel, “N.Y. Judge Calls Out Susman Godfrey for “Inadequate Fee Disclosure,” reports that Manhattan federal judge Kevin Castel refused this week to grant preliminary approval of a proposed $92.5 million class action settlement to resolve allegations that Voya Retirement Insurance and Annuity Company breached its contract with more than 46,000 life insurance policyholders who were subjected to a “cost of insurance” rate increase when Voya’s predecessor sold the policies to Lincoln Life and Annuity Company of New York.
The judge’s beef was not with the terms of the proposed settlement itself, which class counsel from Susman Godfrey described in a brief backing preliminary approval as “extraordinary.” Susman Godfrey’s brief certainly establishes the firm’s tenacity in more than five years of litigation, all the way through class certification and summary judgment rulings. The cash portion of the proposed agreement, Susman said, will provide at least as robust a recovery for policyholders as settlements that have previously been approved in other cost of insurance class actions. And here, the firm said, the money will go straight to policyholders, who don’t even have to assert a claim to receive their share of the settlement fund.
Susman Godfrey said it intended to request a fee award of less than one-third of the settlement. More specifically, the proposed notice to class members, attached as an exhibit to a declaration from the claims administrator, said Susman “will file a motion seeking an award for attorneys’ fees not to exceed one-third of the gross benefits provided to the settlement class.”
That mention of "gross benefits" caught Castel’s attention. In the memo requesting preliminary approval, Susman touted the value of the non-monetary benefits it had obtained in the proposed settlement, including Voya’s pledge not to raise cost of insurance rates for class members for five years. In an analogous class action mentioned in Susman’s motion, similar benefits were valued at more than $90 million.
Castel said it wasn’t clear from the language of the proposed class notice whether Susman Godfrey would ask for less than 33% of the cash value of the settlement – a number that would be simple for class members to calculate – or 33% of some as-yet unknown total settlement value.
“No hint is given as to the methodology that class counsel plans to employ,” Castel said, pointing out that if Susman Godfrey evaluated the non-monetary settlement provisions as generously as they were viewed in the class action cited in class counsel’s brief, one-third of the “gross benefits” could be as much as $62 million – which would give Susman Godfrey two-thirds of the cash in the settlement. “If this is what counsel has in mind – or anything close to it – class members and the court should know it now,” Castel said.
Castel had to connect some dots to understand the potential gap between fees based on just the $92.5 million cash recovery for the class and an award that included the value of the non-cash benefits. Susman’s memo requesting preliminary approval of the settlement does not put a dollar figure on those benefits. Castel must have obtained the valuation figure he cited in this week’s opinion from a declaration filed by Susman’s Seth Ard.
Castel also took issue with class counsel’s proposed explanation to class members of the consequences of opting out of the settlement. The proposed notice advised class members that they could tell the judge what they didn’t like about the settlement but would still be bound by the deal. “This statement is fundamentally misleading,” Castel said. “The purpose of an objection is to persuade the court not to approve the proposed settlement. A successful objection means that the objector and other members of the class are not bound.”
Susman’s Steven Sklaver told me by email that the firm has taken Castel’s feedback to heart. Susman intends to file a revised motion for preliminary approval clarifying that its fee request will be based only on the cash payout to class members, not on any additional value from the non-cash benefits. “We are thankful for the court’s consideration of the matter and guidance,” Sklaver said.