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Category: Fee Reduction

Article: Ninth Circuit Ruling Signals Scrutiny of Attorney Fees in Class Actions

September 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Jason Russell, Hilary Hamilton and Adam Lloyd of Skadden Arps, “9th Circ. Ruling Signals Scrutiny of Class Settlement Fees,” reports on a recent ruling from the Ninth Circuit.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Despite the playful tone of the Briseño v. Henderson decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in June, class action litigators should take the case seriously when structuring class action settlements.  Amid a thicket of pop-culture references, the Briseño panel held that under the revised Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e)(2), federal courts must heavily scrutinize any settlement made on behalf of a class — whether pre- or post-class certification — to ensure that counsel for the defendant and the class have not colluded on an unfair distribution of settlement funds between recovery for the class and the fees for its attorneys.

Over a decade ago, in June 2011, the Briseño plaintiffs alleged that defendant ConAgra Foods Inc. misled consumers who wished to avoid consuming genetically modified organisms by placing a "100% Natural" label on its Wesson cooking oil brand, which allegedly contained GMO ingredients.  Notwithstanding the fact that the parties had been litigating the plaintiffs' false advertising claims for nearly 10 years, the Ninth Circuit rejected the parties' settlement that was negotiated after class certification, on grounds raised by a single objector.  The panel took significant issue with the class counsel's fee award, and found that the settlement "reek[ed]" of collusion.

The panel determined that the parties' settlement agreement and fee arrangement "raise[d] a squadron of red flags billowing in the wind and begg[ed] for further review," because (1) class counsel would receive disproportionately more money than the class; (2) the defendant agreed not to challenge class counsel's requested fee award (and any reduction in fees would revert to the defendant); and (3) the labeling-change injunctive relief that class counsel secured was "worthless," so it could not be used to justify class counsel's fee here.

The panel grounded its analysis in the history and text of Rule 23(e)(2), which was revised in December 2018, and requires a court to ensure that a class settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate.  Prior to the 2018 revision, however, Rule 23(e) did not provide guidance as to what was fair, reasonable or adequate.  So the Ninth Circuit filled in the gaps by providing several factors for district courts to consider, including the strength of the plaintiffs' claims and the risk and expense of further litigation at the stage of the proceedings.

The Ninth Circuit also was particularly wary of settlements reached on behalf of a class precertification — where it found that counsel may be most incentivized to maximize their own financial gain at the expense of the class members — and in 2011, provided an additional instruction for courts to watch out for what it called "subtle signs" that class counsel was putting their own self-interest before the class.

These signs included: (1) counsel receiving a disproportionate distribution of the settlement; (2) parties negotiating a "clear sailing arrangement," under which the defendant agrees not to challenge a request for an agreed-upon attorney fee; and (3) an agreement containing a "kicker" or "reverter" clause, that returns unawarded fees to the defendant, rather than the class.  In the Ninth Circuit, these are commonly known as the Bluetooth factors.

Then, in 2018, Rule 23 was amended to set forth specific factors for courts to consider when determining whether a class settlement was adequate, including "the costs, risks, and delay of trial and appeal"; "the effectiveness of any proposed method of distributing relief to the class, including the method of processing class-member claims"; and "the terms of any proposed award of attorney's fees, including timing of payment."

The Briseño panel focused on this last factor, and held that the new Rule 23(e) "indicates that a court must examine whether the attorneys' fees arrangement shortchanges the class" for all class settlements.  As a result, the panel found, district courts should apply the Bluetooth heightened scrutiny factors for both pre- and post-class certification settlements to "smoke out" potential collusion on attorney fee arrangements.

Applying the Bluetooth factors to the Briseño class counsel's fee arrangement here, the panel concluded that the fee arrangement "features all three red flags of potential collusion."  First, the panel noted the "gross disparity in distribution of funds between class members and their class counsel raises an urgent red flag," as counsel was set to receive nearly $7 million in fees, while the class received less than $1 million.

The panel found this disparity particularly problematic here because the parties knowingly structured a relatively common claims-made settlement, requiring class members to submit a claim to obtain a recovery, for a low-ticket item, which typically results in what the panel called "notoriously low" redemption rates. In this case, class members would recover 15 cents per unit of Wesson oil purchased during the class period.

Second, ConAgra agreed not to challenge the fees for class counsel, and the panel held that "the very existence of a clear sailing provision increases the likelihood that class counsel will have bargained away something of value to the class."  Third, the agreement provided that ConAgra was to receive any remaining funds if the district court reduced the agreed-upon attorney fees for class counsel, and the panel concluded that if a court determined the "full amount unreasonable, there is no plausible reason why the class should not benefit from the spillover of excessive fees."

Significantly, the panel also held that the settlement's injunctive relief component — ConAgra's agreement to no longer market Wesson oil as "100% Natural" — could not be used to justify the class counsel's excessive fee.  The panel panned the injunctive relief as "virtually worthless," "illusory" and "meaningless," because ConAgra had already decided to stop using the "100% Natural" label two years before the settlement agreement was reached — for reasons it stated were unrelated to the litigation — and no longer even owned the Wesson oil brand.

Although ConAgra's sale of the Wesson oil brand in Briseño clearly presents an uncommon circumstance, the panel made clear that going forward, courts must eliminate inflated valuations of injunctive relief "untethered to reality" that are used to justify excessive fee awards for class counsel.  Briseño's discussion of worthless injunctive relief will have significant repercussions for future settlement of many California federal class actions, as many companies often make labeling changes for business reasons before any complaints are even filed.

While the panel expressly stated that its decision did not mean that "courts have a duty to maximize the settlement fund for class members," and a "class does not need to receive much for a settlement to be fair when the class gives up very little," the practical effect of, and takeaway from, Briseño is that class counsel should expect significantly more resistance from defense counsel and courts to high attorney fee awards in class action settlements.

This will especially impact low-value and/or labeling claims arising from a plaintiff's subjective beliefs of purported harm — particularly when a defendant has already decided to make a labeling change for business reasons.  In such cases, the relief that counsel can secure for the class is likely to be limited, and Briseño plainly requires a commensurate fee award for class counsel.

Jason D. Russell is a partner, and Hillary A. Hamilton and Adam K. Lloyd are associates, at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

Eleventh Circuit Trims Fee Award for South Beach Liquor Store

September 21, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “11th Circ. Shaves Fee Award in Miami Beach Liquor Store Row,” reports that the Eleventh Circuit ruled Tuesday that an attorney fee award for the city of Miami Beach in a dispute with a South Beach liquor store owner should be reduced, because while the business' due process claims against the city were frivolous, its First Amendment retaliation claim was not.

The appeals court said the closure of Ocean 9 Liquor came one day after its owner, Doron Doar, met with the deputy city attorney to discuss concerns about local regulations restricting alcohol sales in the city's mixed use entertainment, or MXE, district that encompasses the famed Ocean Drive.

That close temporal relation between Doar's protected First Amendment conduct and the challenged closure of his store is enough to make the claim "not wholly without foundation," according to the Eleventh Circuit. This is especially true when the deputy city attorney told counsel for Doar a few days later that the closure of the liquor store was not a coincidence and was a long time coming, according to the opinion.

"It was not unreasonable for Beach Blitz to believe that the city shut down its store as a response to Beach Blitz's protected First Amendment conduct," the appeals court said. "The claim, while properly rejected by the district court, was not frivolous."

The First Amendment retaliation claim was the only one that U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro allowed Doar to amend, but when he opted not to amend the claim, the judge dismissed the case. On appeal, Doar argued that voluntary dismissal does not warrant an award of fees to a defendant.

But the Eleventh Circuit said the dismissal was involuntary, as it was done in response to the city's motion to dismiss, which Doar opposed. The appeals court said it had "little difficulty concluding" that this involuntary dismissal made the city a prevailing party.

The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to Judge Ungaro to determine which part of the $132,785 fee award was attributable to the First Amendment retaliation claim and excise it.

Doar, who operates Ocean 9 Liquor and Ocean 11 Market through his company Beach Blitz Co., sued the city in October 2017, alleging that city commissioners engaged in a campaign to put him out of business by passing ordinances restricting alcohol sales in the MXE district.

An October 2016 ordinance blocked packaged sales of alcoholic beverages for consumption off premises in the MXE district. The four existing liquor stores, including Ocean 9 and Ocean 11, were grandfathered in, according to court documents.

In subsequent ordinances, Miami Beach limited the hours in which alcohol could be sold in the MXE district.

The move was ostensibly an effort to combat crime and rowdiness in the area, but Doar says his business and others like it were unfairly blamed for the area's problems. He pointed to an October 2016 interview with the Miami Herald in which then-Mayor Philip Levine called certain South Beach businesses that sold liquor "malignant tumors."

As the city commissioners were passing these local regulations, Doar had failed to pay his required business tax receipt for Ocean 9 for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, according to court documents. He did not discover the oversight until eight months after it was due.

The city says Doar — who was also embroiled in a fight over several citations for selling alcohol after the approved hours — did not pay the business tax until more than a year after the business' license had expired. Because the license had not been renewed within the fiscal year, it was deemed closed and a new license application was required. But new licenses for liquor stores in the MXE district were not allowed under the new ordinance.

U.S. Circuit Judges Jill Pryor, Kevin Newsom and Stanley Marcus sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.

Class Counsel Win Reduced Attorney Fees of $152M in Antitrust Case

August 30, 2021

A recent Reuters story by Mike Scarcella, “Class Lawyers Win Reduced Fee of $152M in Sutter Case,” reports that a California judge has slashed a requested legal fee award in an antitrust settlement with Sutter Health, approving $152.3 million in compensation for class counsel, after concluding the plaintiffs' lawyers had claimed "unreasonably high" hours for their work.  Judge Anne-Christine Massullo of San Francisco Superior Court gave final approval to the $575 million settlement as she awarded fees to five law firms that represented plaintiff labor unions and employers, in an order released.

Sutter Health in 2019 first agreed to the settlement resolving claims that anticompetitive practices led to higher healthcare costs in northern California.  The awarded legal fee marked about 26% of the settlement, in line with compensation in other class actions, Massullo wrote.  Massullo said her award accounted for the "risk presented by this litigation" and also "the novelty and complexity of the issues."  The plaintiffs' lawyers had asked for $172.5 million in fees.

Massullo's order awarded $11.5 million in fees to the California attorney general's office, which sued Sutter in 2018.  The state's complaint was consolidated with the private litigation, which began in 2014.  Massullo said the state attorneys and class lawyers "demonstrated a high level of skill in providing high quality of representation in this case."  Still, the judge raised concerns about the number of hours -- 194,642 -- that class lawyers claimed in their request for fees.  Massullo said the claimed hours compared to "93.6 years of work, or more than 7 years of work for 13 attorneys."

Declarations from plaintiffs' attorneys involved in the case "do not, except at a high level and very generally, permit assessment of the extent to which the five firms that constitute class counsel unreasonably duplicated efforts," Massullo said.  Still, she said she was "satisfied that this litigation was a monumental undertaking" that required a "vast number of hours."

Insurer Overpaid Policyholder’s Attorney Fees, Judge Finds

August 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Daphne Zhang, “Insurer Overpaid For Policyholder’s Legal Bills, Judge Finds,” reports that a New York federal judge said that an insurer's decision to stop paying a GoPro accessory maker's attorney fees was reasonable, finding the policyholder's defense counsel billed administrative work at partner rates and logged excessive working hours.  U.S. District Judge Mae D'Agostino denied 360Heros Inc.'s motion for summary judgment against Main Street America Assurance Co., saying the carrier's payment of more than $2 million in attorney fees fully satisfied its defense obligations.

The judge sided with Main Street in finding that 360Hero's defense counsel, Gauntlett & Associates, repeatedly charged "unreasonable and excessive" legal fees in an underlying patent infringement suit with GoPro.  The camera company sued 360Heros alleging the harness maker used its copyrighted pictures and infringed two of its trademarks.  The suit was settled in May 2018. 360Heros sued Main Street in 2017 after the insurer stopped paying for its defense costs.

"Based on Gauntlett's repeated practice of billing excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary hours the court finds that a 15% reduction in Gauntlett's fees is warranted," the judge said.  According to the order, a Main Street attorney found in 2017 that the insurer overpaid for defense costs after retroactively reviewing the payment history.  Main Street subsequently stopped paying the policyholder's legal bills, which 360Hero claimed violated its insurance policy.  "The amount of unpaid fees is significantly less than the amount that the court finds were reasonably expended," Judge D'Agostino found, saying that Main Street was fully entitled not to pay because the defense counsel overcharged on legal bills.

Some of Gauntlett's invoices were billed without any tasks designated to a paralegal, the judge pointed out, and the firm repeatedly charged administrative work at partner rates. Gauntlett also charged full rates for travel, which should have been billed at half of their hourly rates, Judge D'Agostino said.  "For travel to a one-day out-of-town settlement conference, [one Gauntlett attorney] billed for $418.48 in meals," she said.

Article: CA Ruling Shows That Prevailing Party Wins Can Be Pyrrhic

August 22, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Warren Jackson, “Calif. Ruling Shows That Prevailing Party Wins Can Be Pyrrhic,” reports on a recent court ruling in California on prevailing party issues in fee-shifting litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In the 1992 buddy movie, "White Men Can't Jump," Rosie Perez's character, Gloria Clemente, said, "Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win."  It provides a rambling life lesson: Victories can be pyrrhic, and even taking an "L" may not make you a loser.

In an interesting and novel recent opinion that would make Gloria proud, a California state appeals court, in affirming an order denying attorney fees to a self-described prevailing party, reaffirmed in a commercial litigation context that determining who's prevailed and is entitled to fees is not always clear.  The case, Harris v. Rojas, was decided on July 20 in the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District.  Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr., who authored the opinion, also gave a special, well-deserved shout-out to the alternative dispute resolution profession.

It's not unusual, particularly in individual discrimination, harassment, and wage and hour cases, for the potential attorney fees award to be substantially greater than the economic damages, e.g., in cases with a plaintiff who is a low-wage earner or who has successfully mitigated damages.  As a result, the settlement value is not simply economic damages, but attorney fees as well.

The policy goals behind statutory awards of attorney fees or fee-shifting provisions are clear.  A virtual guarantee of attorney fees to the prevailing plaintiff, even if the damages are nominal, is a powerful incentive for the plaintiffs bar to represent employees who have fewer means and less power, but were allegedly treated unfairly.  To put a finer point on it, that incentive is also not diminished by what's generally the case — no downside of having to pay a prevailing employer's fees.  More on this dynamic and its impact on mediating cases later, but first, the opinion.

George Harris leased commercial space from Abel Rojas, and the lease had a clause for attorney fees to the prevailing party in the event of litigation.  Harris sued Rojas for breach of contract, among other claims, and Rojas cross-complained for ejectment, breach of contract and nuisance.  There was also a separate unlawful detainer case by Rojas against Harris.  After nearly three years of litigation and a seven-day jury trial, the jury awarded $6,450 to Harris on his breach of contract claim (rather than his requested $200,000). Rojas also was awarded $6,450 against Harris on his negligence claim, and Harris was awarded $500 on his negligence claim against Rojas.

The harm was apportioned at 15% for Harris and 85% for Rojas, so when all the math was done, a net judgment was entered in Harris' favor for $5,907.50 or $5,882.50 — a discrepancy between the actual math result and the judgment, which only the court noticed.  Thereafter, Harris moved for an award of attorney fees under the lease, seeking $296,744.68.  The trial court — California Superior Court in Los Angeles County — denied Harris' motion, ruling there was no prevailing party, citing the California Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in Hsu v. Abbara — if a party obtains a "simple, unqualified victory" in an action with an attorney fee clause, the court is obliged to make an award, but where there is "good news and bad news" for each party in the outcome, there's discretion.  Harris appealed this order.

Justice Wiley, also relying upon Hsu v. Abbara, seized on the obvious: "When the demand is $200,000 and the verdict is $6,450 or less ... the 'victory' is pyrrhic and nobody won."  He went on to clarify, "Reaping merely five or six thousand dollars after spending three years pursuing $200,000 drastically falls short of the goal." Thus, the trial court properly exercised its discretion.

Justice Wiley had an alternative and novel theory for affirming the denial of attorney fees.  Looking to the result in Rojas' unlawful detainer action, where he was awarded some $13,000 or $17,000, "depending on the moment at which one calculates the rent and interest," Justice Wiley aggregated the two results, opining, "This war had two battles.  Harris decisively lost the war."  As Gloria Clemente remarked, "Sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose."

Writing what could be characterized as a nod to mediators everywhere, Justice Wiley dogmatically declared: Determining a party's true litigation objective is no mean feat.  When the case is strictly about money, the litigation objective is a dollar figure.  The true value of a case is a matter of opinion, and parties normally conceal their true opinion on this vital topic.  That is why we call that look a poker face.  What economists call a reservation price usually is a carefully guarded secret; if the other side perceives this closeted sum, it will offer that amount in settlement negotiations and nothing more. So each side typically bluffs while searching the other side for clues.  Successful mediators use sustained efforts in a confidential setting to extract this private information from both sides.  By discovering previously hidden common ground, a mediator can settle the case.  But this exploration is often difficult, which is why successful mediators can command premium rates.

As mentioned above, courts have waded into the waters of who's a prevailing party in employment cases over the years.  In the seminal Chavez v. City of Los Angeles decision in 2010, the California Supreme Court upheld a trial court's rejection of a fee application under California Fair Employment and Housing Act, where the plaintiff recovered damages of $11,500 — less than the $25,000 that could have been recovered in a limited civil case — and sought an attorney fee award of $870,935.50.

Noting that under FEHA, the prevailing employee should ordinarily be awarded fees unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust, the court held that where a plaintiff brings an unlimited civil case but fails to recover $25,000, the trial court has discretion under Code of Civil Procedure Section 1033 (a) to deny an attorney fees application.  While Chavez is often cited where a verdict is substantially dwarfed by the attorney fee application, in my opinion it has not shifted the landscape dramatically.  Fee applications can be denied in their entirety.  However, more often the result is a reduction in the fee request.

Turning back to the challenge of mediating cases where attorney fee awards are available to a plaintiff, we mediators routinely hear from defense counsel that some plaintiffs lawyers have been incentivized to increase the settlement value of cases by aggressively working them up.  Of course, what may seem like overworking a case to counsel can simply be opposing counsel's diligence and due care.  Justice Wiley seems to suggest successful mediators have a secret sauce for settling cases. While past success can portend future success, unfortunately, there's no guaranteed formula.  One key to success is a tactic that parties often employ — early mediation.  By mediating a case early before significant attorney fees have been incurred, the fee-shifting issue is less problematic.

Of course, early mediations have their drawback in terms of equality of pertinent information or discovery and analysis, so parties should evaluate the relative merits of proceeding early versus later-stage scheduling.  In addition, defense counsel often employ the strategy of threatening or filing a California Code of Civil Procedure Section 998 offer to potentially place the attorney fee award at risk if the recovery at trial is less than the offer and the offer was properly drafted.

My experience, however, is that employers prefer a settlement to a 998 offer, and plaintiffs prefer a reasonable settlement over protracted or scorched-earth litigation.  Finally, the only secret sauce in getting difficult cases resolved might be the four Ps: patience, perseverance, persuasion and proposals from mediators.  But all parties should recognize that the logic and holding of Harris v. Rojas have implications in the employment law context.  And the case should be a reminder that verdict size and prevailing party determinations are necessarily intertwined, and that Gloria Clemente was more lucid that we thought.

T. Warren Jackson is a mediator and arbitrator at Signature Resolution.