A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Hagens Berman Must Forfeit $31M Fee Win, 9th Circuit Told” reports that an objector's counsel urged the Ninth Circuit to force Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP to forfeit or reduce a revised $31 million fee award for securing deals worth $205 million in multidistrict litigation over optical disk drive price-fixing, arguing that the law firm violated multiple professional rules of ethics. During a hearing before a three-judge panel, objector Connor Erwin's counsel, Robert Clore of Bandas Law Firm PC, argued that Hagens Berman violated multiple California Rules of Professional Conduct in securing its eight-figure fee award before a trial court, including by never placing the disputed funds into a client trust account, despite class members' objections and appeals pending.
But U.S. Circuit Court Judges Morgan Christen and Carlos T. Bea asked how class members have been harmed by the firm's failure to hold the funds in a client trust account. "What harm, what foul?" Judge Bea asked. Clore replied that as a result, the class has been denied up to $600,000 in interest that would have been collected on the disputed money. At least a portion of that interest should have gone back to the class when a Ninth Circuit panel vacated Hagens Berman's previous $52.8 million fee and expense award, the attorney said.
"Why should they be entitled to interest on fees that don't belong to them?" Clore asked the panel. The trip to the Ninth Circuit is the latest chapter in a decade-old multidistrict litigation claiming that Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Toshiba Corp. and other disk drive makers participated in an industry-wide conspiracy to fix optical disk drive prices.
Hagens Berman beat out other firms for lead class counsel in 2010, and the firm later struck multimillion-dollar deals to resolve the disputes. After U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg took over the case from U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, Judge Seeborg awarded the law firm $47.8 million in attorney fees for securing the settlements. But in May 2020, a pair of Ninth Circuit panels vacated the fee awards after Clore argued before the appellate court that Judge Seeborg erred by keeping Hagens Berman's initial proposal for lead class counsel under seal and not properly taking it into account in awarding fees, among other objections.
On remand, in July, Judge Seeborg awarded Hagens Berman a revised $31 million fee, finding that the firm was entitled to a 20% premium on top of the $25.9 million it would be allotted under the firm's interpretation of the fee grid in its initial class counsel proposal. Judge Seeborg also awarded Erwin's counsel $1.5 million in fees in September for their work helping to convince the Ninth Circuit to throw out the initial fee award.
But Erwin again challenged the fee award, with Clore arguing before the appellate court that Hagens Berman took too long to return the fees after the previous panel vacated the award, and did not place the funds in a client trust account, as required by professional rules of conduct. Clore added that the trial court also erred in miscalculating the "starting point" for setting reasonable attorney fees on remand by using a flat rate instead of the sliding scale specified in the firm's initial proposal, resulting in an adjusted $25.9 million for the firm. That amount should be $22.2 million, he said.
In light of the alleged violations, Clore asked the Ninth Circuit to send a message that class counsel are not immune to the California state bar's professional rules, and require the law firm to either forfeit its fees, or at the very least reduce the fees to keep in line with the firm's initial $22.2 million fee proposal. As support, Clore cited the Ninth Circuit's 2012 decision in Rodriguez v. Disner, which held that a court has "broad equitable powers to … require an attorney to disgorge fees already received" for a serious ethical violation.
But class counsel Shana E. Scarlett, of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, argued that $31 million in fees is justified given the length of litigation and how fiercely the litigation was fought. She also argued that the judge properly awarded additional fees on top of the initial $25.9 million proposal based on his discretion and understanding of the case.
But Judge Bea asked why the trial judge used a flat rate instead of the sliding scale methodology specified in the firm's initial bid proposal. "Why isn't Judge Seeborg wrong in using a flat basis rather than a sliding scale basis based on the schedule we have before us?" the judge asked the attorney. Scarlett replied that the firm's initial bid proposal was just one part of what informed the trial judge's decision. But Judge Bea appeared skeptical.
"You're talking about extrinsic evidence that was used by Judge Seeborg to interpret the writing, which we have before us?" Judge Bea asked. "What factual evidence was there? Are you saying that the written document is ambiguous and requires factual findings interpreted?" Scarlett replied that the initial proposal was clear that the fees should use a flat rate, and not a sliding scale, but Judge Seeborg "went further and made the finding that we intended to be flat rate structure."