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Category: Fees more than Damages

NJ Law Firm Seeks $29K in Fees in $10K Settlement

November 7, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Chart Riggall, “NJ Firm Wants $29K Fees in Debt Suit That Settled For $10K”, reports that a New Jersey law firm that recently negotiated a settlement on behalf of the victim of an alleged predatory debt collection scheme asked a federal judge to award it $29,000 in attorney fees, nearly three times the $10,000 settlement amount.  Marcus & Zelman LLP, which successfully represented Anne Hameed in the suit that settled last month, said Monday in its fee request that while the litigation "was relatively simple and straightforward, a significant amount of litigation and attorney involvement was required."

On top of the $29,000 in fees — tabulated from over 59 hours of work by two attorneys — the firm said it should recoup another roughly $1,600 in filing and transcription costs, bringing the total tab to over $30,000.

Filed in August 2022, Hameed's suit accused a Parsippany, New Jersey, firm, Fein Such Kahn & Shepard PC, of attempting to prey on her through a bogus medical debt collection scheme.  The firm had tried to collect thousands of dollars in medical debt that Hameed said her insurance had covered, at one point suing her and placing a levy on her finances that cleaned out her bank account, according to Hameed's complaint. Hameed sued under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act,

Hameed and Fein Such settled the case on Oct. 5 for $10,000, with the court giving Marcus & Zelman a month to request fees.  In its filing, the firm said it was clear its client, Hameed, was the victorious party.  "Here, the plaintiff was awarded $10,000 in damages, despite statutory damages being capped at $1,000 in any action brought under the FDCPA," Marcus & Zelman said.  "Accordingly, it is indisputable that plaintiff 'prevailed' on her FDCPA claim in every sense of the word."

Though the requested fees far exceeded the baseline settlement amount, the firm said its billings would stand up to court scrutiny.  "Plaintiff's counsel do not double-bill or assign multiple counsel to review the same document," the firm said, later adding: "It is respectfully submitted that the attorneys' fees sought by plaintiff is reasonable, considering the amount of time and attention the litigation of this action required.  Plaintiff's counsel skillfully enabled the plaintiff to prevail in this action, despite the numerous hurdles and dilatory tactics utilized by the defendant."

Article: Attorney Fee Ruling May Complicate Claims Made Settlements

July 3, 2023

A recent Law 360 article by David Ross, “Atty Fee Reversal May Complicate Claims Made Settlement”, reports on the ramification of the Lowery v. Rapsody International decision.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

A decision prefaced by "will likely make the average person shake her head in disbelief" is unlikely to end well for a party.  That was the outcome when an initially sought $6 million in legal fees was later awarded at $1.7 million by a district court.  In Lowery v. Rhapsody International Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the fee award June 7 because class members obtained less than $53,000 in benefits.

The rationale for that decision could spell trouble for those seeking approval of claims-made class action settlements that do not have sufficient financial benefits actually received by class members or meaningful injunctive or non-monetary relief.


In Lowery, the Ninth Circuit panel addressed a claims-made class settlement.  For a little background, class settlements typically involve a claims-made or common fund structure.  A claims-made settlement involves claims submissions to determine the amount of benefits that a defendant will pay.  The ultimate amount is unknown, although, as in Lowery, caps may be in place to prevent a runaway payout amount.

In comparison, the defendant in a common fund settlement agrees to the total amount it will pay for the class settlement.  In other words, the overall amount is predetermined.  The common fund often includes settlement benefits, plaintiffs' attorney fee awards, service awards for the class representatives, and claims administration and notice costs.  In some settlements, hybrid structures are crafted that may include claims-made and common fund elements.

The Lowery case involved a claims-made class settlement in a music copyright class action. Rhapsody agreed to pay class members — copyright holders — for music played on its streaming service.  However, an earlier settlement between Rhapsody and the National Music Publishers Association to resolve the same copyright issues resulted in 98% of the class members waiving their right to participate in the settlement. This gutted the class.

Despite agreeing to pay up to $20 million for claims, Rhapsody wound up paying only $52,841.05 in claims.  Rhapsody also did not have to change its licensing practices, as Congress passed the Music Modernization Act in 2018, which allowed digital music providers to obtain blanket licenses.  On appeal, the panel found that the $1.7 million fee award to the plaintiffs' counsel, "more than thirty times larger than the amount paid to class members," was not reasonable.

The panel held that: courts must consider the actual or realistically anticipated benefit to the class­ — not the maximum or hypothetical amount — in assessing the value of a class action settlement.  On remand, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California was directed to "disregard the theoretical $20 million cap" and instead "start with" the actual amount the class claimed.

The panel noted that "rule is especially important when the class redemption rate is low" and another "approach would allow parties to concoct a high phantom settlement cap to justify excessive fees, even though class members receive nothing close to that amount."  The panel added that "the district court should consider cross-checking its lodestar calculation to ensure that it is reasonably proportional to the benefit provided to the class."  If the cross-check showed that the fee award exceeded 25% of the class benefits, that disparity might "suggest that the fee amount is unreasonable."

The panel added that except for extraordinary cases, a fee award should not exceed the value provided to the class, and remarked that it did not matter that "attorneys may have devoted hundreds or even thousands of hours to a case."

Potential Ramifications of the Lowry Decision

The takeaways from this decision will likely emanate far beyond copyright cases.  Class action plaintiffs attorneys may refuse to consider claims-made settlements in the Ninth Circuit, and insist on common fund settlements.  This position could extend to state court cases on the West Coast for fear that these courts might find the Ninth Circuit's decision persuasive.  Even for common fund settlements, the amount that class members actually will receive must be considered.

While common fund settlements predetermine the amount that the defendant will pay, the amount actually paid in benefits to class members might still depend on the take rate and the types of benefits available.  Common fund settlements are thus not entirely inoculated from the potential application of the panel's rationale in the Lowery decision.  A court still could consider the amount of attorney fees and the amount of the common fund actually allocable to class member benefits.

Thus, regardless of whether a common fund or claims-made settlement in the Ninth Circuit is pursued, the likely take rate and associated monetary benefit for class members should be carefully evaluated.

Looking Ahead in the Ninth Circuit

For any settlement, the impact of non-monetary and injunctive relief, which the Ninth Circuit recognized was not at issue in Lowery, should be considered. The panel noted a contrast to civil rights cases, where attorney fees awards did not need to be strictly proportional to monetary damages.  In civil rights cases, significant non-monetary and injunctive relief to the plaintiffs can be provided, but for copyright cases, attorney fees must consider the proportion between the award and the class benefits to confirm the award is reasonable.

That said, the panel recognized that in copyright cases such as infringement where substantial non-monetary relief or a meaningful benefit to society is encompassed, a fee award may exceed the monetary benefit provided to the class.  The Lowery decision does not have to be a death knell for claims-made settlements in the Ninth Circuit.  There is no reason to conclude that a well-structured claims-made settlement that provides significant settlement benefits to class members can no longer obtain court approval.  To the extent that material injunctive and non-monetary benefits are included, even more reason for optimism exists.

It also should be noted that the Lowery decision does not mean that all focus in a class settlement should be on boosting the amount paid to class members.  The key focus in Lowery was the amount of the plaintiffs' attorney fees in comparison to the amount of class member benefits.  So, maybe­ — just maybe­ — more reasonable attorney fees amounts can increasingly become part of class action settlements, whether structured as a claims-made or common fund settlement.

David Ross is a partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP.

Ninth Circuit: Attorney Fees Cannot Exceed Value to Class

June 14, 2023

A recent Law.com story by Avalon Zoppo, “Attorney Fees Cannot Exceed Value to Class, 9th Circuit Makes Clear in Copyright Case,” reports that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit made clear its view that class action plaintiffs lawyers generally should not be awarded fees that exceed the amount their clients get from a settlement as the court struck down a $1.7 million fee award in which the class received less than $53,000 in a royalties dispute settlement.

The three-judge panel, in a presidential decision last week, said the lower court wrongly calculated fees for plaintiffs’ counsel in a copyright case based on a settlement that provided for a fund of up to $20 million for class payouts.  The district court should have instead looked at the amount actually obtained by those who made claims, here $52,841.05, the Ninth Circuit said.

Judge Kenneth Lee, writing for the panel, said the $1.7 million award is one that will “likely make the average person shake her head in disbelief.”  “Except in extraordinary cases, a fee award should not exceed the value that the litigation provided to the class,” Lee wrote.  ”No rational person would spend, say, $1 million in legal fees— and endure the hassles and headaches of litigation — to recover only relief that is a small fraction of that amount.”

‘A Significant Decision’

Alexander Smith, a class action defense partner at Jenner & Block, said the opinion is the circuit’s clearest statement so far that the main principle for determining the reasonableness of attorney fees under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 is the benefit to the class.  “It’s certainly a significant decision, and sort of crystallizes a point that the Ninth Circuit indirectly made over the years, which is that we are not going to tolerate class settlements that pay a disproportionate benefit to attorneys as opposed to the class members that they purport to represent,” said Smith, noting that the court has made similar rulings over the past few years.

Michelman & Robinson represented a class of musical composition holders in the lawsuit against streaming service Rhapsody International, now branded as Napster, accusing the company of infringing their copyrights by sharing songs without a license.  The district court approved $1.7 million in fees based on Rhapsody’s promise to set aside up to $20 million for class members who submit claims.  But the Ninth Circuit said the lower court should have focused its analysis on how much the class ended up taking home, adding that there was no meaningful injunctive or non-monetary relief justifying the fee award.

In a statement to Law.com, Mona Hanna, Michelman & Robinson’s Orange County office managing partner, said the court did not give enough weight to non-monetary benefits for plaintiffs that resulted from the lawsuit and that the firm is “considering our options moving forward.”

“There is no dispute that after years of failing to pay artists their legally mandated royalties, Rhapsody ceased that practice, entered into a settlement with the National Music Publishers’ Association, and created an internal artist board to watch over Rhapsody’s conduct and confirm compliance with the new procedures.   This lawsuit contributed to these significant changes and resulted in a settlement providing up to $20 million to eligible class members and other non-monetary benefits,” Hanna said.  “We believe the Ninth Circuit opinion does not appropriately acknowledge the benefits to the class and does not comport with prior authority.”

In reversing the award, the panel pointed to its 2021 holding in Kim v. Allison that courts must compare the amount anticipated to be paid and not the maximum payable amount.  In the civil rights class action against Tinder where a $1.2 million award was vacated, the company agreed to a theoretical settlement cap of up to $6 million but only $45,000 was paid out.

But leading plaintiffs class action lawyer Jay Edelson said lower courts, and the magistrate judge here in particular, did not view the circuit’s past rulings in this area as establishing a bright-line rule on the question.  The circuit now has cleared up that confusion, he said.  The panel, composed of Lee and Judges Milan Smith and Daniel Collins, said explicitly that “what matters most is the result for the class members.”

Edelson said the decision will have an outsized effect beyond the Ninth Circuit, where plaintiffs lawyers will be forced to grapple with the court’s logic.  “It’s very hard now for [class action plaintiffs lawyers] to make arguments in other courts, even outside the Ninth Circuit, and say, ‘No, it’s OK that we’re keeping 95% of the money,’” said Edelson, founder of Edelson PC.  “They’re going to have to try to explain why the Ninth Circuit’s logic was wrong.  And I don’t think that’s possible to do.”  Meanwhile, Smith predicted that the decision may push class action plaintiffs attorneys to negotiate common fund settlements over claims-made settlements.

Beyond Copyright?

Kian Hudson of Barnes & Thornburg said the court’s decision also touches beyond copyright cases.  But Hudson also said the court gestured toward a possible narrow exception for civil rights class actions.  The panel noted that fees awarded in civil rights cases “need not be strictly proportional to monetary damages” because they can benefit society through non-monetary relief such as ending civil rights abuses.

“Although this case arose in the copyright context, it’s important to note that the Ninth Circuit was applying Rule 23(h), which imposes a ‘reasonableness’ requirement to attorney fee awards in class-action cases regardless of the nature of the lawsuit,” Hudson said in an email.  “It thus seems clear that the court intends its approach to be applied across many substantive areas of law.”

Edelson said the Ninth Circuit made a similar holding in the context of a consumer class action against ConAgra over alleged false labeling on its Wesson vegetable oil as “100% all natural.”  Lee also authored that 2021 opinion, in which the court reversed $7 million in attorney fees for plaintiffs counsel based on a claims-made settlement where the food company put up a maximum of $70 million for claims but a little less than $1 million was paid out.

Judge Grants $2.7M Fee Award in $1M Class Settlement

April 19, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Collin Krabbe, “Wis. Judge Awards Attys $2.7M in Fees Over $1M Settlement,” reports that a Wisconsin federal judge has awarded attorneys a dollar figure for fees and costs that is more than double the amount of a $1.05 million settlement negotiated to resolve claims by residents of the town of Superior who had to evacuate their homes following a 2018 explosion at a nearby refinery owned by Husky Energy Inc.

U.S. District Judge William M. Conley said in an opinion that Zimmerman Reed LLP will receive $2.7 million in fees and costs, reducing the fees requested by 25%, in the suit against Husky Oil Operations Ltd. and Superior Refining Company LLC. Still, the judge noted the defendants' perceived aggressive litigation tactics "at virtually every turn in this case."

"Taking into account theJu degree of counsel's success in achieving a class settlement, the time spent on unsuccessful claims and theories, and excessive fees driven by defendants' aggressive tactics, therefore, the court concludes that a reduction of 25% in fees is appropriate," the judge noted.  Zimmerman Reed submitted billing records reflecting 6,251 hours of work with hourly rates ranging from $350 to $845 for attorneys and $200 to $315 for paralegals, for a grand total of $3,151,017 in attorney fees and $359,948 in costs, according to the order.

But the judge reduced the fee amount to $2.3 million, noting that the settlement award was "significantly less" than plaintiffs initially sought.  Less than a third of the potential class ultimately submitted claims, and under the settlement, each class member got around $167.23 — not including "offsets for earlier, voluntary reimbursements by defendants," the order said.  The $1.05 million settlement was given final approval last year in a suit that stems from an explosion at a refinery in Superior on April 26, 2018, which caused a fire that allegedly created a risk of hydrogen fluoride being released and potentially harming residents.

In ruling on fees and costs, Judge Conley took issue with compensation for time spent on unsuccessful claims and legal theories.  "From the court's own review, plaintiffs appear to have billed at least several hundred hours relating to claims and theories that were unsuccessful, particularly in developing its unsuccessful classwide damages theory and in opposing defendants' successful motion for summary judgment," Judge Conley's order said.  "However, it is not possible to determine precisely how many of plaintiffs' 6,251 hours were allocated to successful versus unsuccessful claims," according to Judge Conley.

Finally, the judge said a review of the fees incurred by defendants reflect total fees of about $4 million, which is roughly $1 million more than Zimmerman Reed was asking to be awarded.  The judge added that "this substantially larger fee paid is certainly consistent with this court's perception of the aggressive litigation tactics by defendants at virtually every turn in this case."

The judge also disregarded the defendants' argument that Zimmerman Reed's rates were unreasonable.  Zimmerman Reed Partner Gordon Rudd told Law360 that "this was an extremely hard-fought case.  The litigation involved residents who were forced to evacuate their homes due to a refinery fire and explosion in Superior, Wisconsin.  Both Husky Oil Operations and Superior Refining Company aggressively litigated the case and aggressively challenged the attorneys' fees being requested by the homeowners."

"We are pleased with the result that the homeowners achieved and with the Court's recognition that scorched earth litigation strategies by companies can result in the award of increased fees and costs incurred by plaintiffs in responding to these tactics," Rudd added.  The judge also disregarded the contention that class counsel agreed in contingency fee contracts to accept only 33% of any recovery acquired in litigation, noting that Zimmerman Reed's retainer agreements with individually named plaintiffs had separate fee clauses for "individual and class recovery."

Judge Wants Sabre to Pay Attorney Fees in $1 Antitrust Win

April 14, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Piper Hudspeth Blackburn, “Judge Wants Sabre to Pay Fees in Airline’s $1 Antitrust Win,” reports that a federal magistrate judge has recommended that airline booking giant Sabre should cover the costs of attorney fees for US Airways, which pursued antitrust claims that ultimately resulted in a mere $1 jury award after more than a decade of litigation.  In a report, U.S. Magistrate Judge James L. Cott determined that the airline is entitled to fees because of the "plain language" of federal antitrust law despite the nominal damages award. Judge Cott also noted that the amount could be reduced after looking at billing records.

Because a jury returned a verdict for US Airways on its monopolization claim under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, "a plain reading" of Section 4 of the Clayton Act allows US Airways to recover the cost of the suit, "including a reasonable attorney's fee," the report stated.  In 2022, a Manhattan federal jury found, after a three-week trial, that Sabre willfully maintained monopoly power through exclusionary conduct. It was a redo of a 2016 trial that had awarded US Airways $15 million in damages before the Second Circuit scrapped the verdict on technical legal grounds.

Sabre has argued that U.S. Supreme Court precedent shows that when a party recovers only nominal damages, the only reasonable fee is "usually no fee at all."  However, US Airways insists that the damages it received shouldn't affect its ability to recover costs and attorney fees.  According to Judge Cott, Sabre's argument fails because the precedent the booking company pointed towards, Farrar v. Hobby, doesn't apply to this case but rather to the reasonableness of fee awards in civil rights cases. Farrar holds that the reasonableness of a fee award is indicated by the size of damages awarded.

"Farrar concerned the entitlement to fees under § 1988 of the U.S. Code, not the Clayton Act or any other mandatory fee statute, and there is no suggestion in the opinion itself that its holding extended beyond § 1988," the report stated.  Judge Cott pointed toward a Second Circuit decision on "an identical issue" to this one, United States Football League v. National Football League, instead.  In that case, the court had to determine whether a plaintiff is entitled to reasonable attorney fees "after decade-long antitrust litigation resulting in a $1 jury verdict only on Sherman Act Section 2 grounds."

Not only did the court decide that the plaintiff could recover attorney fees, it "further explained that civil rights cases are inapposite as they concern discretionary awards of fees, while Section 4 mandates them," the report continued.  Judge Cott also rejected Sabre's argument that in the event it must pay attorney fees, the amount should be reduced by 99% because US Airways only "obtain[ed] .0000003% of its alleged damages ... and no injunctive relief."

While no legal rule requires that fees be proportional to the requested amount and the recovered damages, Judge Cott, wrote that the court can reduce the requested fees after analyzing billing records.  While "a downward adjustment is undoubtedly warranted" in this case, Judge Cott noted that the court couldn't determine the amount without first calculating the lodestar.

"The court's eventual reduction will be guided by comparable cases in this circuit, which do not necessarily dictate the extreme slashing that Sabre seeks," the report stated.  The litigation began in 2011, when US Airways sued Sabre, alleging that the company had monopolized the market for systems that connect airlines to travel agents and violated federal antitrust laws.