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Category: FRCP

Ninth Circuit Strikes Down $7M Fee Award in ConAgra Class Settlement

June 2, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Emily Field, “9th Circ. Strikes Down $7M Atty Fees in ConAgra Label Deal,” reports that the Ninth Circuit overturned a judge's approval of a class action settlement with ConAgra Food Inc. over its labeling on oil products, saying the parties crammed into the deal "a squadron of red flags" including attorney fees of nearly $7 million that are much larger than what consumers were awarded.  The panel in a published opinion said the agreement includes a number of questionable provisions and "reeks of collusion," particularly the attorney fee award of $6.85 million that is seven times higher than what class members received.

ConAgra and class counsel contended the deal could be worth more than $100 million, but ultimately, ConAgra paid out less than $8 million, with just $1 million going to the class.  Large counsel fees comparative to the payout for class members raises the possibility that counsel colluded with the defendant to lower class compensation in exchange for a larger fee, the panel said.  A defendant would go along with this kind of conspiracy because it only cares about how much it's paying in total, not how it's divided up, they added.

The panel said district courts must scrutinize attorney fee award arrangements when deciding whether a class action settlement is fair, following revisions to the Federal Rules for Civil Procedure that introduced the requirement in 2018.  Specifically, that requirement also applies to settlements that were reached after a class was certified, the panel held for the first time.  "[A] post-class certification settlement only ensures that the parties litigated aggressively to arrive at an adequate total fund size; it does not, however, address the inherent incentives that tempt class counsel to elevate his or her own interest over those of the class members," the panel said.

The panel's decision reverses the 2019 approval of the deal and sends the case back to California federal court.  In the suit, the buyers alleged ConAgra mislabeled its Wesson oil products as "100% natural" even though they contain genetically modified ingredients.

The deal also included a stipulation that ConAgra not advertise the Wesson brand of essential oils as "100% natural" anymore, which was supposedly worth tens of millions of dollars but now appears worthless since ConAgra no longer owns the brand, the panel said.  "That is like George Lucas promising no more mediocre and schlocky Star Wars sequels shortly after selling the franchise to Disney.  Such a promise would be illusory," the panel wrote in their opinion.

Objector and University of Chicago law professor M. Todd Henderson brought the appeal last year, arguing the lower court did not take into account the deal's value to the class when it granted the fees.  The panel also found other red flags in the settlement, such as a "clear sailing arrangement" under which ConAgra agreed not to challenge the class counsel fees.  "A clear sailing provision signals the potential that a defendant agreed to pay class counsel excessive fees in exchange for counsel accepting a lower amount for the class members," the panel said.

Zurich to Pay Attorney Fees as Sanctions in Coverage Action

April 20, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Mike Curley, “Zurich to Pay $1.5M For Sanctions in Fluor Coverage Suit,” reports that a Missouri federal judge ordered Zurich American Insurance Co. to pay $1.5 million in sanctions for disobeying court orders to turn over documents in a coverage dispute stemming from lead poisoning and pollution suits against Fluor Corp.  The sum is meant to cover the amount Fluor spent in its efforts to get certain documents relating to a period in 2010 while Fluor was fighting the pollution suits, which it said would have enabled it to settle the suits at a lower cost than the $300 million deal it initially struck.

Though Fluor had requested either $7.1 million or $15.4 million for the sanctions using two different methods of calculations, U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber found that Fluor had both overstated the amount of work the sanctions should cover and its fees.  The order stems from a finding in December, in which Judge Webber sanctioned the insurer over its failures to find and turn over documents illuminating a period in 2010 when Fluor might have been able to settle the numerous suits.

At the time, the judge did not state the amount of the sanctions, but in a February filing ordered Zurich to pay Fluor's attorney fees and costs to obtain the discovery at issue, and Fluor filed a statement of fees, asking for between $7.1 million and $15.4 million.  According to the order, Zurich disputed the amounts, saying Fluor improperly included in its calculation fees for work performed unrelated to the discovery dispute, such as expert fees and briefing of unrelated motions.

Judge Webber rejected the $15.4 million sum, as it included all attorney fees Fluor incurred between February 2019, when the court issued its first sanction order, and the December 2020 hearing, and thus went against his order, which directed Fluor to calculate the fees related to the discovery dispute specifically.

While Fluor argued that the entirety of those 21 months of litigation would not have been necessary if Zurich had complied, the judge rejected the argument, saying it would be "excessively punitive," as it includes fees that would've been incurred regardless of Zurich's sanctioned conduct.

For the $7.1 million sum, which comes from a more itemized list of fees, the judge first slashed it by 60% to about $3 million, saying Fluor's proposed attorney fee rates of $840 and $930 per hour are far above the reasonable rates for the St. Louis market, while $350 per hour is more reasonable.  The $7.1 million request also includes work unrelated to the discovery dispute, Judge Webber said, and he cut it in half again, resulting in the $1.5 million sanction.

Zurich sued Fluor in March 2016, claiming it doesn't have to indemnify the engineering company after it reached a roughly $300 million settlement in 2014 over lead poisoning and pollution suits encompassing 63 cases — known as "Bronson/Smoger" cases — from residents in Herculaneum, Missouri, which is home to a lead smelter.

Fluor, in turn, countersued, saying Zurich's failure to strike a deal caused the construction and engineering conglomerate to go to trial on the residents' claims, resulting in the hefty verdict, when the insurer could have ended the case with a settlement of under $7 million.

Zurich had previously been sanctioned in February 2019 when Judge Webber found Zurich willfully didn't comply with his orders to turn over documents and eventually awarded $244,000. Later the same year, Fluor requested sanctions again, in response to which the judge ordered Zurich in August 2019 to turn over an extensive list of documents to Fluor.

Attorney Raises Concerns of Hourly Rates for K&L Gates

March 21, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Rachel Scharf, “Atty in Failed WWE Case Blasts ‘Suspect’ K&L Gates Fee Bid,” reports that a lawyer who was previously sanctioned for his conduct in pursuing now-dismissed claims that World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. hid the risks of head injuries said that the company can't score more than half a million dollars in legal fees, calling K&L Gates LLP's billing rates "suspect."  Attorney Konstantine W. Kyros of Kyros Law Offices PC, who was sanctioned in 2018 for overly lengthy and frivolous filings, told a Connecticut federal judge that the nearly $574,000 fee requested by WWE and its CEO, Vince McMahon, is based on K&L Gates partner Jerry S. McDevitt's "patently unreasonable" $950 hourly rate, or nearly twice that of his co-counsel from Day Pitney LLP. Kyros also said McDevitt had overbilled for his time.

"WWE chose to provide this Court with suspect fees.  Mr. McDevitt spent far too much time performing basic work, numerous entries exist for nonrecoverable subjects, including research, drafting and conferencing over the crime-fraud exception, and over $20,000 for a PowerPoint presentation," Kyros said.  "These suspicious fees may require audit so the Court can properly discern any appropriate percentage reduction."

The fee fight stems from consolidated litigation dating back to 2014 alleging that WWE hid the risks of brain injuries from wrestlers, causing star wrestlers including Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka and Harry Masayoshi "Mr. Fuji" Fujiwara to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  The lawsuit was put to bed in September 2020 by a Second Circuit panel, after U.S. District Judge Vanessa Lynne Bryant tossed out a number of the actions in 2018 and ordered Kyros to pay WWE's attorney fees as a sanction for failing to heed the court's repeated warnings against frivolous filings.

Reached for comment, McDevitt denied Kyros' overbilling allegations and said the attorney is trying to duck paying for the time that WWE's counsel was forced to spend uncovering the "unethical tactics" that got him sanctioned.  "Mr. Kyros' deceptive and frivolous allegations are emblematic of his pattern throughout the case," McDevitt told Law360.  "He is now saying it should not have taken so much time and expense to expose his fraud on the court and serial misconduct, which he attempted to hide in mountains of deceptive and false pleadings and papers with the court."

But Kyros argued that WWE's fee application wrongly stretches the so-called Rule 11 sanction from 2018 in an attempt to recoup expenses far outside the order's scope, including an additional $39,000 for costs tied to applications following the Second Circuit appeal.

"This is not a sweeping sanctions award. It does not provide for all bills tangentially related to the sanctions motions," Kyros said in Friday's brief.  "WWE's fight to justify their unconscionable fee applications is too attenuated from the sanctioned conduct to warrant granting."  In a comment to Law360, Kyros said he is continuing to pursue the litigation, including by lodging a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Second Circuit's dismissal.  "Our team is proud to have stuck with the wrestlers in pursuit of their important claims, and despite WWE's liberal use of misguided Rule 11 filings we have stayed with the case to its conclusion," Kyros said.

Article: When is ‘No Fee’ a Reasonable Fee?

March 6, 2021

A recent article by Karen M. Morinelli and Samantha E. Dunton-Gallagher, “When Is ‘No Fee’ a Reasonable Fee? 11th Circuit’s Guidance on Reasonableness in FLSA Attorneys’ Fees Cases,” reports on a recent FLSA fee ruling in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On February 1, 2021, in an unpublished opinion resolving a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) attorney’s fees dispute, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Batista v. South Florida Womans Health Associates, Inc., struck another blow against unreasonable plaintiffs’ counsel seeking “reasonable” fees.  Mitzy Batista appealed the district court’s finding that it would be unreasonable to award her counsel, Elliot Kozolchyk, any attorney’s fees given his conduct during litigation filed under the FLSA.  Ultimately, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court to make necessary findings of fact and to issue its ruling regarding whether the employer had mailed a replacement check.  However, in doing so, the Eleventh Circuit provided additional analysis as to when reasonable attorneys’ fees in an FLSA case may be no fee at all.

Background

Mitzy Batista was employed for slightly over two weeks in January 2018 by South Florida Woman’s Health Associates, Inc., when she was discharged for missing work.  Batista claimed that she never received her last paycheck and was owed $275.50 for the 38 hours she worked.  South Florida Woman’s Health Associates claimed that Batista’s last paycheck was mailed to her last known address and that because the check was not returned, and because Batista did not contact the company, South Florida Woman’s Health Associates assumed that all was well.  Batista, however, claimed that she called her former employer’s office the day after she was fired and asked for her final paycheck.  She alleged that at first she was told she would be paid by direct deposit, only to be told a few days later by the receptionist that the owner of the clinic, Edward D. Eckert, was not going to pay her at all.

Batista met with her counsel, Kozolchyk, three weeks after her employment was terminated.  But in the three months that followed, neither Batista nor Kozolchyk contacted her former employer to ask about the missing check.  In May 2018, Batista sued her former employer, raising claims under the FLSA including violations of the minimum-wage provision, liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.  After receiving notice of the lawsuit, Eckert offered to send Batista a check for her unpaid wages but not her attorney’s fees.  Kozolchyk ignored Eckert’s initial offer.  When the counsel for South Florida Woman’s Health Associates and Eckert himself reached out again, they offered to clear up the matter and offered to pay the unpaid wages and court costs.

Kozolchyk initially ignored their communications and about a month later rejected the settlement offer.  Kozolchyk insisted on receiving attorney’s fees in an amount greater than what Eckert believed to be reasonable, stating, “my client cannot agree to shoulder the fees in this case … [for] those are recoverable against the defendants above and beyond the value of the claim.”  Kozolchyk then demanded his fees in the amount of $3,200, and Eckert counteroffered $1,100 in attorney’s fees.  Ultimately, the parties settled and agreed that Batista was to be paid $551 in unpaid wages, liquidated damages, and costs in the amount of $523, and that “the task of deciding the question of reasonable attorney’s fees” would be left to the district court.  The settlement was approved and Batista filed her motion for attorneys’ fees, seeking $10,675 in fees for the 30.5 hours Kozolchyk claimed to have expended litigating the case.  The district court referred the motion to a magistrate judge for a report and recommendation.

The magistrate judge, although “acknowledging the general requirement that prevailing plaintiffs in FLSA actions receive some award of attorney’s fees,” recommended that the court deny Batista’s motion and not award her attorney’s fees.  “Specifically, the magistrate judge found that (i) Defendants timely issued and mailed Plaintiff her final paycheck to the address she provided, (ii) Kozolchyk made no effort to contact Defendants to inform them that Plaintiff had not received her check before suing, and (iii) had he done so, he would have discovered that Defendants had sent Plaintiff’s paycheck to her address and were willing to issue another.”  Accordingly, the magistrate judge deemed Batista’s fee demands to be “excessive relative to the minimal work [i.e., a brief phone call] necessary to resolve the matter and make his client whole.”  The district court adopted the factual determinations and legal conclusions contained in the report and recommendation and rejected Batista’s objections, which included an affidavit in which she averred that she had telephoned someone in South Florida Woman’s Health Associates’ payroll department to request her last paycheck.  South Florida Woman’s Health Associates did not provide an affidavit to support its own allegations.

The Court’s Analysis

In determining whether the district court abused its discretion when it determined that a reasonable attorney’s fee in the case was no fee, the Eleventh Circuit reviewed guidance provided by analogous case law in the Southern District of Florida—including cases where plaintiffs were also represented by Kozolchyk.

Initially, the court discussed the “seminal district court case” of Goss v. Killian Oaks House of Learning, which was decided in 2003.  There, the plaintiff was a former employee who alleged she was owed two days of pay.  The former employer had issued a check and told her to pick it up, but instead of doing so, she hired a lawyer who sued the former employer for failure to pay wages.  The plaintiff’s lawyer asked for over $16,000 in attorneys’ fees where the matter settled for slightly over $300 for unpaid wages.  The Goss court stated that regardless of “the FLSA’s provision for a mandatory award of attorney’s fees for a prevailing plaintiff, ‘an entitlement to attorney’s fees cannot be a carte blanche license for Plaintiffs to outrageously and in bad faith run up attorney fees without any threat of sanction.’”  The Goss court “concluded that there are ‘special circumstances’ that can render the award of attorney’s fees unjust and that ‘so-called nuisance settlements represent such a circumstance.’”

The Eleventh Circuit also discussed Nelson v. Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design, Inc., a 2018 case in which “the [district] court denied in its entirety a fee request by counsel in [the] case, Mr. Kozolchyk.”  The plaintiff in Nelson had sued for two days of unpaid wages equaling $116, and after settlement, Kozolchyk had sought more than $9,000 in attorney’s fees.  In Nelson, the employer had immediately tried to resolve the matter after suit was filed by paying the unpaid wages at issue, plus $1,500 in attorney’s fees and costs, which Kozolchyk declined.  The employer, through counsel, then physically tendered the money in question and offered $2,000 in fees and costs, but Kozolchyk still declined.  The Nelson court ultimately determined that ‘Kozolchyk’s “sole intent [at that point] was to run up his bill.’”  Therefore, the Nelson court concluded, awarding any attorney’s fees would be “unreasonable, unjust, and inequitable.”

Similarly, in the 2019 case of Olguin v. Florida’s Ultimate Heavy Hauling, after Kozolchyk had filed suit, “the employer unconditionally tendered to Kozolchyk all the wages requested by the plaintiff, but Kozolchyk refused to accept the tendered paycheck” and lengthy litigation ensued on a separate claim, which he ultimately abandoned.  Kozolchyk ultimately sought attorney’s fees of over $36,000.  The Olguin court denied the request for attorney’s fees, finding that Kozolchyk’s “conduct was part of a strategy to churn the file and create unnecessary attorney’s fees.”

The Eleventh Circuit, analyzing the prior case law, clarified that the absence of any inquiry by counsel notifying an employer prior to filing an FLSA action was not in and of itself sufficient to deny attorney’s fees.  Specifically, the court noted that although it had denied fees in Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L., a 2009 case in which the plaintiff’s counsel had filed a lawsuit without contacting the prospective defendants to resolve the matter extrajudicially, the holding was limited to the facts of that case—“an FLSA suit filed against fellow attorneys as defendants.”  Indeed, the court emphasized that an attorney is required under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “to make reasonable inquiry into the facts underlying a claim.”  That is, “litigation in which the defendant-employer has done what it should reasonably do to get payment to a former employee, but in which the employee or her attorney has made no pre-suit effort to inform the employer that the payment was never received creates a scenario fitting into the … ‘nuisance litigation’ category.”

Ultimately, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case because the primary reason for the district court’s holding that attorney’s fees should not be awarded rested on “the finding that Defendants had actually mailed a final check to Plaintiff prior to her lawsuit.”  However, the record lacked evidence to support this finding because “Defendants had never supported their factual position with an affidavit, [so] their assertions were likewise insufficient to create an adequate evidentiary basis for findings that Plaintiff ultimately contested.”

Key Takeaways

The decision provides helpful guidance to employers.  In instances in which an employee is seeking unpaid wages where the amount of wages sought is partly or fully contested, the employer may want to consider tendering payment in full pre-suit where such sum is nominal.  Providing full tender of the payment may assist in preventing an overinflated award of attorneys’ fees and costs where the employee’s counsel’s primary intent is to “churn the file” and gain fees in bad faith.  When considering their options, employers may want to take heed that FLSA cases are fact-specific.

Karen Morinelli is the Office Managing Shareholder of Ogletree Deakins’ Tampa office.  As a former General Counsel and Vice President of Human Resources, she brings a strong business perspective to both client relations and in her approach to manage client issues.  She counsels employers in all aspects of labor and employment law including employer/employee relations, litigation, and alternative dispute resolution.

Samantha Dunton-Gallagher is Of Counsel in Ogletree Deakins’ Miami office and represents employers in cases that involve, among other things, alleged wrongful termination, harassment, discrimination, wage and hour violations and unfair business practices.  She regularly interacts with state and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

This article was drafted by the attorneys of Ogletree Deakins, a labor and employment law firm representing management, and is reprinted with permission.  This information should not be relied upon as legal advice.  

Article: Unusual Settlement Structure Leads to Fee Award Almost Double Judgment

November 1, 2020

A recent New York Law Journal article by Thomas E.L. Dewey, “Unusual Settlement Structure Leads to Approval of Fee Award Nearly Double the Payout,” reports on a recent New York class action were the attorney fee award exceeded the settlement amount.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Public policy generally prohibits class action settlements in which the attorney fee awards dwarf the amount awarded to the class.  But as a recent case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York illustrates, such a settlement may be approved if it is structured so that class counsel’s award does not come at the class’s expense.

In Hart v. BHH, No. 15-cv-4804, 2020 WL 5645984, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 22, 2020), Judge Pauley approved over $4.6 million in fees and expenses for class counsel, even though the total payments to class members were expected to top out at less than $2.5 million.  However, the court balked at the inclusion of a “quick-pay” provision in an earlier draft of the settlement, which would have allowed class counsel to collect its fees before the class members were paid, and did not allow the parties to submit attorney fees to a separate arbitration.

Background

The two named plaintiffs filed suit in in June 2015, alleging that “ultrasonic pest repeller” devices they had purchased from BHH LLC (branded Bell + Howell) were “ineffective and worthless.”  The complaint included claims under the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, multiple California consumer protection laws, and the implied warranty of merchantability. In May 2016, the court dismissed the federal statutory claim, but allowed the state law claims to proceed. An amended complaint then added a claim for fraud, citing representations made on the devices’ packaging and via the Home Shopping Network that they would rid homes of “ants, spiders, mice, roaches, rats and other pests.”

In July 2017, the court certified three classes of plaintiffs who had purchased the devices—a nationwide fraud class, a California-only class, and a multi-state breach of warranty class.  Each party then offered experts on the efficacy of the devices.  Judge Pauley began his Sept. 5, 2018, opinion on summary judgment with images from one of the expert reports, noting, “As the photographs show, mice can apparently relax comfortably under a Repeller and even appear to be so drawn in by its siren song that one would scale a wall just to snooze on it.”  Having thus found a disputed issue of fact regarding the efficacy of the devices, the court set jury trial for Sept. 9, 2019.  On July 16, 2019, the parties informed the court that they had reached a settlement, and on Sept. 3, 2019, the plaintiffs moved for preliminary approval of the agreement.

‘Quick-Pay’ Attorney Fees Provision Scuttles Preliminary Approval

The most notable feature of the proposed agreement in Hart was its so-called “quick-pay” provision, under which the plaintiff’s attorneys would be paid their fees within 10 days of final settlement approval.  Plaintiff contended the provision was necessary to discourage “the filing of baseless objections (and appeals), which can delay payment of class relief.”  Analyzing that provision in a July 17, 2020, opinion, the court wrote that it “strains credulity” that such a measure would deter baseless objections.  The court assured the litigants that such objections could be better discouraged by the threat of Rule 11 sanctions.

The court also found that, having reached a proposed agreement, the two parties had little incentive to pour any more resources into the case if valid objectors came forward.  The court noted that “money is the best way to keep lawyers engaged.”

Although plaintiffs’ counsel cited seven previous SDNY orders in which similar provisions had been granted preliminary approval, the court pointed out that none of those previous orders contained “an iota of analysis on ‘quick-pay’ provisions.”  Thus, in the first detailed analysis of such a provision in the Southern District, the court held that paying counsel “prior to compensating the class conflicts with Rule 23(e)’s mandate for fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy.”

Also as part of the preliminary agreement, the parties proposed to engage an arbitrator to determine the amount of attorney fees to be awarded to plaintiffs’ counsel.  The court ruled that such an arrangement was contrary to law, as it would usurp the court’s discretion and eviscerate its duty to “act as a fiduciary who must serve as a guardian of the rights of absent class members.”

The court thus denied preliminary approval of the settlement.  The plaintiffs quickly submitted a revised proposed settlement which no longer included the quick-pay provision or arbitration of attorney fees.  The court reviewed the revised settlement on Feb. 12, 2020, and granted preliminary approval, setting a hearing on final approval for September 2020.

Refunds for Class Members Found Fair

In its Sept. 22, 2020, opinion granting final approval of the settlement, the court devoted significant consideration to the structure of the awards to the class, which were styled as refunds for purchases of repeller devices.  By providing proof of purchase that included the price paid for each unit, a class member could receive a full refund for up to six units.  Without proof of the price paid, the amount of each refund was set at $15, which the parties chose as the best estimate of the purchase price.  Finally, class members who could not provide any proof of purchase could still receive $15 each for up to two units purchased.

As of August 24, class members had filed 82,503 claims for payment, and a total payout of $2,118,505 had been approved by the class administrator.  And crucially, no objections to the settlement had been received from notified class members.  The administrator expected a final payout between $2.1 million and $2.5 million.  BHH had agreed in the settlement to a total potential liability of over $57 million.

In evaluating the fairness of the settlement, the court noted that if the case had proceeded to a jury trial, class members might have received considerably less than full refunds—especially because plaintiffs “faced substantial risk in proving loss causation.”  The court found the settlement to be procedurally and substantively fair, and moved on to considering the fees to be awarded to class counsel.

Attorney Fees Exceed Amount Awarded to Class Members

The agreement allowed class counsel to seek up to $6.5 million in attorney fees and expenses—an amount almost triple the expected payout to class members.  That would typically pose a problem for a reviewing judge, who must “carefully scrutinize lead counsel’s application for attorneys’ fees to ensure that the interests of the class members are not subordinated to the interests of … class counsel.” Hart at 10, citing Maywalt v. Parker & Parsley Petroleum Co., 67 F.3d 1072, 1078 (2d Cir. 1995).  But as the court explained, “This case provides one unique feature absent from most class-action settlements: rather than the class members sharing from a settlement pool, the recovery to the class will be claims based.  As a result, attorneys’ fees will not reduce the class recovery.” Hart at 10.

For such claim-based settlements, the court explained that its “fiduciary role in overseeing the award is greatly reduced, because there is no conflict of interest between attorneys and class members.” Id. citing McBean v. City of New York, 233 F.R.D. 377, 392 (S.D.N.Y.2006).  The opinion also noted that the attorney fees were negotiated after the parties had reached an agreement on class recovery, which “tends to eliminate any danger of the amount of attorneys’ fees affecting the amount of the class recovery.” Hart at 11, citing In re Sony SXRD Rear Projection Television Class Action Litig., 2008 WL 1956267, at *15 (S.D.N.Y. May 1, 2008).

Performing the Second Circuit’s preferred fee analysis from Goldberger v. Integrated Res., as checked by the lodestar method, the court awarded $3,976,762.50 in legal fees and $700,227.57 in litigation expenses.  It rejected plaintiffs’ argument that unclaimed funds should be used as the denominator to calculate the fee percentage, since in this instance, the unclaimed funds would revert to BHH instead of being distributed via cy pres, and therefore the unclaimed funds did not provide an actual benefit to the class.  That was significant, because by plaintiffs’ calculation, nearly 90 percent of the agreed $57 million settlement was expected to go undistributed.

Even so, the final fee award was substantially greater than the total award to the class.  The court considered this carefully. “On one hand, allowing lawyers’ recovery to dwarf the settlement is against public policy,” the court wrote.  Hart at 21. “On the other hand, Class Counsel should be rewarded for concentrating their time, effort, and resources in successfully representing the class on a contingent basis.  And, most importantly, the fee will be paid directly by Defendants and will not come at the class’ expense.”  The court ordered that the attorney fees may be paid when at least 75% of the settlement has been distributed.  The court also awarded each class representative a $5,000 incentive award.

Practice Tips

The Hart case is as a helpful illustration of the restrictions on attorney fee provisions in class action settlements.  Though courts will be skeptical of attorney fee provisions that approach or exceed the total benefit to class members, such skepticism may be overcome if the settlement is structured so that increasing class counsel’s payout does not decrease the benefit to the class.  Additionally, the Hart court’s reasoned disapproval of a quick-pay attorney fee provision may portend greater scrutiny of such provisions in future cases in the Southern District and elsewhere.

Thomas E.L. Dewey is a partner at Dewey Pegno & Kramarsky.  L. Lars Hulsebus, an associate at the firm, assisted in the preparation of the article.