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Category: FRCP

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.

Law Firms Spar Over Attorney Fees Ahead of Trial

August 4, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “Chicago Firm, Attys Spar Over Fees Ahead of Ex-Client’s Trial”, reports that Chicago law firm Wood Phillips and one of its former attorneys suing an ex-client for payment for their two decades of work in a patent case are embroiled in a contentious dispute over how potential recovery would be allocated between them, and the firm is asking an Illinois federal judge to weigh in on the applicability of its contingency fee agreements ahead of trial.

Wood Phillips Katz Clark & Mortimer and named partner John S. Mortimer are seeking to file either a pretrial motion to resolve whether the parties are bound by those agreements or, alternatively, to add a cross-claim against former Wood Phillips attorney Dean Monco for anticipatory breach of contract.

The case is set to go to trial early next year, as the firm and attorneys seek to be compensated for more than 20 years of work for carbon fiber manufacturer Zoltek Corp.  The firm and Mortimer argue, in their motion for leave to file, that it would be unfair and would create "chaos and confusion" to have the plaintiffs arguing amongst themselves at trial.

But U.S. District Judge Martha M. Pacold appeared skeptical of those proposed procedural avenues during a status hearing, pushing the parties to address how a Rule 16 pretrial motion could resolve a substantive issue such as the applicability of the firm agreements, how it would impact how the trial would be conducted and whether a potential cross-claim is premature given there's no recovery to divvy up yet.  The judge also questioned whether a cross-claim against Monco was fair given the late stage of the litigation.

Acknowledging that resolving the intra-plaintiff dispute could assist in a potential settlement, the judge said that there still needs to be a legal basis for resolving the issue, not just a practical one.  "I don't think I have a kind of free-ranging power, even if I wish I might, to just decide random stuff," Judge Pacold said.  "There has to be a legal basis and legal hook for really every issue that is teed up.  So I certainly understand all those practical considerations, there just has to be a legal framework for resolving it."

Lee Grossman, an attorney representing Mortimer and the firm, told the court the vehicle for the pretrial motion could entail a jury instruction telling jurors to conduct the recovery for Monco, Mortimer, and the firm based on the formula laid out in the firm agreements at issue.  As for whether a cross-claim is premature ahead of a potential recovery at trial, Monco has already stated in interrogatories that he doesn't intend to honor the firm fee agreements, Grossman said.

"One party has already said, 'I'm not going to follow that contract,'" Grossman said. "In the interest of judicial economy, or whatever economy is left, I don't think it's a practical way to go."  But Monco argued to the court that Wood Phillips has made multiple improper attempts to adjudicate an unfiled and disputed contract claim against any future quantum meruit recovery from Zoltek, and that his former employer can't use Rule 16 to skip the required steps of filing a pleading and then a motion for summary judgment.

Paul Vickrey of Vitale Vickrey Niro & Gasey LLP, representing Monco, said allowing that avenue would lead to a "sideshow" at trial and would only invite confusion and delay. The firm agreements have nothing to do with the elements for determining quantum meruit under Illinois law, Vickrey said, and the firm can later challenge the results in state court if they so choose.

The calculations laid out in the agreements at issue are "hotly disputed," said Patrick F. Solon, another attorney for Monco. The contract claim that the firm is now trying to pursue was never filed, and there's been no pleading, no answers and no discovery on the matter, he said.  But Grossman countered that the fee agreements have been a cornerstone in the yearslong case.  "There's no discovery needed on these agreements," he said.  "They've been talked about in this case from day one."

Also, before the judge is a conditional bid by Monco to disqualify Grossman as counsel. Monco contends that if the firm is allowed to pursue its claim for his "anticipatory breach" of firm agreements, "using Grossman as their counsel [...] would result in Grossman suing his own former client in this very action."  Judge Pacold didn't rule on the pending motions immediately, saying she would either issue a decision after reviewing the materials and arguments or schedule another hearing for further discussion.

According to the 2017 complaint, Zoltek had hired Monco and Mortimer in 1996 to represent the manufacturer in a lawsuit against the federal government alleging that the B-2 bomber, which was developed by aerospace company Northrop Grumman Corp., infringed its patented method to produce carbon fiber sheets that help military aircraft avoid being detected by radar. Japanese conglomerate Toray Industries Inc. acquired Zoltek in 2014.

The litigation, which proved "extremely contentious and difficult," lasted 20 years, with the attorneys spending almost 13,000 hours representing Zoltek, the firm said.  But after a July 2016 strategy meeting in St. Louis, which Monco and Mortimer said led to their termination as counsel, the manufacturer then allegedly refused to pay the attorneys for overdue legal bills.

The manufacturer eventually settled the previous litigation for $20 million, but Wood Phillips and the attorneys got nothing, according to the complaint.  In July 2019, an Illinois federal judge said Monco and Mortimer can't pursue fees out of that settlement and must instead raise their claims against the company, with whom they had the attorney-client relationship.

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.

Law Firms Net $1M in Fees in Scotts OT Action

May 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Matt  Perez“Scott OT Suit Nets More Than $1M in Atty Fees,” reports that a Florida federal judge has approved over $1 million in fees for attorneys at law firms Morgan & Morgan PA, Cohen Rosenthal & Kramer LLP and Gallup Auerbach who successfully brought a proposed class action against Scotts Co. LLC to a $3.1 million settlement.  U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith in the Southern District of Florida gave final approval for $1,028,332.96 in attorney fees and $39,715.30 for costs and expenses. The payment amounts to just over 33% of the settlement figure.

The order also approved the $3,084,999 settlement — aside from the service awards that were stricken from the agreement — between The Scotts Co. and hundreds of lawn care workers, who accused the company of shorting them of overtime pay by using a "fluctuating workweek" methodology.  Plaintiffs Antonio Ervin, Kyle Borgailo, Colin Rogers, Matthew Shedron, Alexander Ramirez and Michael Melchior were designated class representatives, per the order.

Members of the settlement class will receive an award of $100 or more before taxes, making up an average 83% of the back wages they're owed before attorney and other fees.  Ervin alleged in his 2018 complaint that Scotts paid him just $4 to $5 an hour in overtime, despite his hourly pay rate being $13.75.  The final approval order released the defendants of any claims related to unpaid wages prior to Dec. 31, 2016.

"The court finds that the prerequisites for a class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 have been satisfied for settlement purposes for each settlement class member," the order said.  The court approved the attorneys' awards due to the 1,700 hours of work required, the complex substantive issues of the case that presented "significant risk of nonpayment," the "excellent monetary results" for the plaintiffs and the level of skill required to work through the lawsuit. The court also felt the percentage cut from the settlement was consistent with other class action settlements in its jurisdiction.

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.