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Category: Historic / Landmark Case

Class Counsel Seek $94M in Fees in DuPont PFAS Settlement

October 17, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Adrian Cruz, “Attorneys Seek $94 Million From DuPont PFAS Settlement”, reports that attorneys representing municipalities suing DuPont and other chemical companies over contaminated drinking water from PFAS chemicals have asked a South Carolina federal judge for $94 million in attorney fees.  In a memorandum, the group of attorneys from FeganScott LLC, Douglas & London PC, Napoli Shkolnik PLLC and Baron & Budd PC said their request of $94.8 million in fees is only 8% of the $1.19 billion settlement that was reached with Chemours, DuPont and Corteva in June.  The attorneys added that the 8% request is significantly below the 25% limit allowed by the Fourth Circuit.

Some of the reasons cited for the attorneys' fee request include a workload of nearly 415,000 combined billed hours, the novelty and complexity of the questions being asked throughout the litigation progress, the added challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the end result, which settled one of the nation's largest multidistrict litigations, which they said benefits over 100 million Americans due to the drinking water improvements that will be made as a result.

"The DuPont settlement was the result of a years-long, multitrack effort by plaintiffs' counsel who expended hundreds of thousands of combined hours on multiple fronts, including settlement efforts, litigation efforts and MDL case administration, without any guarantee of a recovery," the memorandum said.  "This three-pronged approach was necessary given the highly complex nature of this MDL involving so many defendants, and in order to meet the challenges and obstacles presented by this MDL, including, of course, litigating in the midst of a global pandemic."

Along with the $94.8 million in fees, the attorneys also requested $2.1 million in costs, noting that the amount covers about 10% of the total out-of-pocket costs spent on the litigation.  The attorneys added that because of the case's size and the involvement of large corporations, it was a risky one for the firms involved as they ultimately spent over $21 million without any guarantee of recouping those costs.

"Considering the expense and time involved in prosecuting this case against well-resourced defense counsel on a purely contingent basis, with no guarantee of a positive result and ever-mounting litigation costs in excess of $21 million, risky cases such as this are not for the faint of heart," the memorandum said.  "Whereas many shied away from this litigation, the court-appointed counsel poured their heart and soul into this litigation and should be rewarded accordingly."  In June, the municipalities reached a $10.3 billion settlement with 3M, which was also sued for its role in manufacturing products using PFAS and the ensuing water contamination that allegedly happened as a result of the chemicals.

"Addressing the PFAS settlements with DuPont and 3M, this wasn't just a case for us at the PEC [plaintiffs' executive committee], but a long, uphill battle spanning half a decade," plaintiffs' attorney Paul Napoli told Law360.  "For five strenuous years, we worked relentlessly without immediate compensation, pouring significant financial resources into the case.  This endeavor saw us navigating vast expanses of documents, managing an overwhelming amount of data, and facing formidable defenses that often seemed insurmountable.  Our proposed 8% fee is not just competitive within the industry, but it reflects the hardships we faced, the risks we took, and the substantial investments we made."

Lead plaintiffs’ counsel spent nearly 415,000 hours on the litigation, according to their fee motion, with a lodestar of more than $300 million, far more than what they were asking for in the DuPont settlement.  The lodestar is the number of hours spent on a case multiplied by the average hourly rate of the lawyers.

In a declaration attached to the fee motion, Vanderbilt Law School Professor Brian Fitzpatrick said the fee request was below the norm, even for settlements worth $1 billion or more.  The average award in 36 class action settlements of that size, between 2006 and 2023, was 12.1%, he wrote.  “Arguably, an even greater percentage fee is warranted,” the motion says, “but class counsel recognizes that their efforts to resolve these claims against DuPont parallel the claims being resolved against 3M.  To request a different percentage of the fund simply because of the size of the fund was not deemed justified.”

The motion states that the fees would be considered common benefit fees and deducted from retainer fees that firms already received through their own contingency contracts.  Lead plaintiffs’ lawyers also asked for $2.1 million in costs relating to the DuPont settlement, about 10% of their total expenses when including the 3M deal.

$185M Fee Award in $725M Meta Privacy Class Settlement

October 13, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “Facebook Users’ Attys Get $185M In $725M Meta Privacy Deal”, reports that counsel representing a class of more than 200 million Facebook users will take home nearly $181 million in fees and $4 million in costs after a California federal judge granted final approval to the $725 million deal resolving privacy claims over the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria put his final stamp of approval on the $725 million settlement that the preliminarily certified class reached with Meta Platforms Inc. in December.  Judge Chhabria also awarded class counsel $180.4 million in attorney fees, which equals 25% of the settlement fund, and almost $4 million in costs, according to the simultaneously filed orders.

The fee and costs take into account amounts previously awarded to class counsel as sanctions, according to the order, including in February when Meta and its attorneys at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP were ordered to pay $925,000 over their "unusually egregious and persistent" misconduct delaying discovery and gaslighting of opponents in seeking to extract a lower-priced settlement.

"The court does not take lightly the concern that a fee award equaling 25% of the settlement fund can be inappropriate in cases involving a massive monetary recovery for the class," Judge Chhabria said in the order.  "In many such cases, the 25% benchmark will be too high."  "As a result, the court has viewed the proposed fee award with greater skepticism, and less deference to the 25% benchmark, than in a typical case," he added.  "That said, the court finds that the attorneys' fee award is fair and reasonable under the percentage-of-the-recovery method."

The fee amount represents a 1.99 lodestar multiplier for roughly 150,000 hours of attorney work done over the past five years, which is below average in settlements of comparable size, the order states.  The judge said the settlement is a substantial portion of the maximum amount of damages the class could have recovered after trial and an appeal.  Novel legal issues and complicated facts, as well as Meta's resources and "aggressive approach to litigation," created a risk that the class would take home nothing — a risk shouldered by Bleichmar Fonti & Auld LLP and Keller Rohrback LLP, according to the order.  "The magnitude of the settlement fund is due more to the efforts of counsel than the size of the class," Judge Chhabria said.

The parties secured preliminary approval of the $725 million deal in March, before asking for final approval in July, in which the users touted the nearly 6% claims rate as "well above claims rates approved in other large settlements."  But objectors told the court later that month that the deal was overly broad and unfairly favorable to certain Facebook users.

Class members Stewart Harris and Ryan Cino argued that the likelihood that someone's data was compromised "almost certainly depends" on how many Facebook friends they had, which means users with fewer friends are getting just as much compensation despite having faced less risk.  And Sarah Feldman argued the settlement is too small, saying the potential damages in the case could be $6.25 billion.

At a final approval hearing in September, however, Judge Chhabria lauded the high rate of class participation, saying he was "blown away" that over 17.7 million valid claims have been submitted in what may be the largest response to a U.S. class action.  The judge granted final approval to the settlement, finding that more than 93% of the target audience of 253 million Americans had received notice of the settlement.  He also overruled the settlement's objectors.

$90M in Fees in Kraft-Heinz Shareholder Class Settlement

September 20, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Ryan Harroff, “Kraft-Heinz Shareholder Class Counsel Gets $90M in Fees”, reports that an Illinois federal judge awarded $90 million in fees to class counsel for the Kraft Heinz Co. investors who accused the company and a Brazilian private equity firm of hiding the snack food maker's cost-cutting measures after a merger to cover up a $15.4 billion goodwill impairment.

U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso said in his order that the investor class' counsel from Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check LLP, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP and other firms worked with "skill, perseverance, and diligent advocacy" to secure the $450 million total settlement that their clients agreed to with Kraft Heinz and 3G Capital Partners, the private equity firm that guided the 2015 merger between H.J. Heinz Co. and Kraft Foods Group Inc.  According to Judge Alonso's order, class counsel will also receive $2.6 million to cover litigation expenses on top of its 20% cut of the settlement fund.

The settlement is believed to be one of the largest pretrial securities deals in history and is the largest deal of its kind in the Seventh Circuit. Judge Alonso gave his preliminary approval to the agreement in May and issued final approval in a minute order Sept. 12.

Investors first filed suit in 2019, alleging Kraft Heinz engaged in shady accounting practices and cost-saving strategies that harmed its own supply chain, lost it customers and made potential new investors too nervous to buy in to the company, all while publicly stating it was saving money because of "synergies" from the 2015 merger.

3G Capital — which according to the suit owned 24% of Kraft Heinz and installed seven of its own partners as the new company's senior executives or board members — had directed Kraft Heinz's actions and overseen its belt-tightening moves, the investors had said.  Those cost-cutting measures lost shareholders a net $12.6 billion after the resulting supply chain and customer issues caused the company to write down the value of its own brands by $15.4 billion, they alleged.

Attorneys for the shareholders had asked the court in August for the $90 million they have now been awarded, estimating that their firms had collectively spent over 112,000 hours working on behalf of their clients to get the settlement on the books.  Judge Alonso also noted the substantial time investment in his order granting their request.

Data and Economics Justify Record $267M Fee Award

August 7, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Chancery’s Fee Ruling In Dell Is On The Money, Experts Say”, reports that the $266.7 million fee award Delaware's Chancery Court granted shareholder attorneys in the $1 billion Dell settlement represents a win for those seeking incentives for class counsel doggedness and a setback for corporate and institutional investors hoping to prune attorney fees after mega awards, experts told Law360.

In a 92-page decision, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster approved one of the largest fee awards of its type in Chancery Court history even though it was trimmed from the original request of $285 million.  His decision held to the Chancery Court's history of notching up fees for the plaintiffs' side when it's successful after pushing deep into the litigation and piling up risk.  The defense bar has routinely pushed the other way, arguing for adoption of approaches taken in federal securities actions that grant declining fee percentages as total awards grow.

Vice Chancellor Laster's opinion relied heavily on the Delaware Supreme Court's 2012 decision upholding a $304 million legal fee from a $2 billion Chancery award in Americas Mining Corp. v. Theriault, a case that went to trial.  The opinion "doubled down on that Americas Mining decision" and examined it extensively in the order, said Brian T. Fitzpatrick, the Milton R. Underwood chair in Free Enterprise at Vanderbilt Law School.  "And it doubles down on the notion that judges in Delaware are going to do what is best for class members," Fitzpatrick said.

In Americas Mining, stockholders sought damages after a 2004 deal that saw the company and its parent, Southern Copper Corp., agree to an overpriced, $3 billion acquisition of a Mexican mining company owned by Southern Copper's controller.  Then-Chancellor Leo E. Strine Jr. found in 2011 that the plaintiffs "indisputably prosecuted this action through trial and secured an immense economic benefit" for Southern Copper, while working on an entirely contingent basis for six years, facing "major league, first-rate legal talent" and grappling with complex financial and valuation issues.

In his decision this week after the Dell settlement, Vice Chancellor Laster said that the best scheme for compensating class attorneys working on a contingent fee remains the current standard, first paying out-of-pocket costs, then providing a fee based on a percentage of the net award and how far the case had progressed.  "This case involved true contingency risk. Plaintiff's counsel did not enter the case with a ready-made exit or obvious settlement opportunity.  There was a serious possibility that plaintiff's counsel would lose and receive nothing," the vice chancellor wrote.  That risk, the vice chancellor said, "supports a results-based award using the Americas Mining percentages.  No downward reduction is warranted under this factor."

At issue was Dell Technologies decision to issue a "tracking" stock after it went private in order to finance its acquisition of EMC Technologies.  The "Class V" shares were meant to follow the value of VMware Inc., in which Dell acquired a majority as a result of the EMC deal. In practice, the Class V shares traded at a steep discount, with shareholders alleging in Chancery that the 2018 swap short-changed them by about $34 per share.  The Dell settlement recovered 9.34% of the estimated potential $10.7 billion in damages that attorneys for the stockholders identified, the vice chancellor found, making it the 11th largest among cases studied as a percentage of maximum damages.

Minor Myers, a University of Connecticut School of Law professor, said the settlement was "garden variety" in every respect but its size and the opposition from some of Dell's big private investment funds.  "Presumably that's why these objecting funds are paying attention (most don't)," Myers said in an email to Law360.  "The fee request in this case was, if anything, modest in percentage terms, but of course it's gotten a lot of attention because it's a big number in the aggregate.

Myers said the opinion is in "the best tradition of Delaware's extraordinary sensitivity to incentives in confronting settlements in stockholder litigation.  When people do bad things out in the world, we rely, for better or worse, on plaintiffs' attorneys to do something about it.  They're the ones who generate results in class actions, on behalf of people who aren't usually paying attention."

Definitely paying attention were some private fund investors in Dell, who argued that the court would make a wrong turn if the award went forward as proposed.  "The enormity of plaintiff's counsel's $285 million fee application, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the settlement fund, risks creating a dangerous precedent for Delaware courts," Pentwater Capital Management LP, holder of 1.6% of the Dell Class V tracking stock at issue in the case, said in a brief.  Pentwater was joined in its objection by other fund investors representing 24.6% of the stock. Vice Chancellor Laster acknowledged their arguments in his decision, but also pointed out their potential multimillion-dollar gain should the court prune the fee award and leave more in the settlement pool.

Jacqueline S. Vinaccia, a California attorney and member of the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis, said in a telephone interview that Vice Chancellor Laster supported his decision with an "incredibly detailed" analysis that addressed each of the objectors' points.  "All of the theories and different approaches to attorney fees that I have seen seem to have been referred to and analyzed in this case.  It's a really extensive and well-thought-out and supported opinion, which we don't often see in fee cases.  But then again, this is a billion-dollar settlement with a 26 and ⅔ percent fee award."  A group of law professors also backed a declining scale, saying a $150 million fee would be defensible while keeping $135 million more for stockholders.

Anthony A. Rickey of Margrave Law LLC, counsel to the five law professors who filed a friend of the court brief opposing the settlement and suggesting bringing Chancery Court litigation fees more in line with relatively lower payouts for large cases in U.S. District Court securities actions.  Rickey said a 15% fee would be more appropriate, providing a still-large $150 million fee while earmarking another $135 million for shareholders.  "There is a considerable amount of decreased risk after motions to dismiss," Rickey said in court papers, "even in Chancery practice."

In Dell, Vice Chancellor Laster rejected motions to toss the case in June 2020, but the battle and risks continued for another three-plus years before the settlement.  "Even where a plaintiffs' attorney has been dealt an especially strong hand, sometimes the cards aren't worth a dime if you don't lay them down on the settlement table," said Myers, the Connecticut professor.  "This opinion ensures that the incentives will be well-calibrated in the future to push attorneys to take good settlements but still make it worth it to decline bad settlements and push forward with the case."

Lawrence A. Hamermesh, professor emeritus at Widener University Delaware Law School, said the court was wrestling with the question of "What's a good approximation of what people bargaining at arm's length would do if one of them had a claim, went to a lawyer and said, 'I want you to prosecute this for us. I don't want to put up the money. You're going to take all the risk.'"  The issue becomes one of deciding when the recoveries are large, as in Dell, and whether throttling back on fees as the total rises discourages class attorneys from risking dismissal if they push past a $500 million offer and go for $1 billion.

"The government cannot do everything, and sometimes the government doesn't do anything.  If we didn't have private attorneys looking out for us, there would be more corporate misconduct in the world," Vanderbilt's Fitzpatrick said.  "This is not icing on the cake.  Private enforcement is the cake," Fitzpatrick said.  "And we need to make sure those lawyers have the right incentive.  Cutting their fee because they get more for you is not the right incentive."

$27M in Fees in Record $122.5M Viacom-CBS Merger Settlement

August 4, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “$122.5M Viacom-CBS Merger Suit Deal, $27M Fee OK’d in Del.”, reports that Delaware's Court of Chancery approved one of the largest stockholder class settlements for a fiduciary duty breach in state court history, a $122.5 million deal with Paramount Global that ends a challenge to the fairness of CBS' $30 billion merger with Viacom in 2019.  Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III approved without objections the settlement terms, which will cover distributions to stockholders after a $26,922,500 attorney fee and $2,167,079 expense award

The approval settles more than 3½ years of litigation over the tie-up, which created Paramount Global, though what the suit argued was conflicted share exchange terms that counsel for the Viacom stockholders said "significantly overpriced CBS" relative to Viacom.  Gregory V. Varallo of Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP, counsel to the class, told Vice Chancellor Glasscock that the case had to survive disputes both with Viacom's controllers and independent committee members as well as the impact of litigation by CBS stockholders who, despite Viacom's position, alleged that they were the ones shortchanged.

"This settlement is a robust one, I think it's not overstated to say," Varallo said. He added later that the settlement was the result of a mediator recommendation that was offered after more than a full year of mediation.  Awaiting approval is a proposed $167.5 million settlement and $45 million in fees sought by attorneys for former CBS Corp. stockholders to end both derivative and class litigation over their alleged damages in the same merger. A hearing on that settlement is slated for Sept. 6 in the same court.

Co-lead counsel Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check LLP, Prickett Jones & Elliott PA and Grant & Eisenhofer PA are asking for $2.5 million in litigation expenses and a fee award of up to 27.5% of the $167.5 million CBS settlement amount minus those expenses, or roughly $45.37 million, according to a stipulation docketed on May 26.

The proposed Viacom class action was filed in late 2019, with a Viacom investor accusing media mogul Shari Redstone, daughter of National Amusements Inc. founder Sumner Redstone, and Viacom officers of breaching their fiduciary duty by pushing a "long-anticipated yet much-maligned" $30 billion merger with CBS, asserting the tie-up is "patently unfair" to Viacom shareholders.

Vice Chancellor Glasscock described the fee as illustrating "why we have to make contingent fee awards in settlements of this type that are large enough — although still wholesome in comparison to the whole — so the system will work" while relying on "entrepreneurial" counsel.  The 27,000 hours of contingent fee work by class attorneys "is an investment without a guarantee," the vice chancellor said.  "The $2.1 million in expenses is an investment without a guarantee."

Earlier in the case, Varallo said the litigation would have been judged based on the plaintiff-friendly "entire fairness" judgment standard, triggered by the appearance of a controller on both sides of a transaction, rather than business judgment deference.  In the Viacom-CBS deal, Shari Redstone was described as being on a mission to push through a deal combining the media giants, with Robert M. Bakish, her choice for CEO, slated to helm the combined company, Varallo said.

A special Viacom committee set up to review the merger caved to Redstone's governance demands to install loyalists at the helm of the new company instead of securing more economic considerations for Viacom shareholders, the suit asserts.  Varallo said the stockholders had arguments that the merger undervalued Viacom by $165 million under one measure, and by as much as $917 million under another, but still risked no recovery at all if the court found that the claim fell within a range of possible fairness conclusions.

The vice chancellor observed that "among the best corporate counsel in the country were involved here on both sides. There's no question this matter got the litigation attention it deserved. I don't find the 22% recovery here, given the contingent nature of the action and the result achieved, anything other than justified."