December 22, 2023
A recent Law 360 story by Bonnie Eslinger, “’Superb’ Juul MDL Attys Get $76.5M, But Diversity Issue Noted”, reports that a California federal judge approved an attorney fee award of $76.5 million in multidistrict litigation alleging Juul marketed its nicotine products to adolescents, saying the plaintiffs' lawyers did a "superb job," while also expressing concern about the lack of Black and Latino attorneys involved.
During a hearing in San Francisco held over Zoom, U.S. District Judge William Orrick was full of praise for the work done by co-counsel for the plaintiffs, which he said obtained an "excellent" result. Ruling from the bench, he awarded the lawyers 30% of the $255 million settlement, $76.5 million.
Before issuing that ruling, however, Judge Orrick said he wished there had been more Black and Latino lawyers working on the MDL. Pointing at a report put together by the plaintiffs about the demographics of their lawyers, the judge applauded the gender diversity, in particular with the four co-lead counsel he selected in 2019, which includes three women.
During the hearing, the court heard from one objector to the requested fee amount and a second against the proposed allocation of the fees. The latter was filed by the Law Offices of Esfand Nafisi, who said lawyers who worked for the common benefit of all plaintiffs in the litigation were getting shortchanged. "This was an extraordinary result that required a lot of hard work and a lot of hard lawyering," Nafisi said. "We think that the fruits of those results and hard work ought to be proportionally distributed."
Judge Orrick overruled the objection, noting that Nafisi's was the lone objection to the work of the fee committee, which was assisted by a court-appointed special master. "I agree ... I think the work that was done really was excellent, and the result obtained was also excellent," the judge said.
The other objector, Juul purchaser Reilly Stephens, told the court that a nearly one-third cut of the settlement was too high. His lawyer, Neville Hedley of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute, called the 30 percent proposed a "windfall."
Judge Orrick rejected the assertion. "I think this was an excellent result for the class; the legal risks were significant and it took good and creative lawyering to get there," Judge Orrick said.
The fee committee noted in a Dec. 13 memo to the court that the settlement followed a little more than three years after the MDL was formed in October 2019. "A little more than three years later, defendant Juul Labs Inc. agreed to four global settlement programs: personal injury, government entity, tribal entity, and class. While the amounts and terms of the non-class settlements are confidential, the aim of the settlements is to resolve virtually all cases pending in either the MDL or [Judicial Council Coordination Proceedings] and to fund solutions to the youth vaping epidemic," the memo adds.
The settlements include all claims pending against Juul Labs Inc., its officers and directors, as well as its suppliers and retailers. "These remarkable results happened at remarkable speed, particularly in the context of a global pandemic that could have, but did not, grind this litigation to a halt," the fee committee states.
In September, Judge Orrick signed off on the Juul deal, but held off on the attorney fees and expense request to consider the determinations made by the fee committee. The approval came nearly a year after Juul announced it struck an agreement with the plaintiffs, which include adolescents, school districts and municipalities — just as the litigation was heading to bellwether trials led by California schools. Juul and the class later unveiled details of the proposed settlement, which Judge Orrick preliminarily approved in late January.