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Category: Settlement Data / Terms

$7M Cut From Attorney Fee Award in John Hancock Case

May 25, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Josh Liberatore, “$7M Cut From Atty Award in John Hancock Overcharging Suit” reports that attorneys who helped a class of John Hancock life insurance policyholders score a $123 million settlement will now take home $27 million for their work, after a New York federal judge trimmed about $7 million from Susman Godfrey LLP's initial award to reflect settlement opt-outs.  According to an amended order signed by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, the class attorneys will receive $27 million in fees, down from $34.4 million the judge awarded to Susman Godfrey in March.  The fee reduction comes after it was revealed at a fairness hearing on May 17 that policyholder opt-outs have reduced the total settlement fund by around $30 million.

On May 17, Judge Hellerstein also gave full approval to the class settlement, which had called for $123 million in cash to go to around 1,300 John Hancock Life Insurance Co. of New York universal life insurance policyholders who were subject to "cost of insurance" increases in 2018 and 2019.  However, two groups of policyholders opted out of the settlement, dropping the cash total to around $93 million, Judge Hellerstein said at the fairness hearing.

In March, Judge Hellerstein granted in full Susman Godfrey's proposed order for $34.4 million in fees, plus a pro rata share of interest earned on the settlement fund as well as $1.4 million in expenses.  Each of the seven named plaintiffs in the class action will receive $25,000 in incentive awards, according to the March order.  Following the opt-outs, the judge sought to trim Susman Godfrey's award to $25 million.  The firm had argued for just under $30 million, but Judge Hellerstein thought that was "excessive" and could be considered a "windfall."  The firm and judge eventually agreed on $27 million.

Other than the fee reduction, Judge Hellerstein's order from March will stay largely the same.  The only other change was a provision stating that as class counsel, the Susman Godfrey attorneys "shall not receive attorney fees or be reimbursed expenses until after the settlement administrator sends for delivery a settlement check to each settlement class member," which must come "within 44 days after the final settlement date."

The settlement itself was given full approval following its preliminary approval in January.  In addition to $123 million in total available cash, it provides class members with nonmonetary benefits, including a five-year freeze on COI increases for class members, that Susman Godfrey has said are worth an additional $67.8 million.  The original $123 million settlement amount as well as the new $93 million figure equal 91.25% of the COI overcharges that John Hancock collected from class members through August 2021, Susman Godfrey said.  That ratio is well above previous COI overcharge cases in New York federal court, the firm has said.

The $34.4 million that the Susman Godfrey attorneys were set to take home had represented 28% of the cash settlement and 18% of the overall settlement benefits when nonmonetary benefits are included, the firm said. The new $27 million award represents around 29% of the cash settlement when adjusted for opt-outs.

Judge Cuts ‘Unreasonable’ $24M Fee Request in Mattel Settlement

May 23, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Katryna Perera, “Judge Cuts ‘Unreasonable’ Atty Fee Bid in $98M Mattel Deal” reports that a California federal judge has granted final approval to a $98 million settlement between investors and toymaker Mattel Inc. and PwC, but slashed the requested $24.5 million in attorney fees, saying it was too high.  U.S. District Judge Mark C. Scarsi said in his order that while the Ninth Circuit typically considers 25% of a settlement fund the "benchmark," that figure is still only a "helpful starting point," and courts should depart from it when a benchmark award would "yield windfall profits for class counsel in light of the hours spent on the case."

Instead of granting the requested $24.5 million in attorney fees, the judge reduced it to approximately $13.6 million, which represents about 14% of the $98 million settlement.  A 25% award would provide an "unreasonable windfall" to the class counsel, the judge added.  "The Court finds persuasive class counsel's arguments and evidence concerning the excellent value of the results achieved through settlement, the riskiness and complexity of the litigation, the skill and quality of counsel's work, the contingent nature of the fee, and the significant financial burdens counsel carried during the course of litigation," the order states.  "While these factors merit a significant fee award, an award of 25% of the settlement fund is unreasonable given the magnitude of the fund."

John Rizio-Hamilton, who represents the class and lead investor plaintiffs DeKalb County Employees Retirement System and New Orleans Employees Retirement System, had previously urged Judge Scarsi to approve the fee bid and maintained that the reasonableness of the fee request is backed by a lodestar cross-check, which he said yields a multiplier of 2.7.  Judge Scarsi agreed with Rizio-Hamilton's calculations and stated that the multiplier is within range of other resolved class actions with common fund settlements.  But the judge found that the requested multiplier in this case was "excessive … relative to counsel's performance."

"Counsel would reap an extra $15 million windfall … while counsel should be commended and compensated for the risk they took, the work they did, and the result they achieved, that outsized windfall would not be fair to the other interests in this case," the judge said.  Alternatively, Judge Scarsi's approved $13.6 million attorney fee award represents a 1.5 multiplier of the lodestar, according to the order, which the judge called "appropriate in light of the hours counsel spent on the case, the magnitude of the settlement fund, the results achieved, and the risks and burdens borne by counsel."

In addition to granting final approval of the settlement for the same reasons outlined previously when he granted preliminary approval, Judge Scarsi awarded $5,515 to DeKalb County Employees Retirement System and $3,100 to New Orleans Employees Retirement System as lead plaintiff service awards, as well as $1.1 million in litigation reimbursement to class counsel.

Seventh Circuit Tosses $11M Attorney Fee Award

May 20, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hailey Konnath, “Seventh Circ. Throws Out $11M Fee Award For Bernstein Litowitz” reports that the Seventh Circuit vacated an $11 million fee award for Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP's work on a $45 million settlement between waste disposal company Stericycle and its shareholders, finding that the district court "did not give sufficient weight" to points raised in a class member's objection.  The three-judge panel said the Illinois federal court overseeing the case should've more seriously considered evidence of related fee agreements, all the work that Bernstein Litowitz inherited from earlier litigation against Stericycle and the early stage at which the settlement was reached.

"The cumulative effect of these issues leads us to conclude that the district court's analysis did not sufficiently 'reflect the market-based approach for determining fee awards that is required by our precedent,'" the Seventh Circuit said.  The panel added, "We vacate the fee award and remand for a fresh determination more in line with what an ex ante agreement would have produced."

Objector Mark Petri appealed a 25% cut that Bernstein Litowitz got from representing investors claiming that Stericycle falsely inflated its financial results through fraudulent pricing.  In particular, Petri argued that the attorney fees were potentially inflated by a pay-to-play scheme and the case never proceeded past the motion-to-dismiss stage.

In the underlying case, lead plaintiffs Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi and the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System had pointed to briefing in a study conducted by Nera Economic Consulting.  According to that study, for securities class action cases that settled between 2014 and 2018 in amounts ranging from $25 million to $100 million, the median attorney fee award was 25%, like the share awarded to Bernstein Litowitz.

Bernstein Litowitz asked the court to approve its $11 million fee request in June 2019, and the court gave its blessing in May 2020.  But the Seventh Circuit said that the district court's analysis was incomplete.  Notably, the court didn't address a 2016 retention agreement between the firm and the Mississippi attorney general, under which Bernstein Litowitz was authorized to represent the Mississippi fund and seek a percentage of the recovery achieved for the class as compensation.  That percentage, however, was supposed to be limited to the percentage corresponding to the fund's estimated individual recovery, the panel said.

At oral argument, Bernstein Litowitz had said that the sliding scale structure outlined in that agreement only applies to the amount recovered by the fund itself, not to the total amount recovered by the class.  The Seventh Circuit said that interpretation is "improbable, arbitrary, unreasonable and not consistent with a class representative's fiduciary duty to class members."

Additionally, the district court's assessment of the risk of non-payment also didn't give sufficient weight to prior litigation involving Stericycle, litigation that substantially reduced the risk of non-payment, the panel said.  The court had found that the risk of non-payment was "substantial," but that earlier litigation demonstrating Stericycle's billing practices and other settlements signaled that class counsel was not actually taking on much risk, the Seventh Circuit said.

And on top of that, the court didn't properly consider just how early on in the litigation the case was settled, according to the decision.  At the very least, the district court should've considered whether the preliminary stage of the litigation warranted a reduction in the requested fee, it said.  The Seventh Circuit also remarked that it wasn't convinced the settlement was a good outcome for the class, but that neither Petri nor anyone else was challenging that.

Lodestar Multiplier Sought in Landmark $508M Title VII Win

May 10, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Craig Clough, “Attys in Historic $508M Title VII Win Want Bigger Lodestar” reports that attorneys representing a class of 1,100 women in a long-running lawsuit against Voice of America asked a D.C federal judge to grant them a lodestar enhancement, arguing the extraordinary legal work that spanned four decades and resulted in a record $508 million settlement calls for such a boost.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta previously blocked the attorneys' bid for an additional $34 million in fees that would have brought their total award to $75 million.  Since that 2020 ruling, the parties have reached a deal on a $19 million lodestar fee award, but the class attorneys asked the court to grant an enhancement up to 4.5 times that amount.

The extraordinary if not unprecedented circumstances of the lawsuit and the record-breaking settlement amount for a case brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act supports the enhancement, class attorneys at Steptoe & Johnson LLP said in the motion.  Steptoe & Johnson is one of many firms that represent the class.

"If ever such a case for enhancement was presented, it is this one where, through superior lawyering and incredible determination, counsel was able to achieve — by far — the largest class-wide recovery and largest individual class member recoveries for employment discrimination in the history of the Civil Rights Act," the class attorneys said.

A group of journalists in 1977 sued Voice of America and its former parent agency, the U.S. Information Agency, in a case that eventually covered discrimination claims between 1974 and 1984 and more than 1,000 plaintiffs.  The government disputed the accusations for more than 20 years ahead of the 2000 settlement.

Bruce Fredrickson of Webster & Fredrickson PLLC led the representation of the class for more than four decades. The lodestar motion said he was assigned to the case as a young associate at Hudson Leftwich & Davenport fresh out of law school, and he has remained on the case ever since. He drafted the initial complaint for lead plaintiff Carolee Brady Hartman and first motion to certify the class before losing at trial in1979, according to the motion.  When Hudson Leftwich declined to take up the appeal, Fredrickson represented the women in his spare time until he formed his own firm in 1982.  He eventually reversed the trial outcome on appeal, according to the motion.

"Hartman went on to become the most successful employment discrimination case in history," the class attorneys said in the motion.  "While ultimately requiring additional lawyers engaged in decades of hard work and the resources of additional firms to achieve this result, it was Mr. Fredrickson, with his commitment to excellence, his brilliant strategic decisions, his tenacity in facing off against the best-financed defendant that obstinately refused to accept the judgment of liability, and his sheer perseverance that made this extraordinary success possible."

The class attorneys cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases on lodestar enhancement, including 2010's Perdue v. Kenny A. and 1984's Blum v. Stenson, which said rare and exceptional legal representation can support an enhancement.  "After decades of hard-fought litigation and unsurpassed results, it is clear that this is the rare and exceptional case which unambiguous Supreme Court precedent firmly establishes as appropriate to compensate plaintiffs' counsel for superior lawyering by awarding an enhancement above their lodestar fees," the class attorneys said.  The motion concluded with the class attorneys saying, "The greatest result in the history of Title VII deserves nothing less."

Former Client Fights Law Firm’s $1.9M Attorney Fee Lien

May 3, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Ex-Client Fights Buchanan Ingersoll’s $1.9M Fee Lien” reports that a former client of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC has said the firm isn't entitled to $1.9 million from a settlement in a patent dispute, but it offered to put a smaller amount aside while the parties litigate whether the firm overcharged for its work.  Best Medical International Inc. opposed Buchanan Ingersoll's motion for an attorney's lien on its settlement with Varian Medical Systems Inc., arguing in a brief to a Pennsylvania federal court that its former firm wasn't as instrumental as it claimed in securing the settlement and couldn't seek fees for the work while the reasonableness of those fees was at the heart of the current lawsuit.

"BIR has produced no evidence whatsoever that any settlement discussions began because of the quality of or the quantity of BIR's work," Best's reply brief said.  "Settlement discussions which resulted in an actual settlement did not result until after a substantial amount of additional work was done by other law firms once BIR withdrew from, or were substituted as to, representation of BMI in the Varian case."  Best urged the federal court to deny Buchanan Ingersoll's motion to enforce the $1.9 million lien and offered to put $700,000 in escrow with the court "as a good faith gesture, and without admitting liability in any amount."

Best had sued Buchanan Ingersoll in July 2020, alleging the Pittsburgh-based firm had overcharged for representing the medical device maker in a pair of patent disputes, including the fight with Varian.  Best broke off its relationship with Buchanan Ingersoll in March 2020.  Best and Varian announced a settlement in Delaware federal court April 18, and Buchanan Ingersoll filed a motion with the Pennsylvania court to enforce a lien on the settlement proceeds April 26, expressing concern that its former client would spend or otherwise dispose of the funds before the firm could claim its share.

Although the law firm claimed its engagement contract with Best included a clause saying it would be governed by Virginia law, Best argued that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding liens superseded the choice of law provision and that the law of the state where the lien was brought should apply.  And under Pennsylvania law, Best claimed that Buchanan Ingersoll had failed to make the necessary showing that its work contributed substantially to the settlement it sought the lien against.

Buchanan Ingersoll said it did most of the work on the Varian case in Delaware and on six "inter partes review" challenges that Varian had filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  But Best countered that more was done by the successor law firms, including a "substantial amount of discovery, the taking and defending of depositions, significant briefing and oral argument before the USPTO … and appeals of the IPR final decisions to and currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit."

"It is this substantial work by others, not BIR, that ultimately led to the Varian case settlement more than two years after BIR's representation was terminated," Best's reply said.  Even if the court agreed with Buchanan Ingersoll that Virginia law applied, the firm had not given all parties to the settlement — including Varian — that state's required notice that a lien might be applied to the settlement proceeds, Best said.

Moreover, Best said that Virginia law required Buchanan Ingersoll to show that the fees it sought to recover were reasonable, and the current lawsuit contended that they were not.  Best cited the Virginia Supreme Court's 1997 ruling in Seyfarth Shaw Fairweather & Geraldson v. Lake Fairfax Seven Limited Partnership to support its argument.

"Similar to issues in the instant case, the issues in Seyfarth involved the law firm expending an unreasonable amount of time in the performance of legal services and, therefore, the total amount of legal fees charged was unreasonable," Best's reply said.  "Any fees recoverable must be reasonable and … the party claiming legal fees has the burden of proving prima facie that the fees are reasonable and necessary.  Clearly, BIR has not met its burden of proof, nor has there been any adjudication, that the fees in dispute allegedly owed BIR were reasonable and necessary."