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Category: Settlement Data / Terms

Roundup MDL Lead Counsel Defend Fee Allocations

February 19, 2024

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Roundup MDL Lead Counsel Defend Fee Allocations: ‘Limited Funds Available’”, reports that lawyers doling out fees in Roundup litigation stood by their decisions on how to allocate the funds, despite objections raised by other firms.

The fee committee, which is comprised of the three lead plaintiffs firms in the Roundup multidistrict litigation, allocated 81% to themselves and the rest to four other firms, including those who helped win the only bellwether trial, which ended in an $80 million verdict in 2019.  Three of those firms objected to their share of the so-called common benefit fund, which totaled $20.23 million.

Lead counsel originally had sought an order that would have granted about $800 million in common benefit fees, enough for the firms to “each afford to buy their own island,” U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in a 2021 order significantly trimming the scope of common benefit fees in the Roundup litigation.

Several firms had objected to the original request, which they called a “money grab,” but lead counsel insisted that Bayer, which owns Monsanto, would not have entered into settlements but for their work.  In 2020, Bayer announced it planned to settle about 125,000 Roundup claims for an estimated $10.9 billion, but thousands of cases remained unsettled.

The significant reduction in the common benefit fund appeared to influence the committee’s allocation amounts.  For instance, San Francisco’s Andrus Anderson, whose partner Lori Andrus served as co-liaison counsel in the Roundup multidistrict litigation, had wanted closer to $550,000, the amount the firm actually billed, rather than the allocated $200,000, or 1% of the common benefit fees.  The committee, in a response, acknowledged that Andrus Anderson’s request was reasonable.  “But, unfortunately, the limited funds available for distribution in this litigation do not allow this to happen,” the committee wrote.

The committee members are co-lead counsel Aimee Wagstaff, of Wagstaff Law Firm in Denver; Robin Greenwald, of New York’s Weitz & Luxenberg; and David Dickens, who took over following partner Michael Miller’s 2021 death, at the Miller Firm in Orange, Virginia.  Among the fee committee members, Wagstaff Law Firm is set to receive the most, with 30%.

‘Thousands of Hours of Common Benefit Work’

Common benefit fees are used in multidistrict litigation to compensate lead counsel for costs and fees associated with discovery, trials and settlements, while preventing “free riders,” or lawyers who collect fees on cases they generate but don’t necessarily litigate.  Lawyers with related state court cases, in past years, have challenged common benefit fees, which are funded through assessments against their settlements.

Chhabria, in the Northern District of California, called common benefit fees in multidistrict litigation “totally out of control,” sending shock waves through the mass tort bar.  In his Roundup order, he excluded a large amount of the legal work, including state court cases, from being reimbursed through common benefit fees.

Los Angeles-based Wisner Baum and its predecessor, Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, focused heavily on Roundup cases in California state courts, where partner R. Brent Wisner won verdicts of $289 million, in 2018, and $2 billion, in 2019.  But the firm is set to receive 10% of the fees because “no other firm contributed more to the common benefit of the MDL,” according to the committee’s response, filed on Friday.

The allocation, the committee wrote, is based on Wisner Baum’s “good faith effort” to estimate its time.  But the firm didn’t have adequate billing records that divided up the hours tied to the multidistrict litigation versus state court cases.  The fee committee, as a result, was forced to reduce Wisner Baum’s requested amount.  “Applying such a reduction is consistent with how courts typically handle attorney fee determinations for firms that have failed to submit time records,” the committee wrote.

Jennifer Moore, of Moore Law Group, based in Louisville, Kentucky, was co-lead counsel with Wagstaff in the bellwether trial, which Monsanto appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Moore had argued that 6% was not enough given her work in that case or the $3.4 million her firm contributed to the common benefit fund, but the fee committee countered that the Miller Firm and Weitz & Luxenberg, both lead counsel firms, also anticipate receiving less than they paid.

“Moore Law contributed to the advancement of this MDL.  There is no question about that,” the committee wrote.  “But Moore Law also greatly benefitted from the thousands of hours of common benefit work that was done before it had any involvement in this MDL.”

Another objection came from David Diamond, of Diamond Law in Tucson, Arizona, who insisted he did not rely on lead counsel’s work in his Roundup cases.  He was joined by David Bricker, of Thornton Law Firm in Beverly Hills, California.  Diamond suggested returning the money to lawyers, like them, who took their own risks.

But the committee disputed his characterization.  “Diamond Law was able to resolve 300 MDL cases without having to draft and issue general discovery, brief and argue preemption and other general dispositive motions, depose a single Monsanto employee, or retain general experts in epidemiology, toxicology, pathology, and regulatory affairs,” the committee wrote.  “With this backdrop, it is difficult to comprehend how Diamond Law can boldly declare that it received no assistance from MDL leadership.”

Flint Water Crisis Law Firms Agree to End Fee Dispute

February 13, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Aaron West, “Flint Water Crisis Firms Agree To End Settlement Fee Dispute”, reports that three law firms that negotiated a $626 million settlement related to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis reached a settlement of their own after McAlpine PC agreed to end claims that Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PC and Pitt McGehee Palmer Bonanni & Rivers PC unfairly cut it out of their original co-counsel agreement.

The Michigan-based firms agreed to dismiss the lawsuit without prejudice or costs, according to an order signed by U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy.  The judge's order follows the defendant firms urging the court in October to dismiss McAlpine's lawsuit against them after it "sat on its hands for years" before bringing a claim over the settlement split, according to court documents.

The dispute, which McAlpine initially filed in state court, claimed that the Auburn Hills-based firm was only paid a paltry sum by its co-counsel for its contributions to the underlying litigation.  McAlpine argued its work was instrumental to the lawsuit, contributing about $16 million worth of labor, or about 24% of the total lodestar figure of $84.5 million.  But Cohen Milstein and Pitt McGehee offered to pay just $500,000, McAlpine said.

"Defendants breached the co-counsel agreement by failing to distribute an attorney fee award reflecting McAlpine's respective lodestar, in favor of distributing a greater share to themselves," the firm alleged in its complaint.  The defendants argued in a subsequent filing that McAlpine was too late in bringing its claims.  "McAlpine had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the amount of any attorneys fee award in the appropriate place to do so — the federal Flint class action," the defendants said.

The class action at the heart of the law firms' dispute was settled in 2021 when Judge Levy gave final approval to a $626 million settlement, a deal expected to provide payments to more than 100,000 people affected by lead-contaminated water.  Government officials were accused of switching the city's water supply to the Flint River despite information cautioning them against doing so, and working to cover up the ensuing public health crisis.

In December, McAlpine said that the court should deny the firms' request to toss the fees case because it wasn't suing for recovery from the common benefit award, as Cohen Milstein and Pitt McGehee argued. Rather, McAlpine's claims were centered on "breaches of obligations" between the firms that were independent of the Court's order, the firm said.  The defendants' reply said what McAlpine was requesting went against their original agreement.

"McAlpine's argument is not supported anywhere," the defendants wrote.  "To the contrary, McAlpine agreed to work under the supervision of Co-Lead Counsel and the Executive Committee, and never challenged Co-Lead Counsel's authority to apportion fees among class counsel based on their respective roles in the litigation and contributions to the settlement until after the common benefit fee was distributed."

Attorneys Seek Fees in $6M AMDI Med Tech Settlement

February 6, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Attys Seek $750K Fee in Del. For $6M Med Tech Co. Deal”, reports that, proposed class attorneys who secured a $6 million settlement from medical device company AMDI Inc. after a purportedly under-priced and conflicted stock sale to an interest of Oracle founder Larry Ellison have asked Delaware's Chancery Court to approve $750,000 in attorney fees for their work.

The proposal by Grant & Eisenhofer PA — made public after the lawyers filed a sealed version of the stipulation Jan. 29 in Chancery Court — would end a derivative suit filed by a minority stockholder of AMDI, a company formed to develop automated medical lab systems designed to hunt for pathogens, including the COVID-19 virus.

Ellison gained control of AMDI through a series of large investments dating to 2016 by Tako Ventures LLC, a venture capital firm he controls through a different LLC.  The investments gave Ellison the ability to oversee the appointment of three of the company's seven directors, in addition to other benefits he received as a controlling stockholder.

According to the complaint filed in October 2021, Ellison's stake in AMDI grew as the company worked to develop its "Autolab" system, which has faced rising costs and has yet to generate any revenue. When its lone big investor, Tako, stepped in with what became a $2 per-share $20 million additional stake, members of a board special committee began pressing for better terms and a larger investment.

If approved by the court, lawyers for the minority stockholders and special committee would receive $750,000, 12.5% of the $6 million settlement total, or about 56% of the amount called for under the lodestar multiplier ordinarily used in attorney fee calculations.  The multiplier calculates payments based on hours of work performed at an attorney's professional fee rates.  Attorneys for the minority stockholders "invested considerable time and effort in both developing and litigating this action," the proposal said. Given the stage of the litigation, the fee request "is well within, and often below, precedent awards."

Judge Says Attorney Fee Request ‘Way Too High’

January 18, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Bonnie Eslinger, “Juniper Workers’ Atty Fee Bid ‘Way Too High,’” Says, reports that a California federal judge said he'll give final approval to Juniper Networks employees' $3 million deal over claims the marketing software company mismanaged their 401(k) plan, but called their attorneys' bid for $900,000 in fees "just way too high."  U.S. District Judge James Donato rejected the attorney fee ask during a hearing in San Francisco on the workers' motion for final approval on the $3 million deal, which the judge granted.

Based on the total fees racked up to date — $142,232 — the $900,000 request means the court is being asked to multiply the lodestar amount by 6.33, nothing he has ever awarded, the judge said.  Even in an "exemplary" $650 million settlement in his court, resolving a "groundbreaking class action" alleging Facebook's facial recognition technology violated users' biometric privacy rights, the attorney fees "didn't get anything close to a 6.33 multiplier," Judge Donato said.  The Juniper Networks Inc. case, by comparison, was small and fairly straightforward, he added.

A lawyer for the workers, Paul Secunda of Walcheske & Luzi LLC, told the court that there are cases where the fee award was up to five times higher than the lodestar.  Further, the 30% fee award is in line with others approved in complex Employee Retirement Income Security Act class actions, he said.

In addition, the $3 million settlement represents about 44% of the total estimated losses that the class members could have recovered if the case had been successfully litigated through trial on all counts, Secunda told the court.

Judge Donato said the litigation wasn't complicated.  "Occasionally, we'll get what I call sweat equity [when] plaintiffs worked relentlessly," the judge said. "That didn't happen."  Judge Donato said he might consider doubling the total projected amount that plaintiffs say they'll spend in fees, including $187,000.  But the $900,000 request is "just way too high," he added.

The judge also asked Secunda to file an additional written brief to the court explaining why the plaintiffs were also seeking $36,000 in expenses, on top of nearly $40,000 in settlement administration expenses and $15,000 for independent fiduciary fees.

Secunda said the $36,000 in expenses was used to pay outside consultants due to the complexity of the case, which required significant research and pouring over complex finance and employee benefit documents.  "You've got to tell me who they are and why they deserve it and why it was in the best interest of the class," the judge said, adding that he wasn't ready to approve that amount.

Judge Donato also called proposed awards of $5,000 each to the two named plaintiffs in the case out of line.  "They're not going to get five grand each, particularly as the average recovery is approximately $100, that's completely disproportionate," the judge said.

Disrupting the Class: Objections to Class Action Settlements

January 17, 2024

A recent Law.com article by Adam J. Levitt, Arguing Class Actions: Objections to Class Action Settlements” reports on the role of class action objectors in the settlement process.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

After years of litigating and negotiating, the parties and their counsel seek approval from the court of a class action settlement.  All parties are eager for final approval but objections start flowing in.  But final approval and ultimate disbursement of much-needed relief to class members is delayed for months, if not years, as the objectors appeal.  This scene has played out time and time again, particularly in the case of large, well-publicized class action settlements.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e) guarantees each class member who does not opt out the right to object to a class action settlement. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e)(4), (5).  Objectors can sometimes play a role in helping the court or the parties evaluate a settlement.  Indeed, one court noted that objectors can add value to the class action settlement process by: “(1) transforming the fairness hearing into a truly adversarial proceeding; (2) supplying the Court with both precedent and argument to gauge the reasonableness of the settlement and lead counsel’s fee request; and (3) preventing collusion between lead plaintiff and defendants.” In re Cardinal Health, Inc. Sec. Litig., 550 F. Supp. 3d 751, 753 (S.D. Ohio 2008).  Objections may also address uniquely-situated class members with independent, unusual circumstances that may affect the adequacy of their recovery under the proposed settlement.

But all too often, objectors only object to class action settlements for personal gain, an individual (often undefined) animus toward the class action mechanism, or for purportedly policy-based or “principled” reasons that are generally ham-fisted attacks on the plaintiffs’ bar in general.  These bad-faith objectors are often referred to as “professional objectors.”  Professional objectors file meritless objections, seeking, in a small number of cases, to extract a payoff in exchange for withdrawing the objection.  Other “professional objectors” have a well-known agenda and animus against class action attorneys, filing “gotcha” appeals which do nothing to materially improve settlements, but instead prolong when settlement payments are made.  Either flavor of professional objector is bad.  The first kind puts pressure on class counsel to engage in blackmail to finalize settlements so that class members can get paid.  The second kind only helps defense counsel, who are paid hourly, while advancing the personal view of one person and holding up payments to potentially millions of others who are happy with the settlement.

Courts across the United States have noted the havoc that professional objectors can wreak on the settlement approval process.  One court held that “settlement funds of $147 million, the product of four years of hard-fought litigation, have hung in limbo for more than eight months because a person who knows he has no right to object to the settlement nonetheless refuses to withdraw his meritless Objection.” In re Polyurethane Foam Antitrust Litig., 165 F. Supp. 3d 664, 670–71 (N.D. Ohio 2015).  Another referenced professional objectors as “a pariah to the functionality of class action lawsuits.” Snell v. Allianz Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., No. 97-cv-2786, 2000 WL 133640, at *9 (D. Minn. Sep. 8, 2000).  In a particularly egregious case, an objector sent class counsel a letter stating “[s]ettle with me for $10,000 and not a penny more or a penny less to remove me and only me from the equation of the case. . . You have one week to decide.”  The judge ordered the objector to show cause “why his communications with class counsel should not be referred to the United States Attorneys Office” for possible wire or mail fraud. Junge v. Geron Corp., No. C 20-00547, 2023 WL 2940048, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 13, 2023)).  Any objector still has the ability to appeal approval of a class settlement, regardless of a district court’s findings about their motivations.  For example, a settlement that would resolve antitrust claims against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan was held up for over a year before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was able to address an objector’s “raft of objections, many of them undeveloped, all of them meritless.” Shane Grp., Inc. v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, 833 F. App’x 430, 431 (6th Cir. 2021).  Even after an appellate court ruling, objectors can still file a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, and the class has to wait until the petition is rejected before any settlement relief becomes available—a process which, itself, could take yet another year.  By way of example, members of my firm helped to resolve the class action against Equifax related to its 2017 data breach in April 2019.  The settlement was upheld, but an endless litany of objectors’ spurious appeals resulted in payments being delayed until January 2022. See, e.g., In re Equifax Inc. Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig., 999 F.3d 1247 (11th Cir. 2021), cert. denied sub nom. Huang v. Spector, 142 S. Ct. 431 (2021), and cert. denied sub nom. Watkins v. Spector, 142 S. Ct. 765 (2022).

Both the plaintiff and defense class action bar agree on the need to reform the objection process.  The April 2016 Minutes from the Meeting of the Civil Rules Advisory Committee note that “there was virtually unanimous agreement that something should be done to address the problem of ‘bad’ objectors.” Civ. Rules Advisory Comm., Draft Minutes, at 13 (Apr. 14, 2016). On December 1, 2018, new language was added to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to address professional objectors.  Rule 23(e)(5) now requires objectors to: (1) state “with specificity the grounds for the objection;” and (2) requires court approval for “forgoing or withdrawing an objection” or “forgoing, dismissing, or abandoning an appeal from a judgement approving the proposal.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e)(5).

While it appears these changes have resulted in some reduction in the number of frivolous objections, courts have continued to approve side payments to professional objectors. See Brian Fitzpatrick, Objector Blackmail Update: What Have the 2018 Amendments Done?, 89 Fordham L. Rev. 437, 437-38 (2020). More can still be done.

The difficulty in reforming the objection process is balancing the approach so that good-faith objectors are not deterred while professional objectors are sufficiently deterred.  For example, barring side payments to objectors, as proposed by Professor Brian Fitzpatrick, id., would potentially eliminate the professional objector problem, but others have voiced the concern that it would also discourage good-faith objectors from raising objections that might improve the settlement agreement.  See Robert Klonoff, Class Action Objectors: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 89 Fordham L. Rev. 475, 492-93 n.99 (2020).

One oft-proposed reform is requiring objectors to post an appeals bond under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 7.  Requiring hefty appeals bonds for frivolous appeals could deter professional objectors but again there is a concern that this could deter good-faith objectors (i.e., those without any agenda or personal bent against class actions, but who legitimately want to make the settlement materially better, rather than engage in seriatim “gotcha” appeals) who may be pro se and have limited funds. Id. at 497.  Courts, however, can use their discretion to assess whether the objection is in good faith and determine whether an appeals bond is appropriate.

Class counsel can also request that courts conduct an expedited review of objections and appeals.  For example, if an objector files an appeal, class counsel and the defendant can file a motion for summary affirmance where “no substantial question is presented” in the objection. See id. at 501 n.160.  This would allow the appellate court to quickly dismiss a frivolous appeal without full briefing.  Both the Seventh and Ninth Circuits have recently granted summary affirmance in cases involving professional objectors. Id. at 502.  Another option is simply for the parties to move for expedited review with an accelerated briefing and oral argument schedule.

Courts can take a more active role in sanctioning and barring professional objectors from practicing in their jurisdiction.  Reform along these lines has been somewhat limited, as a judge in one federal district court cannot bar a professional objector from practicing before another court.  This practice could be aided if courts coordinated at the national level to maintain a list of problematic professional objectors, along with information about the number of times each has objected and whether the objector has been barred from practicing in any court. See id. at 499.  This list could then be easily cited by class counsel in an objection response or sanctions motion.  Such a database could also assist courts in determining whether to require an appeals bond and if expedited review is appropriate.  If managed well, it may be the most promising mechanism for deterring serial professional objectors without deterring good faith objections.

Finally, another reform that can serve as an effective check on settlement objectors is adopting provisions in settlement agreements that allow for the payment of fees and expenses before objector appeals are resolved.  While settlement objectors and other class action opponents characterize these as “quick pay” provisions, they are actually anything but—as settlements usually only come after a significant amount of time and resources are spent litigating a case without any guarantee of recovery.  Provisions for fee payments before objector appeals are resolved serve to deter professional objectors, because enabling plaintiffs’ counsel to be paid for their work in achieving a settlement removes the ransom payment tool from the objector’s extortionate toolbox.  A survey from the Western Alliance Bank Class Action Law Forum in April 2021 found that nearly two-thirds of the survey’s respondents had participated in class action settlements permitting timely payments to settling plaintiffs’ counsel.

Complex issues such as navigating objections to class action settlements require complex, balanced, and intersectional solutions.  We encourage judges and class action practitioners to use their creativity and judgment to address the continuing problem of professional objectors—as well as the problem of purported “principled objectors,” whose sole “principle” is to undermine the class action process for their own political ends—and to point out and criticize this bad behavior in the hopes of deterrence.  And, in the future, we would also encourage the Rules Committee to consider additional measures—such as requiring objectors to successfully intervene before they may file an objection, which prevents the class from being paid after an already long wait.

Adam J. Levitt is a founding partner of DiCello Levitt, where he heads the firm’s class action and public client practice groups.