A recent Law 360 story by Michael Phills, “Flint Plaintiffs' Attys Argue For Final OK of $641M Settlement,” reports that plaintiffs' attorneys want to seal the deal on a $641 million settlement over the Flint, Michigan, water crisis that objectors have said carves out too much for legal fees, arguing that the fee request is fair for the hard-fought work to secure compensation for an environmental catastrophe. In a trio of filings, the plaintiffs' attorneys pushed back against several types of objections around the settlement, including the argument that a nearly 32% award of attorney fees is unreasonable. The attorneys argue that their work produced something significant that the judge should sign off on. They say that despite the objections the court has received, more than 50,000 have supported the deal, showing its widespread backing from the Flint community.
On the question of fees, plaintiffs' counsel defended their request as reasonable, reflective of the many years and hours of work spent on the case. And they said the top line fee request is more complicated than objectors make it out to be. "Some objectors have claimed that plaintiffs' counsel seek an award of more than $200 million in attorneys' fees. That is not true — a substantial portion of the attorneys' fees in this matter will be paid by claimants to their individually retained counsel," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote.
According to court filings, individual attorneys that were privately hired had often already locked in their fees and "much of the aggregate fee request will go to these individual attorneys." In May, 26 individuals objected to the deal and raised a range of concerns, including that the settlement generally lacks clarity on what it entails and that it won't provide enough money to help residents as they try to move past a crisis that has left them with medical concerns and exorbitant water bills.
In March, other objectors opposed the fee request, saying a motion for the fee award included "scant detail" about the claimed common benefit work and didn't estimate what the common benefit fees might amount to. "[The request] provides absolutely no evidence that ceding 27% of claimants' recovery to private attorneys for work sight unseen could possibly be fair to Flint residents who need this money to help them grapple with oft-debilitating, ruinous, and violent consequences of lead exposure for their entire lives," the objectors said.
They said that in "megafund" settlements of this size, typical fee awards are in the 10% to 12% range. In March, the plaintiffs' attorneys made their fee request for their five years and more than 180,000 hours of attorney work to reach the "remarkable" settlement result. "Contrary to every single 'megafund' case cited by the [objectors], this case involved complicated questions of sovereign immunity which necessarily rendered the case riskier and required a heightened level of skill," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote. They argued that they should not have to provide detailed billing records to certain objectors.
U.S. District Judge Judith Levy gave preliminary approval to the deal in January, saying that it is a partial settlement that doesn't end the litigation over the lead-tainted water. The settlement with Michigan and others provides a mechanism for minors, injured adults, property owners and renters, those who paid Flint water bills and impacted business owners to receive monetary awards, the judge said. It also offers a "class action" solution for adults who have not hired their own attorneys, the judge said.