Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Class Action
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This case involves a dispute between a lawyer, George Fleming, and his former clients, referred to as the "Wilson plaintiffs". Fleming had represented over 8,000 plaintiffs in a mass-tort action against the manufacturer of a diet pill known as "fen-phen". The Wilson plaintiffs are about 4,000 of Fleming’s former clients. Fleming had spent roughly $20 million to medically screen over 40,000 potential claimants, about 20% of whom became his clients. In 2006, Fleming settled the case for $339 million and reimbursed himself for the costs of the screenings by deducting that amount from the settlement funds. He charged his clients not just for their own medical-screening costs but also for those of approximately 32,000 people who never became his clients and who did not participate in the underlying case. This financial choice led to further litigation, with Fleming as the defendant in various actions brought by his former clients.In the lower courts, Fleming successfully opposed a motion for class certification in a federal court case brought by two of his former clients, arguing that the claims of his former clients were not sufficiently common for aggregate treatment. After the denial of class certification, another group of about 650 former clients sued Fleming for breaches of contract and fiduciary duty. Following a verdict against Fleming in this case, the Wilson plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on the ground that the verdict collaterally estopped Fleming from contesting the merits of their claims against him. Fleming successfully opposed that motion, arguing that the issues presented by the other plaintiffs were not identical to those of the Wilson plaintiffs. The trial court denied the Wilson plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment without explanation. Later, Fleming moved for summary judgment, asserting defensive collateral estoppel against the Wilson plaintiffs.The Supreme Court of Texas affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals, but for a different reason. The court concluded that Fleming was judicially estopped from establishing an essential component of his summary-judgment motion. The court found that Fleming's assertions in prior litigation clearly and unequivocally contradicted his summary-judgment motion’s assertions regarding whether the Wilson plaintiffs’ legal and factual positions were materially identical to those of the other plaintiffs. The court held that Fleming was estopped from asserting that the thousands of remaining plaintiffs’ claims were materially indistinguishable. View "FLEMING v. WILSON" on Justia Law

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In this case, the plaintiff, Laura Mullen, claimed that the defendants, a youth volleyball club and its owners, fraudulently concealed previous sexual abuse allegations. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, but also imposed sanctions against them and their lawyer for improperly interfering with the class notice process. The defendants appealed the sanctions.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion or commit clear error in imposing the sanctions. The court found that the defendants had intentionally interfered with the class notice and opt-out process and that their communications with class members during the notice period were potentially coercive. The court also upheld the decision of the district court to impose monetary sanctions against the defendants, which included the plaintiff’s reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses, as well as a civil penalty for each defendant.The court also affirmed the non-monetary sanctions imposed against the defendants' lawyer, who had contacted a class member directly and made a false statement to the court. Although the defendants argued that the lawyer had acted in good faith and did not knowingly or intentionally violate the rules of ethics, the court found that she had taken deliberate action to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing.Finally, the court rejected the defendants' argument that the plaintiff should have been sanctioned. The defendants claimed that the plaintiff’s use of the term “rape” was inaccurate and irrelevant, that her actions before and after filing the complaint were inconsistent, that she did not have a proper basis for bringing the suit, and that she misrepresented evidence. The court found no merit in these arguments and affirmed the district court’s decision to deny sanctions against the plaintiff. View "Mullen v. Butler" on Justia Law

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Hackers infiltrated Wawa’s payment systems and obtained the credit and bank card data of about 22,000,000 customers. Wawa announced the breach on December 19, 2019; by the next day, attorneys had identified plaintiffs and filed the first of many class action suits seeking damages for the disclosures. Nine months later, Wawa and class counsel for the consumer-plaintiffs agreed on a settlement making $9 million in gift cards and some other compensation available to customers (of which $2.9 million was claimed) and giving $3.2 million to class counsel for fees and expenses. Objections arrived.The Third Circuit vacated the fee award. The district court must consider whether the funds made available to class members rather than the amount actually claimed during the claims process is the best measure of reasonableness and whether the fee award is reasonable in light of a “clear sailing provision,” in which Wawa promised as part of the settlement not to challenge class counsel’s request for an agreed-upon attorney’s fee award. Though not an automatic bar to settlement approval, such terms deserve careful scrutiny when calculating a reasonable fee award. The court also noted a “puzzling” fee reversion, providing that any court-ordered reduction in the attorney’s fee award would be returned to Wawa—not the class. View "In re: Wawa, Inc. Data Security Litigation" on Justia Law

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Three sets of plaintiffs alleged price fixing in the broiler chicken market, including a class of end users–persons and entities who indirectly purchased certain types of broilers from the defendants or alleged co-conspirators for personal consumption in certain jurisdictions during the class period. This class settled their claims with a subset of the defendants for $181 million. The district court entered judgment (FRCP 54(b)) as to the settling parties. Class counsel was awarded one-third of the settlement—excluding expenses and incentive awards— $57.4 million. Class member Andren argued the court erred in discounting bids made by class counsel in auctions in other cases; in suggesting the Seventh Circuit has rejected the use of declining fee scale award structures; and in crediting expert reports. In setting the fee award, the district court considered actual agreements between the parties and fee agreements reached in the market for legal services, the risk of nonpayment at the outset of the case and class counsel’s performance, and fee awards in comparable cases.The Seventh Circuit vacated the award. Under Seventh Circuit law, the district court’s task was to award fees in accord with a hypothetical “ex-ante bargain.” In doing so, the court did not consider bids made by class counsel in auctions in other cases as well as out-of-circuit fee awards. View "Andren v. Broiler Chicken Antitrust Litigation End User Consumer Plaintiff Class" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of copyright holders of musical compositions and ended up recovering a little over $50,000 for the class members. The lawyers then asked the court to award them $6 million in legal fees. And the district court authorized $1.7 million in legal fees—more than thirty times the amount that the class received.   The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees to Plaintiffs’ counsel in a copyright action and remanded. The panel held that the touchstone for determining the reasonableness of attorney’s fees in a class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 is the benefit to the class. Here, the benefit was minimal. The panel held that the district court erred in failing to calculate the settlement’s actual benefit to the class members who submitted settlement claims, as opposed to a hypothetical $20 million cap agreed on by the parties. The panel held that district courts awarding attorneys’ fees in class actions under the Copyright Act must still generally consider the proportion between the award and the benefit to the class to ensure that the award is reasonable. The panel recognized that a fee award may exceed the monetary benefit provided to the class in certain copyright cases, such as when a copyright infringement litigation leads to substantial nonmonetary relief or provides a meaningful benefit to society, but this was not such a case. The panel instructed that, on remand, the district court should rigorously evaluate the actual benefit provided to the class and award reasonable attorneys’ fees considering that benefit. View "DAVID LOWERY, ET AL V. RHAPSODY INTERNATIONAL, INC." on Justia Law

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Following the Flint Water Crisis, thousands of cases were brought for the various harms minors, adults, property owners, and business owners endured as a result of lead-contaminated water. Putative class action lawsuits and individual lawsuits were consolidated in the Eastern District of Michigan, where Co-Lead Class Counsel and Co-Liaison Counsel were appointed to represent the putative class and individual plaintiffs. After years of negotiation, Co-Lead Class Counsel and Co-Liaison Counsel, together with the Settling Defendants, reached a record-breaking settlement. The court approved the settlement and awarded attorneys’ fees and reimbursement for expenses. Three Objector groups appealed that award.The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Objectors are not entitled to detailed discovery of billing and cost records; assertions that those records would have shown excessive billing or revealed the inclusion of time not performed for the common benefit are entirely speculative. The Objectors lack standing to appeal the structure of the fee award; they would fare no better with or without the Common Benefit Assessments applicable to their claims. Were they to have standing, they did not demonstrate that the court abused its discretion in awarding Common Benefit Assessments, particularly when those assessments achieve parity among settlement beneficiaries and are reasonable under the circumstance. The court upheld an award of $500 for bone scans. View "Waid v. Snyder" on Justia Law

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Class Counsel discovered the Social Security Administration's (SSA’s) systemic failure to perform “Subtraction Recalculations” and recovered over $106 million in past-due disability benefits. After performing the Subtraction Recalculations for all the claimants, the SSA argued that the district court did not have authority under the Social Security Act’s judicial-review provision, 42 U.S.C. 405(g), to order the Subtraction Recalculations and that Class Counsel cannot recover attorney fees under section 406(b) for representation of the claimants.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the award of $15.9 million in attorney fees to Class Counsel. SSA “may not hide behind” the statutory provisions merely because it erred at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the benefits-award process. The district court appropriately exercised judicial review under section 405(g), properly ordered the SSA to perform the Subtraction Recalculations, and properly awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees. The SSA failed to award claimants additional past-due benefits to which they were entitled. Counsel successfully sought judicial assistance to obtain those benefits. Congress did not create a statute that allows attorneys to recover fees when the SSA initially fails to award benefits, only to foreclose fee recovery when the SSA later unlawfully withholds additional benefits. View "Steigerwald v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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A class action claimed that BMW knowingly manufactured and sold vehicles equipped with defective engines and included 20 causes of action, including alleged breach of warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, 15 U.S.C. 2301 (a federal fee-shifting statute), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, violations of state consumer fraud and deceptive trade practice statutes, and unjust enrichment. The parties reached a settlement to reimburse class members for expenses incurred and provide them with extended warranties. The district court concluded the settlement was worth at least $27 million. BMW stipulated that it would not object to Settlement Class Counsel’s application for an award of attorneys’ fees of up to $1,500,000 in the aggregate. The parties agreed that Counsel could apply for an award of attorneys’ fees not to exceed $3,700,000 in the aggregate. Class counsel sought $3.7 million.Applying the lodestar approach (multiplication of the hours counsel reasonably billed by a reasonable hourly rate) the district court adopted Class Counsel’s requested lodestar amount of $1,934,000, then applied a requested multiplier of 1.9 to reach a total fee award of $3.7 million. The Third Circuit vacated. The lodestar was based on an insufficient record. The charts provided by Counsel do not establish whether certain hours are duplicative or whether the total hours billed were reasonable for the work performed. View "Gelis v. BMW of North America LLC" on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from mass litigation between thousands of corn producers and an agricultural company (Syngenta). On one track, corn producers filed individual suits against Syngenta; on the second, other corn producers sued through class actions. The appellants were some of the corn producers who took the first track, filing individual actions. (the “Kellogg farmers.”) The Kellogg farmers alleged that their former attorneys had failed to disclose the benefits of participating as class members, resulting in excessive legal fees and exclusion from class proceedings. These allegations led the Kellogg farmers to sue the attorneys who had provided representation or otherwise assisted in these cases. The suit against the attorneys included claims of common-law fraud, violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Practices Act (RICO) and Minnesota’s consumer-protection statutes, and breach of fiduciary duty. While this suit was pending in district court, Syngenta settled the class actions and thousands of individual suits, including those brought by the Kellogg farmers. The settlement led to the creation of two pools of payment by Syngenta: one pool for a newly created class consisting of all claimants, the other pool for those claimants’ attorneys. For this settlement, the district court allowed the Kellogg farmers to participate in the new class and to recover on an equal basis with all other claimants. The settlement eliminated any economic injury to the Kellogg farmers, so the district court dismissed the RICO and common-law fraud claims. The court not only dismissed these claims but also assessed monetary sanctions against the Kellogg farmers. The farmers appealed certain district court decisions, but finding that there was no reversible error or that it lacked jurisdiction to review certain decisions, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. View "Kellogg, et al. v. Watts Guerra, et al." on Justia Law

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FAS is in the business of pre-foreclosure property preservation for the residential mortgage industry. Bowerman contracted with FAS as a vendor. Bowerman alleged that FAS willfully misclassified him and members of a putative class as independent contractors, rather than employees, resulting in failure to pay overtime compensation and to indemnify them for their business expenses.The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s certification of a class of 156 individuals who personally performed work for FAS, reversed partial summary judgment in favor of the class, vacated an interim award of more than five million dollars in attorneys’ fees, and remanded. The class members failed to demonstrate that FAS’s liability was subject to common proof or that “damages are capable of measurement on a classwide basis,” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). The district court erred in finding no triable issue of material fact as to the employment relationship. There were genuine disputes of material fact: whether the vendors were free from FAS’s control, and whether they were engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business. The facts supported the conclusion that the vendors performed services for FAS in the usual course of FAS’s business. There was also a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the class members ever incurred reimbursable expenses or worked overtime. On remand, the district court may consider a “joint employment” issue for class members who own or operate distinct legal entities. View "Bowerman v. Field Asset Services, Inc." on Justia Law