Florida Center for Investigative Reporting via Columbia Journalism Review:
The nonprofit Citizens Awareness Foundation was founded to “empower citizens to exercise their right to know,” according to its mission statement. The South Florida millionaire backing the foundation hired one of the state’s most prominent public records activists to run it, rented office space, and pledged to pay the legal fees to make sure people had access to government records.
But a review of court records and internal communications obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting shows that the foundation is less interested in obtaining records and educating the public than in working with a partner law firm to collect cash settlements from every lawsuit filed….
The O’Boyle law firm has filed more than 140 requests on behalf of the foundation and a related group this year, including barrages of requests against engineers and road builders. The general counsel of the Florida Engineering Federation wrote in May that it was “debatable whether they are truly seeking records or just attempting to obtain legal fees for a violation,” a concern shared elsewhere:
“It’s a sad game of ‘gotcha,’ the only purpose of which is to generate an attorney fee claim rather than obtain any actual public records,” said Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association.
A former executive director of the foundation has resigned, citing ethical concerns. Among numerous small government contractors targeted by the demands are charities and social service providers; an environmental remediation firm says the law firm included a nondisclosure demand that would prevent it from comparing notes with others to receive the fee demands. Ten years ago we reported on a practice in California in which bounty-hunting requesters aimed public records requests at school districts in early summer, then followed with legal fee requests based on the districts’ having missed the short deadline for responding.
More: Ray Downs, Broward/Palm Beach New Times (& John Steele, Legal Ethics Forum).
The “city of Los Angeles will pay $215,000 to end a free-speech lawsuit involving a man who was kicked out of a public meeting after showing up wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. …[Michael] Hunt, who is black, attended the meeting while wearing both the KKK hood and a T-shirt that featured a profanity and a racial slur used to describe African Americans.” Hunt’s attorney, Stephen Rohde, denied a city report that his client had on being ejected “thanked the security officers for providing him with a ‘big payday’.” Hunt had “previously received a $264,286 jury award stemming from a 2009 lawsuit in which he challenged the city’s vending restrictions on the Venice Boardwalk. The city also paid Hunt’s lawyer $340,000 in legal fees for that case.” Rohde, meanwhile, had been the attorney suing the city in another recent case involving complainants repeatedly ejected from city council meetings; in that case jurors had awarded the complainants only $1 each, the city still had to pay the attorney about $600,000 in legal bills under a “one-way” fee shift entitlement for successful civil rights suits. [L.A. Times, ABA Journal]
“When the NFL concussion settlement was announced nearly four months ago, the more than 4,500 players who had sued the league were assured that no part of the $765 million deal would go to lawyers.
“But a recent dispute involving the players’ lead negotiator confirms that not only was that statement misleading, some lawyers stand to receive multiple paydays, according to documents and emails obtained by ‘Outside the Lines.'” [ESPN.com, auto-plays video] (& welcome Above the Law readers)
A Ninth Circuit panel has ratified that result in a gender discrimination case under California law, ruling that federal district judge Claudia Wilken was within her discretion to approve the award even though, as defendant United Parcel Service argued, “plaintiff Kim Muniz recovered comparatively little in damages and had not prevailed on most of her claims.” [Julia Love, The Recorder; Muniz v. UPS]
Insist that class counsel’s attorneys’ fees be handled separately from the negotiation of relief to the class — and then don’t roll over for those fees the way defendants usually do. “They [Starbucks' lawyers] contend that the $4.2 million request is ‘breathtakingly inflated,’ considering that class counsel managed to win certification of only one of 13 alleged subclasses [in a West Coast wage-hour class action].” [Alison Frankel, Reuters]
The Washington Post splashes an investigative story about the tax lien business, in which outsiders buy up delinquent municipal property tax liens sometimes amounting to mere hundreds of dollars, then roll in lawyers’ fees and costs that can push up the bill into many thousands, eventuating in the foreclosure of family homes. The narrative is less than clear about exactly how the process works, and even leaves the impression that a tax lien purchaser owed, say, $6,000 can walk away with all the proceeds from the foreclosure of a $197,000 house without having to hand any of it over to mortgage holders, let alone the original owner. And some of the solutions offered (let’s not allow lien foreclosures on elderly people!) would have unintended consequences that are also, to be polite, underexplained. Still, enough of the story is there that an important general principle comes through: it’s dangerous for the law to put opportunistic actors in a position to run up $450/hour legal fees pursuing adversarial process that might not actually have been needed to vindicate their interests.
“At the risk of losing their homes if they didn’t, scores of Colorado homeowners struggling to avoid foreclosure in the past year were each forced to pay hundreds of dollars in lawyer charges for phantom court cases against them, a Denver Post investigation has found.” In 126 of the episodes, the paper reports, no foreclosure lawsuit was actually filed. Related reporting on allegations against Colorado foreclosure law firms here, here, etc.
Along with the Colorado attorney general, various other law enforcers both state and federal are scrutinizing the billing practices of creditors’ law firms looking for evidence that they’ve been evading the fee and cost reimbursement limits for foreclosures that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA prescribe on loans they own, guarantee or insure. [Paul Jackson, Housing Wire via Funnell]
Here’s why: it turns out that many of the major law firms responsible for managing foreclosures for the GSEs also have a controlling interest in the ancillary service firms that generate the variable fees that appear as “costs” on the lawyer’s bill. Many law firms either outright own, or their partners have a significant interest in, the company that is posting and publishing notices; or they may own or have an interest in the company that manages process of service, as well.
Such arrangements are not illegal, but could land the firms and mortgage servicers in hot water if it develops that they have connived at fee padding by the ancillary firms. (& welcome Above the Law readers). More: Heather Draper, Denver Business Journal (and thanks for quote).
In April, an extensive New York Times investigation by Sharon Lafreniere confirmed and extended what writers associated with the late Andrew Breitbart had been charging for more than two years: the so-called Pigford settlement, in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to make payments to persons charging racial bias in agriculture programs, is riddled with fraud. If you thought this might stand in the way of a payday for plaintiff’s lawyers in the case, you’re wrong: U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman has just approved a payout of $90.8 million to the lawyers, over objections. That represents the maximum (7.4 percent) of what was being asked for: “The deal set out a fee range between 4.1 percent and 7.4 percent.” [BLT]
Law firm DLA Piper has now settled an overbilling dispute with a dissatisfied client, while decrying “e-mail humor.” [NYT DealBook, earlier]
Although our system is (alas) set up to make it very difficult for defendants to recover legal fees from losing plaintiffs, it is not too surprising that this case would be an exception given a judge’s scathing findings against the plaintiffs’ conduct — not to mention the recent agreement by the ASPCA, one of the animal rights groups, to pay the Ringling owner $9.3 million. [ABA Journal]
Extraordinary emails bolster a client’s case that mega-law firm DLA Piper wasn’t holding its legal billings to a needed minimum. [New York Times "DealBook"]
We told you the Kentucky fen-phen scandal — which we’ve been covering since 2005 — was serious. Now it’s resulted in the permanent revocation of the Kentucky license to practice of famed “Master of Disaster” tort specialist Stanley Chesley, whose office is across the river in Cincinnati, Ohio. Two lawyers who directly represented fen-phen clients in Kentucky, “Shirley Cunningham Jr. and William Gallion, are serving prison sentences for bilking clients out of $94 million in settlement money.” While Chesley did not represent Cunningham’s or Gallion’s clients, and denied holding any legal responsibility toward them, he accepted a $20 million fee, far in excess of negotiated sums, for representing the lawyers themselves in the settlement that brought in the cash, a sum that “was unreasonable, especially in light of his professed ignorance and lack of responsibility for any aspect of the litigation except showing up at the mediation and going through the motions of announcing the agreement,” the Kentucky Supreme Court concluded. Chesley participated in the diversion of the pilfered funds into a trust (pleasantly named “Kentucky Fund for Healthy Living“) intended to conceal the skimming, and helped orchestrate the lawyers’ cover-up. Wrote the court: “The vast amount of evidence compiled and presented in this matter demonstrates convincingly that respondent knowingly participated in a scheme to skim millions of dollars in excess attorney’s fees from unknowing clients.” [ABA Journal; court order, PDF; Louisville Courier-Journal; Daniel Fisher, Forbes; David Lat, Above the Law]
“Four law firms that submitted a “grossly inflated” $2.7 million fee request after winning $12,500 for their client should go away empty-handed, a federal judge has ruled. Eastern District Judge Joanna Seybert, sitting in Central Islip, condemned the fee application submitted by real estate investor Robert Toussie’s attorneys, including $2.65 million for Chadbourne & Parke, as ‘outrageously excessive’ and done in ‘bad faith.'” [NYLJ]
“A federal judge in Philadelphia has done what every judge in a class action should do: She required each law firm involved in a $25 million antitrust settlement to document exactly how much time they spent on the case, and how much they expect to be paid for their work.” [Daniel Fisher, Forbes]
Peeking under the Hood, cont’d: Mississippi has finally passed sunshine legislation exposing to public scrutiny dealings of its attorney general with outside law firms, which can make large sums in contingency arrangements representing the state [Maggie Haberman, Politico] Not exactly unrelatedly, a Mississippi court has ruled that a settlement of the state’s case against MCI can’t funnel $14 million separately to private lawyers representing Hood on the theory that it was just a side payment and never represented public funds [YallPolitics, earlier on now-disbarred lead private lawyer in case]