Objectors to two settlements involving antitrust claims against the makers of the BAR/BRI bar review preparatory course materials have moved to recover their attorney fees, claiming they were instrumental in unraveling the original deals in favor of new agreements that better benefit class members.
In one settlement, for $9.5 million, attorney George Richard Baker, who represents six objectors, seeks $578,750 in fees for his “remarkably vital role” in raising red flags over an earlier deal that involved coupons; the coupons were later were replaced with cash.
Baker, a solo practitioner with offices in San Francisco and Birmingham, Ala., also has objected to $1.9 million in fees sought by Harris & Ruble of Los Angeles, class counsel in the case.
Baker did not return a call for comment and David Zelenski of Harris & Ruble declined to comment. A final approval hearing is scheduled for August 19.
Meanwhile, a law firm for five objectors who successfully challenged class counsel’s fees in an earlier $49 million settlement is expected to file an opening brief this month before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit challenging $236,000 in attorney fees and $1,700 costs awarded on January 14. Kendrick & Nutley of Pasadena, Calif., claims its lawyers are entitled to nearly $1.8 million.
The class actions both allege that law school students paid too much for BAR/BRI bar review materials after West Publishing Corp. and Kaplan Inc. conspired to establish a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Act, the federal antitrust law. The $49 million settlement resolved claims involving purchases made during the nine years after August 1, 1997. That case, filed in 2005, involved a class of 300,000 students who claimed they were overcharged by about $1,000 for the course.
The $9.5 million settlement resolves similar claims by an estimated 180,000 people who purchased the BAR/BRI exam materials from August 1, 2006, through March 21, 2011.
Both cases are before U.S. District Judge Manuel Real in Los Angeles.
In the more recent case, filed on February 6, 2008, Real dismissed the action, but plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which sent the case back after both sides reached a settlement. The original deal would have provided $5.29 million in cash, paid for by West, plus coupons worth $150 a piece toward the purchase of future courses, provided by Kaplan.
Real, citing his concerns about the coupons, denied final approval of that deal in 2011. He then dismissed the case.
The Ninth Circuit reversed dismissal, and the parties reached the revised settlement, which added more than $4.2 million to the cash fund and eliminated the coupon portion. In that deal, which Real preliminarily approved on April 19, Harris & Ruble seeks $1.9 million in attorney fees and nearly $50,000 in expenses.
“The $4.215 million increase to the cash value of the settlement is the result of Class Counsel’s strenuous advocacy over a year of private and Ninth Circuit supervised mediation,” Zelenski wrote in a May 6 motion for attorney fees. “In this regard, at no point since the denial of final approval of the prior settlement did any party—including the objectors—take any formal action whatsoever on behalf of Plaintiffs or the putative Class, whether before this Court, before the Ninth Circuit, or during the resumed mediation.”
But Baker, the objectors’ counsel, replied in a July 29 filing that Harris & Ruble deserved no more than $380,000 in fees because it lawyers conducted no written discovery or depositions. Moreover, he wrote, the firm’s billing invoices included work it did for seven objectors to the separate $49 million settlement.
“Strict scrutiny of the billing and expense records submitted by Class Counsel is in order considering an apparent conflict between the class and Class Counsel by virtue of Class Counsels’ petition for fees and expenses,” wrote Baker, who is seeking $578,750 in attorney fees and $6,000 in incentive awards for his clients, who served a “remarkably vital role” in revising the earlier deal.
Harris & Ruble, in an August 5 objection, claim Baker’s clients were not responsible for the revised deal. He added that Baker’s firm worked fewer than 70 hours on the case and his clients, whose concerns about the coupons mirrored that of more than 200 other objectors, lack standing to object since they hadn’t submitted claims by the July 8 deadline.
Harris & Ruble also is seeking $4,000 for each of the five named representatives in the case – much less than the incentive awards worth $10,000 to $75,000 that the Ninth Circuit cut out of the $49 million settlement. Kendrick & Nutley was one of two firms that received about $8,000 in fees for its work in eliminating the incentive awards from the deal.
On August 10 of last year, the Ninth Circuit upheld Real’s decision to reduce attorney fees to McGuireWoods, class counsel in the older case, from $12 million to $500,000, citing the firm’s “egregious” ethical violation in failing to disclose to class members the incentive awards, which were based on the settlement’s value. Kendrick & Nutley’s current fee request relates to that reduction.
Contact Amanda Bronstad at firstname.lastname@example.org.