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In June, Sempra Energy settled a class action valued at $1.16 billion. It’s by no means the end of the company’s five-year battle with the residents of California over alleged manipulation of the energy market. But the litigation has already produced a windfall for plaintiffs attorneys: about $161 million in fees plus $9 million in expenses. The class action was brought by an all-star cast, including three prominent Los Angeles litigators: Thomas Girardi, a founding partner of Girardi & Keese; Pierce O’Donnell, a former name partner at O’Donnell & Shaeffer who recently founded O’Donnell & Associates; and Walter Lack, a name partner at Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack. (O’Donnell pleaded no contest to campaign law violations earlier this year.) Also present for a cameo was Joseph Cotchett, a name partner at San Francisco-based Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy, who rendered an expert opinion on the reasonableness of the plaintiffs fees. “At first blush, it’s a lot of money, but at second blush, it wasn’t a huge fee case for the efforts involved,” Girardi said. He declined to say how the money would be split, quipping, “We’re all friends, and we’re really just one firm on this.” While plaintiffs lawyers were obviously pleased with the $170 million, Girardi said, “We didn’t do nearly as well as Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher,” Sempra’s defense counsel. But the defense side seems even more reluctant to discuss fees. Robert Cooper, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn, who is Sempra’s lead attorney, referred all questions to Sempra spokesman Doug Kline. Kline said Gibson has billed just a fraction of the amount the plaintiffs firms recovered in the Sempra case. He declined to name a specific number. Lawyers for both sides earned their fees in the fight over whether officials from what is now Sempra Energy conspired to restrict the flow of natural gas during the California energy crisis of 2001. Sempra vigorously denies the allegations and continues to fight them in other related cases, including one filed by the California attorney general in November. In the case that produced the settlement, plaintiffs attorneys brought claims on behalf of 13 million class members � and settled two months into trial. In his June opinion, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager wrote, “The efforts of counsel were tremendous and cannot be overstated.” Prager, known to be conservative on plaintiffs’ fees, noted that plaintiffs put more than 94,000 hours of work into the settlement and could have asked for as much as $500 million based on the value of the settlement. Marty Graham is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.

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