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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:During 2004, Shell Oil Co.’s Norco, La., refinery allegedly produced contaminated gasoline that was purchased and used by thousands of motorists, damaging, inter alia, their fuel gauges. The consumers filed numerous suits against Shell, which were consolidated in a federal class action. Before a settlement was reached, Shell undertook a program to repair motorists’ broken fuel gauges. In September 2005, Shell agreed to settle the class action by expanding its voluntary repair program, paying $3.7 million to cover general damages for plaintiffs who filed repair claims, and setting aside $6.875 million to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses. After a final fairness hearing, the district court approved the settlement and the aggregate attorneys’ fee award. When the court approved the attorneys’ fee award, which was unobjected to, it also appointed a five-member fee committee to allocate the fee award among approximately 32 firms and 79 plaintiffs’ attorneys who worked on the case. The committee consisted of lead attorneys John Barrett and Ben Barnow, and three other plaintiffs’ attorneys, Walter Dumas, Patrick Geraghty and Richard Arsenault. Barnow is not an appelle in the case. The court’s final approval order stated that any dispute concerning the fee allocation would be subject to its exclusive jurisdiction. The fee committee then invited plaintiffs’ attorneys to submit statements: 1. explaining their contributions to the common benefit of the class; 2. evaluating the contributions of other attorneys. It appears that the fee committee already possessed the attorneys’ time and expense statements, because the lead attorneys had requested these statements around August 2005, presumably to help calculate the aggregate attorneys’ fee award for the class action settlement. The record on appeal, however, did not include the time and expense statements of any plaintiffs’ counsel except those of Frank Silvestri, John Massicot, Peter Derbes, Stephen Murray, Stephen Murray Jr. and Ronnie Penton. Penton initially objected to his fee allocation but later withdrew his objection. The fee committee presented its proposed fee allocation to the district court on Jan. 22, 2007, at an ex parte status conference. The committee did not notify any of the other 74 plaintiffs’ attorneys of the hearing, nor were they shown the allocation proposal or the proposed order approving the committee’s allocation of fees and costs. Also unbeknownst to the other attorneys, the proposed order went far beyond the allocation of fees. The order: 1. placed under seal the document prepared by the fee committee listing each attorney’s fee award; 2. prohibited each plaintiffs’ attorney from disclosing to anyone, including his clients and other attorneys, the amount of his award under penalty of sanctions to be imposed by the court; 3. required fees, costs and expenses to be “distributed immediately;” 4. mandated that fee award checks bear a full and final release; and 5. established the district court’s process for dealing with any objections to fee awards. The transcript of the ex parte hearing and the court’s fee allocation order suggested that the fee committee provided the court with documentation to support its recommendation. For example, the district court stated during the ex parte hearing that it had received each individual attorney’s responses. But this information was not in the appellate record. At the ex parte hearing, the district court asked the fee committee why it wanted the court to seal the fee allocation list. Barrett responded that keeping the individual fee awards confidential would prevent lawyers from fighting over awards that they could not compare. He asserted that during the past 10 to 15 years other judges have “go[ne] with this confidentiality dynamic.” Barrett specifically cited another federal district court in Louisiana that had recently placed under seal the fee allocation list associated with its order awarding individual attorneys’ fees. The district court also asked the fee committee about the process it used to make its fee allocation recommendations. Arsenault and Barrett responded that the fee committee considered, among other things, the benefits of the attorneys’ work to the class as a whole and their hourly billing rates. At least three firms received less than they requested. Later on the same day, the district court signed apparently without modification the proposed order embodying both the proposed attorneys’ fees and the procedural limitations on challenges. The order awarded almost half of the $6.875 million fee to the five members of the fee committee and their firms. Soon thereafter, some of the attorneys requested the district court to reconsider its order and unseal Exhibit A, the fee allocation list. The court held an in camera hearing on these motions at which appellants and members of the fee committee presented oral arguments on March 16, 2007. On April 5, 2007, the court entered a sealed order denying the motions to reconsider and refusing to unseal Exhibit A. Attorneys Silvestri, Massicot, Derbes and the two Murrays, and class member Caroll Farmer, filed a notice of appeal. The district court subsequently entered orders unsealing Exhibit A and various other documents. This court granted the attorneys’ motion to instruct the district court to supplement the record on appeal with all documents and submissions reviewed by the district court prior to making its fee allocation order. HOLDING:Vacated and remanded. The court limited its review to the procedures that the district court used to allocate the $6.875 million lump-sum attorneys’ fee award among plaintiffs’ counsel The appellants contended that the court abused its discretion, because it used flawed procedures to award individual attorneys’ fees and to review objections to those fees. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. For all practical purposes, the court stated, the five-member fee committee controlled the allocation of attorneys’ fees in the case. In the 5th Circuit, a district court can in its discretion appoint a committee of plaintiffs’ counsel to recommend how to divide up an aggregate fee award. But the appointment of a committee, the court stated, does not relieve a district court of its responsibility to closely scrutinize the attorneys’ fee allocation, especially when the attorneys recommending the allocation have a financial interest in the resulting awards. The court found that in this case, the district court abdicated its responsibility to ensure that the individual awards recommended by the fee committee were fair and reasonable. The district court, the court stated, used flawed fee allocation procedures that were inconsistent with well-established class action principles and basic judicial standards of transparency and fairness. OPINION:Jones, C.J.; Jones, C.J., and Reavley and Smith, JJ.

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