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The New York law firm Zwerling Schachter & Zwerling expected March 5 to be a big payday. The firm had settled a class action lawsuit against Renaissance Cruises Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for $2.9 million. The company had been accused of inflating port charges, and the only issue remaining was a court ruling on the firm’s request for $1.4 million in legal fees. But Broward County, Fla.,Circuit Judge Robert Lance Andrews had a surprise in store. In a blistering 27-page ruling, Andrews slashed the legal fees to about $294,000, split among Zwerling Schachter, lead counsel in the suit, and four South Florida law firms. Adding insult to injury, Andrews made mischief when he ordered that a quarter of the fees be paid in $10 to $60 travel vouchers — the same vouchers awarded to the 80,000 plaintiffs in the suit. The judge assailed the plaintiffs’ attorneys for greediness, belittled the public service they claimed to have provided and scoffed at the notion of awarding such huge fees. Too often, he wrote in the ruling, lawyers use class actions as cash cows that ultimately don’t yield much for plaintiffs. Edwin H. Moore, a tort reform proponent and class-action critic, applauded Andrews for taking a stand against what he called a “ridiculous class action.” “Essentially, these vouchers have no value whatsoever,” said Moore, president and chief executive of the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee, Fla., think tank. “It’s kind of absurd, taking a cruise for hundreds of dollars and getting $10 off.” Zwerling Schachter filed its complaint against Renaissance Cruises in Broward Circuit Court in 1996, accusing the company of padding port charges. The firm deemed the practice a consumer rip-off, citing Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and a common law claim for unjust enrichment. The suit contended that Renaissance passengers who traveled between 1993 and 1996 paid inflated port charges of $295 to $395 per person. Such charges typically cover docking fees charged by ports. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth investigated the charges in 1996, and found that many cruise lines inflated those costs above and beyond what ports charged cruise lines. As a result of Butterworth’s investigation, plaintiffs’ attorneys filed 12 class actions against Renaissance and six other lines: Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International and Kloster Cruise Line (now Norwegian Cruise Line), all based in Miami; Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises and Seattle-based Holland America Line. Zwerling Schachter estimated that the various cruise lines charged their customers $250 million a year in port charges, more than twice the amount needed for port fees. Although Renaissance wasn’t named in Butterworth’s investigation, Andrews’ ruling said the cruise line later acknowledged inflating port charges and pledged to stop. Class actions against Carnival, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean were settled; others are pending or were dismissed. Attorneys reached a settlement with Renaissance last April, when the line agreed to issue vouchers of up to $60 to plaintiffs depending on when they traveled. But talks broke down over legal fees. The plaintiffs’ attorneys sought $1.375 million: a base legal bill of $543,000 times a multiplier of 2.45, plus expenses. Courts sometimes approve multipliers to entice firms to take cases. Andrews took issue with virtually every point in that calculation. The judge acknowledged that class actions have their uses, but said plaintiffs’ lawyers in this case here did not “blaze the litigation trail.” Rather, they “jumped onto a stagecoach that was already moving, thanks to the work of government agencies or other attorneys,” Andrews said. The ruling makes two main points: First, that not all the plaintiffs’ lawyers were entitled to share in the spoils, as many weren’t licensed to practice law in Florida. Second, Zwerling Schachter and the other four firms involved in the suit were not entitled to a multiplier. Courts sometimes apply a multiplier if they decide that a case was exceptionally risky for the plaintiffs’ attorneys. Without a multiplier, the reasoning goes, competent attorneys might not take up a meritorious class action for fear that the returns will not justify the time invested. Andrews also mentioned three plaintiffs who objected to $1.4 million in legal fees. One of the objectors was John E. Peterson of Greensboro, N.C., a retired certified public accountant, who called the fee request and the suit itself ridiculous. “I don’t think that 90 percent of the people who got vouchers will use them,” Peterson said. “I threw mine in the wastebasket.” Andrews said he considered denying plaintiffs’ lawyers any legal fees, “on the basis of their blatant disregard of their ethical obligations to the class and to the court.” In fact, before ruling on legal fees, Andrews rebuffed 13 law firms that claimed to have had a hand in the class action. Eighteen firms had, at one point, claimed some role in the class action and sought legal fees. Andrews shut out all but five, saying the others had negligible roles or failed to abide by Florida’s Rules of Professional Conduct. The remaining South Florida firms were West Palm Beach’s Burt & Pucillo, solo practitioner Robert C. Gilbert of Coral Gables, Richman Greer Weil Brumbaugh Mirabito & Christensen of West Palm Beach and Friedman Rosenwasser & Goldbaum in Boca Raton, in addition to Zwerling Schachter. Yet with 13 firms out of the picture, Zwerling Schachter persisted in seeking $1.4 million, to be shared with the four other firms. “It is this court’s opinion that the plaintiffs’ counsel have engaged in ‘fuzzy math’ to support their fee award,” Andrews said. Robin Corwin Campbell, attorney for Renaissance and a partner in Fort Lauderdale’s Atlas Pearlman, said she was pleased with Andrews’ ruling. “There is not a lot of case law addressing this specific issue,” Campbell says. “He did a good job of putting it together.” Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Schachter, a partner in Zwerling Schachter, would say only that his firm likely would appeal the ruling. Representatives of the other firms did not return phone calls.

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