A South Florida lawyer is part of the team of litigators asking for more than $169 million in attorney fees.

The move comes after a federal district judge in Michigan gave the nod to a more than $600 million settlement in a years-long battle over contaminated water in Flint.

Theodore J. Leopold, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Palm Beach Gardens said that reaching this partial settlement as co-lead counsel for the victims required overcoming several obstacles, some of which are still pending.

These obstacles included a claim of sovereign immunity by the state of Michigan to the lawsuit, multiple appellate reviews, and pushback over attorney fees.

But the lawyers say the consequences for failing to reach this settlement would have been devastating.

Theodore J. Leopold, leader of Cohen Milstein's Environmental Toxic Tort Team. Theodore J. Leopold, leader of Cohen Milstein’s Environmental Toxic Tort Team.

“There was a minority community that was preyed upon by the, at the time, governor of Michigan,” Leopold said. “The injustice that occurred is something that we should never lose sight of, and we, as lawyers, should be there to stop these types of injustices.”

U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy called the $626 million settlement a “remarkable achievement.” Her order will provide compensation to “tens of thousands of people who were impacted by their exposure to lead, legionella, and other contaminants.”

The water crisis began in 2014, soon after Flint switched its drinking water supply to save money, according to court documents.

Then, in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report about its findings of dangerous levels of lead flowing into residents’ homes, which was followed by the city declaring a state of emergency. Court documents show the problems stemmed from inadequate treatment and testing, which caused a water-quality and health disaster.

One of the challenges Leopold faced early on was that Michigan asserted it had sovereign immunity from these types of lawsuits. He said plaintiff counsel had to bypass the threshold to establish key areas of constitutional law to show that the state’s conduct was conscious indifference.

Leopold said a second challenge was battling defendants in multiple courts over their opposition to their lawsuits.

“We had probably from eight to 12 appeals that were not just to the Michigan Supreme Court, but also to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Leopold said. “There was a long trilogy of cases, fields that had to be addressed.”

Law.com previously reported that plaintiff counsel faced mounting criticism over the attorney fee request.

Water Tower at Flint Water Plant In Flint, Michigan. January 23, 2016. Water Tower at Flint Water Plant In Flint, Michigan. January 23, 2016.

That opposition included a group called Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch paying for full-page ads in local newspapers and commercials on radio stations, as well as the state legislature adopting bipartisan resolutions that opposed the “excessive fees.”

Moving forward, Levy will rule on the upcoming attorney fees request separately from the settlement order. The $169 million figure accounts for 27% of the partial settlement, Leopold said on Monday, taking into account the deduction of common benefit, individual contracts and other expenses.

Leopold also said the two defendants have appealed for appellate review of class certification against them. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal ruling will determine if the remaining defendants will go to trial.

Though, regardless of the settlement and how the trial plays out, Leopold said that because of the alleged “governmental discriminatory conduct against minority communities,” this type of litigation will continue to happen in the future.

But the South Florida litigator said the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden is expected to sign into law on Monday could prevent future crises and save taxpayer money on related litigation.

“Hopefully, the infrastructure bill will address some of the water contamination issues not only PFAS related areas, which is a very big area right now, but also as it relates to piping infrastructure,” Leopold said, referring to toxic chemicals and polyfluoroalkyl substances. “Lead piping that’s all going to have to be replaced is one of the tenants of the infrastructure bill.”