The plaintiffs' lawyers in Washington who negotiated a $760 million settlement for a class of Native- American farmers and ranchers are asking for $60.8 million in legal fees and expenses, court records show.
The settlement in Keepseagle v. Vilsack, announced last year in October, sets out a range of fees between 4% and 8%. The settlement creates a cash fund of $680 million for eligible class members and sets out $80 million for debt relief. The suit, filed in 1999, alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Native Americans in the government’s farm loan program.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys, including lead counsel Joseph Sellers of Washington’s Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, said the class lawyers have invested nearly 42,000 hours in the case, amounting to about $16.2 million in fees, based on hourly rates, and $1.6 million in expenses. The plaintiffs’ lawyers predict future fees and expenses will reach $8.65 million.
“This settlement was not achieved easily or quickly, but rather is the fruit of eleven years of hard-fought litigation including a vigorous contest on class [certification],” lawyers for lead plaintiff Marilyn Keepseagle said in court papers [.pdf] filed Jan. 14 in Washington’s federal trial court.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers—who also include Paul Smith of Jenner & Block, Anurag Varma of Patton Boggs and David Frantz of Conlon, Frantz & Phelan—called the fee request “amply justified” based on, among other things, the complexity of the case and the risk that the lawyers would never receive compensation. The attorneys noted that fee percentage is less than half the percentage that is typically awarded in Washington federal district court.
Sellers said in court papers [.pdf] that Cohen Milstein’s hourly rates for attorneys who worked on the case range between $295 and $785.
Smith, chairman of Jenner’s appellate and Supreme Court practice, said the Jenner lawyers who worked on the case bill between $400 and $800 an hour for commercial clients. He said Jenner lawyers and staff spent more than 9,000 hours on the case between the fall of 2007, when the firm got involved, and November 2010.
Sellers and the plaintiffs’ lawyers tout the benefits of the settlement in arguing that the class attorneys should receive an award at the high end of the 8% cap on fees. Keepseagle’s lawyers said the settlement requires the USDA to implement “new and unprecedented” initiatives that should dramatically improve the delivery of farm loan services to Native Americans.”
The USDA plans to offer financial, business and marketing instruction to Native Americans at regional venues. Also, the agriculture department plans to collect and report data that compare loans awarded and sought by Native Americans to allow for monitoring of any disparities.
The government has agreed to pay up to $20 million to cover class member notification and for administering the claims process.