U.S. Justice Department lawyers have asked a federal judge in Washington to limit legal fees in a Native American farmer and rancher class action to $30.4 million, the low end of a range the lawyers in the case agreed to in a $760 million settlement.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by Joseph Sellers of Washington's Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, has asked for an 8% cut, or $60.8 million, for the work performed in Keepseagle v. Vilsack since it was filed in 1999. In November, a judge preliminarily approved the settlement, which resolves claims the government discriminated in farm loan servicing and processing.
In their fee petition (PDF) , filed in January, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said they “worked vigorously and without compensation for over eleven years” to reach a settlement amid hard-fought litigation. DOJ lawyers, in court papers filed March 18, urged Judge Emmet Sullivan of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia not to approve $60.8 million.
“The amount now requested far exceeds what is reasonable to compensate counsel for their time on the case and would unreasonably decrease the amount of money available to the class members under the agreement,” Amy Powell of the DOJ’s Federal Programs Branch wrote in the government's filing (PDF).
Powell said the “government has an interest in ensuring that the class reaps the full benefit of the settlement and that funds coming ultimately from federal coffers are not expended in an unnecessary or unreasonable manner.”
The main argument DOJ lawyers make is that the plaintiffs’ lodestar award, including fees and future expenses, is nearly $27 million.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers, who also include Jenner & Block partner Paul Smith, David Frantz of Washington’s Conlon, Frantz & Phelan and Anurag Varma of Patton Boggs, have said they are willing to make billing records available to the court for review in chambers.
DOJ lawyers said the plaintiffs’ team has not justified its decision to withhold the records from Sullivan and they “have not justified providing only ex parte access to those records.”
Sellers and the plaintiffs’ lawyer have also proposed incentive awards of $100,000 for six class representatives, $200,000 for one representative and $75,000 to the estates of two deceased representatives.
The Justice Department declined to take a position on how much class representatives should receive in incentive awards, which are paid to plaintiffs who performed services on behalf of the class. DOJ, however, said the award the plaintiffs have asked for is “extraordinarily high” compared to other cases in Washington’s federal trial court.