Responding to a judge's request, the Justice Department yesterday said the plaintiffs' lawyers in a Native American class action should not receive the maximum legal fee award that the settlement in the case allows.
The settlement in Keepseagle v. Vilsack, a suit over alleged discrimination against Native American farmers and ranchers in loan processing, said the plaintiffs’ lawyers are entitled to between $30.4 million and $60.8 million for their work in the 12-year-old case in Washington federal district court. Background here , here and here.
In court earlier this month, Judge Emmet Sullivan asked why he should not award the maximum amount the plaintiffs can receive in the $760 million settlement. Late yesterday, Justice Department lawyers responded to the judge, saying $60.8 million “bears no meaningful relationship to the work performed” in the case.
A Justice lawyer, Amy Powell of the Civil Division’s federal programs branch, said $30.4 million is a reasonable fee award and will fairly compensate the plaintiffs’ attorneys, led by Joseph Sellers of Washington’s Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
“Although the government’s interest in the matter is secondary to that of the class, the government has an interest in ensuring that funds from federal coffers are expended efficiently to benefit the class and to effectuate the purposes of the settlement,” Powell said in court papers (PDF).
DOJ lawyers said the question before Sullivan isn’t really why he should not grant the plaintiffs’ request for $60.8 million “but whether class counsel has justified the amount they seek.”
Sellers and the plaintiffs’ lawyers argue they took a risk of nonpayment and advanced funds. But Justice attorneys said the class lawyers do not explain what multiplier or percentage was necessary for the attorneys to take that risk. (The plaintiffs’ fee petition is here.)
Sullivan is planning to meet with the lawyers April 26 for a hearing on the fee dispute.