Two House Republicans today continued their effort to prevent the plaintiffs' lawyers in the Cobell class action from getting more than $50 million in attorney fees for their work in a 15-year-old case.
Congressmen Doc Hastings of Washington and Don Young of Alaska, who introduced legislation in March to cap the fees in the class action, accused the plaintiffs’ lawyers of deception in statements presented at a Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.
Hastings and Young said the plaintiffs’ attorneys insisted for months that they would not seek more than $99.9 million in fees. Lawyers for lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell—who is represented by Washington solo practitioner Dennis Gingold and a Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton team—agreed in a landmark settlement to a range of fees between $50 million and $99.9 million. More on the settlement here.
After Congress approved legislation to authorize the settlement, Cobell’s lawyers announced in Washington’s federal trial court that they are entitled to at least $223 million in fees. The attorneys maintain a $223 million award, based on a 14.75% contingency fee arrangement, is consistent with controlling law. The attorneys argue the outcome of the case, and the complexity of the litigation, justify such an award.
Young and Hastings expressed surprise about the revelation of the contingency arrangement. “Is this a bait-and-switch, a game of Three Card Monte, or a ploy to convince the court that $100 million should be a kind of consolation prize?” Young said in a prepared statement (PDF).
In a statement (PDF), Hastings said he wants to ensure that “what is owed to individual Indians under the law isn’t fleeced away by a handful of lawyers demanding over $200 million based on a secret deal known only to themselves.”
Justice and Interior department lawyers declined to participate in today’s hearing.
In a joint statement, Cobell’s lawyers said: “The settlement terms were vetted for 12 months by members of Congress and their staffs. Each member of Congress who was involved in that extraordinary vetting process understood the terms.”
The legal fee dispute, Cobell’s attorneys said, is pending in front of a federal judge in Washington. “Political interference in the judicial process would harm 500,000 individual Indians, undermine our system of government and jeopardize the settlement in its entirety,” the lawyers said.