A federal judge in Washington has awarded $90.8 million in fees to the plaintiffs lawyers involved in the high-profile black farmers’ discrimination litigation.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman concluded the plaintiffs’ attorneys should receive the maximum amount—7.4 percent—under the terms of a historic settlement with the U.S. Justice Department. The deal set out a fee range between 4.1 percent and 7.4 percent.
The fee award is the latest chapter in a long-running dispute in which African American farmers alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them in the loan application process. In a consent decree, the USDA acknowledged its practice of discriminating against African Americans in providing farm loans, subsidies and other benefits.
Friedman signed off on a $1.25 billion common fund from which to compensate eligible class members and their lawyers. Justice Department attorneys argued that the plaintiffs’ attorneys were not entitled to 7.4 percent. The government’s lawyers said the case was neither long in duration nor complex in scope.
In the opinion issued today, Friedman said numerous law firms incurred millions of dollar in expenses while not knowing whether they would ultimately be reimbursed. He said that the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin and Morgan & Morgan collectively incurred out-of-pocket expenses in excess of $18 million.
"Absent the settlement of this case, they might never have been reimbursed for many of these costs and expenses," Friedman wrote. "In light of these considerations, the Court's previous observation that this litigation 'was no sure bet for plaintiffs' lawyers' was, if anything, an understatement."
The distribution of the legal fees and expenses will be handled by lead class counsel Andrew Marks of Coffey Burlington, Henry Sanders of Chestnut Sanders Sanders & Pettaway and Gregorio Francis of Morgan & Morgan.
Friedman said the prosecution of the case “entailed a diverse array of challenges.” Class counsel, the judge said, successfully coordinated among more than 20 law firms issues that included class certification.
The judge noted that at least 20 draft settlements were exchanged among the lawyers in the case as they tried to “devise a fair and efficacious manner of resolving a potentially very large number of claims with funds drawn from a limited pool.”
"Class counsel have undertaken the immense challenge presented by this action with the utmost professionalism and integrity, exhibiting skill, diligence, and efficiency in all aspects of their duties," Friedman wrote. "As noted earlier, they also have committed themselves to devoting 'whatever additional time and effort is necessary going forward to bring the claims and payment process to a successful conclusion.”