NEW ORLEANS – A group of plaintiffs’ attorneys involved in the Deepwater Horizon settlement have been appointed to oversee suggestions for the pay they will receive for settling the case.
The Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (PSC), a group of 17 attorneys tasked with handling administrative duties on behalf of the Deepwater Horizon class, negotiated the massive settlement with BP involving private claims stemming from the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
As part of the settlement the PSC negotiated significant fees for themselves including 6 percent of each damage award paid out to more than 250,000 class members in addition to $600 million BP paid into a common benefit fund to cover litigation expenses on behalf of plaintiffs’ attorneys.
A July 15 court order issued by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier indicated that around 100 law firms have requested their time and expenses be covered by the common benefit fund. That court order also appointed the members of the Common Benefit Fee and Cost Committee (FCC) which will make recommendations on what law firms should have expenses reimbursed.
The fee committee is made up of the following PSC members:
• Stephen J. Herman of Herman, Herman & Katz, LLC, who serves as co-liaison counsel in Deepwater Horizon litigation, will serve as co-chair and secretary of the FCC.
• James P. Roy of Domengeaux Wright Roy Edwards & Colomb LLC, who serves as co-liaison counsel in the Deepwater Horizon litigation will serve as co-chair of the FCC.
• Robert T. Cunningham of Cunningham Bounds, LLC.
• Brian H. Barr of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, PA.
• Calvin C. Fayard, Jr. of Fayard & Honeycutt, APC
• Robin L. Greenwald of Weitz & Luzenberg, P.C.
• Dawn M. Barrios of Barrios, Kingsdorf & Casteix, L.L.P.
In addition, Arnold Levin and Sandra L. Duggan of Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman were appointed as special counsel to the FCC. Levin is well known to have served as co-counsel on several class action lawsuits cases with Herman, Herman & Katz in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana including numerous high profile pharmaceutical cases and sprawling class action lawsuit brought against the manufacturers of faulty Chinese drywall, which was installed into thousands of rebuilt homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Barbier’s court order also stipulates that the work of the fee committee will not be disclosed to the public.
“Communications in any form between and among members of the FCC and/or its Special Counsel regarding the Aggregate Fee and Cost Petition, the Allocation Recommendation, and/or related matters, and the deliberations of the FCC, including its minutes, are privileged and confidential, and not subject to discovery unless otherwise authorized by the Court for good cause shown,” the court says.
Barbier also ordered that any fee affidavits submitted to the court should be filed under seal and kept out of public view.
“If at any time the FCC makes a filing with the Court that includes any Fee Affidavits, such filing shall not be a violation of the confidentiality provision contained in this Order, provided such filing is made under seal with the Court.”
Legal observers question why Barbier designed the fee distribution process to be largely shielded from public scrutiny.
“You’ve got the fox guarding the hen house and no one is allowed to look through the windows. What could possibly go wrong?” Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said. “Unfortunately, this secretive and self-serving system for allocating legal fees will only further fuel skepticism about how the lawyers have used the settlement for their own personal gain.”
Overall, the percentage pay to the PSC is anticipated to be worth at least $1.2 billion with the possibility that it may receive the majority, if not all, of the $600 million from the common benefit fund.
Under the court order a timeline has been established giving law firms that believed they have done work on behalf the entire class to submit time and expenses by Sept. 15, 2015. The timeline also stipulates several appeals will be offered and fees may begin being paid in 2017.
Some plaintiffs’ attorneys are wary of the PSC’s motives when it comes to controlling the FCC.
Daniel Becnel, a Reserve, La.-based plaintiffs’ attorney who filed the initial paperwork for the federal lawsuit against BP, but was not included on the PSC, has been extremely critical of the percentage the PSC is taking from class members.
“Usually what happens when this happens is those people who are appointed take the majority of the money,” Becnel said.
Since the beginning of the case, Becnel said the PSC members have been attempting to keep other attorneys from accruing common benefit fees.
“I got letter from Mr. Steve Herman saying I was not allowed to do any common benefit work,” he said. “Yet he sent me a check for $5,000 because they didn’t know how to file an admiralty lawsuit when it first happened.”
Becnel further said the makeup of the fee committee exposes the PSC’s true motives – to make as much money for themselves as possible.
“(We’ll get a) pittance. I’ll bet you that the people on that fee committee are going to get 60 percent of the fee,” Becnel said of the PSC members serving on the feee committee.