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In re Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation

decided: April 21, 1987.

IN RE "AGENT ORANGE" PRODUCT LIABILITY LITIGATION (APPEAL OF DAVID DEAN)


Appeal from an order and judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Weinstein, Ch. J.) denying appellant's motion to set aside fee sharing agreement under which members of Plaintiffs Management Committee would receive, from the pool of fees awarded by the district court, a threefold return on funds advanced to the class for litigation expenses, Reversed.

Author: Miner

Before: VAN GRAAFEILAND, WINTER and MINER, Circuit Judges.

MINER, Circuit Judge:

Our discussion of the background and procedural history of this litigation appears in Judge Winter's lead opinion, No. 84-6273. This portion of the Agent orange appeal concerns the district court's approval of a fee sharing agreement entered into by the nine-member Plaintiffs' Management Committee ("PMC") in December of 1983. Under the agreement, each PMC member who had advanced funds to the class for general litigation expenses was to receive a threefold return on his investment prior to the distribution of other fees awarded to individual PMC members by the district court. In result, the agreement dramatically increased the fees awarded to those PMC members who had advanced funds to the class for expenses, and concurrently decreased the fees awarded to non-investing PMC members, who only performed legal services for the class.

David Dean, lead trial counsel for the plaintiff class and a non-investing member of the PMC, challenges the validity of the agreement, to which he was a signatory, contending that it violates DR 5-103 and DR 2-107(A) of the ABA Code of Professional Responsibility ("ABA Code"). The ABA Code provisions prohibit an attorney from acquiring a proprietary interest in an action in which he is involved and from dividing a fee with an attorney who is not a member of his firm, unless such division is made pursuant to client consent and is based upon services performed and responsibility assumed. In addition, Dean asserts that such an agreement, which premises the size of a fee on the amount advanced for expenses rather than on services rendered, violates the standards and principles developed in this circuit for the award of attorneys' fees in equitable fund class actions and inevitably places class counsel in a position at odds with the interest of the class itself.

Although not informed of the existence of the fee sharing agreement until September of 1984, four months after the parties reached a settlement, the district court approved the agreement, holding that "there is no reason to believe that the existence of the PMC's fee-sharing agreement had any appreciable untoward effect on the decision to settle." In re "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation, 611 F. Supp. 1452, 1461 (E.D.N.Y. 1985) (" Agent Orange I"). In essence the court determined that the substantial financial demands placed upon counsel in complex multiparty litigation require flexibility in reviewing internal fee sharing agreements so as not to discourage future representation of large plaintiff classes. At the same time, however, the district judge ruled that, in all future cases, counsel must notify the court of any fee sharing agreement at the time of its inception. In this way, according to the district judge, "the court at the outset can determine whether to permit the fee allocation agreement to stand before any attorney invests substantial time and funds." Id. at 1463.

Because we find that the agreement before us violates established principles governing awards of attorneys' fees in equitable fund class actions and creates a strong possibility of a conflict of interest between class counsel and those they were charged to represent, we reverse the district court's approval of the agreement. Accordingly, the fees originally allocated by the district court, based on the reasonable value of service actually rendered, will be distributed to the members of the PMC.

I. BACKGROUND

In September of 1983 Yannacone and Associates withdrew as attorneys for the class, claiming financial and management hardships. The district court then approved appointment of the PMC as new class counsel. The PMC was comprised of three members - attorneys Stephen Schlegel, Benton Musslewhite and Thomas Henderson. In re "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation, 571 F. Supp. 481 (E.D.N.Y. 1983). In later months the district court approved the expansion of the PMC to encompass six additional members, including appellant David Dean. Dean, a member of the original panel of class counsel, had been closely involved with the Agent orange litigation since its inception in 1979. In October of 1983 the district court appointed him to be the attorney responsible for leading the preparation and potential trial of plaintiffs' case.

In December of 1983, as a means of raising the capital necessary for the maintenance and continuation of the lawsuit, the nine PMC members entered into a written fee sharing agreement whereby six of the members each promised to advance the class $200,000 for general litigation expenses. The agreement provided that the investing members would be reimbursed threefold from the pool of attorneys' fees awarded to PMC members upon successful completion of the action. The fees remaining in the pool after the investment pay-outs would be distributed pursuant to a fifty-thirty-twenty percent formula: fifty percent of the remainder would be distributed equally among the nine PMC members, thirty percent would be distributed according to the number of hours each member expended in the case, and twenty percent would be distributed in accordance with certain quality and risk factors relating to each PMC member's work in the action, as determined by a majority vote of the PMC. All PMC members, including Dean, signed the agreement. The district court, however, was not notified of its existence.

The action was settled in May of 1984 and the district court, by Order dated June 11, 1984, notified counsel that petitions for attorneys' fees were to be submitted to the court no later than August 31, 1984. A hearing on the issue of fees was scheduled for late September. In ordering the hearing, the district court waived application of Rule 5 of the Local Rules of the Eastern District of New York requiring notice to the class of all fee applications and fee sharing agreements prior to the hearing on such fee petitions. The court gave as its reasons "the need for continued intensive work by the attorneys until the close of the fairness hearings and . . . the complexity of the fee applications." Notice of Proposed Settlement of Class Action, reprinted in In re "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation, 597 F. Supp. 740, 867 (E.D.N.Y. 1984). When the court waived application of the local rule, it was unaware of the PMC fee sharing agreement.

It was not until the PMC submitted its joint fee petition that the court finally learned of the agreement. At the September hearing on the fee petitions, the district judge expressed doubts as to the agreement's propriety and requested further briefing on the issue. Faced with the reservations expressed by the district judge, the PMC members modified their agreement in December of 1984. The revised agreement, and the one now before us, provided that five of the six investing members of the PMC each would advance an additional $50,000 for general litigation expenses, bringing their total investments to $250,000 each. In return for these advances, as well as for the $200,000 advanced by the sixth investing member, the new agreement provided for the same threefold return as did the original agreement. The fifty-thirty-twenty percent formula for the distribution of the remaining portion of the fees, however, was eliminated. In its place, the revised agreement called for the remainder to be distributed pro rata to each PMC member "in the proportion the individual's and/or firm's fee award bears to the total fees awarded."*fn1 Agent Orange I, 611 F. Supp. at 1454.

On January 7, 1985, the district court issued a Memorandum and Order awarding over $10 million in fees and expenses to the various counsel whose work had benefitted the class, applying the principles of fee distribution in equitable fund actions set forth in City of Detroit v. Grinnell Corp., 495 F.2d 448 (2d Cir. 1974) (" Grinnell I ") and City of Detroit v. Grinnell Corp., 560 F.2d 1093 (2d Cir. 1977) (" Grinnell II "). In re "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation, 611 F. Supp. 1296 (E.D.N.Y. 1985) (" Agent Orange II "). As later amended and supplemented, the district court's decision awarded over $4.7 million in fees to the nine members of the PMC on an individually apportioned basis. David Dean, due to his lengthy involvement in the class action and the exceptional quality of his work, was awarded $1,424,283.75, or over thirty percent of all fees awarded to the PMC. Each of the six investing members of the PMC was awarded a much lower percentage of the entire PMC fee award, with one investor being awarded only $41,886. The highest award to an investor was $515,163.

Once the fee sharing agreement was applied to these awards, however, the amount of fees each PMC member was to receive changed dramatically. In Dean's case, application of the agreement reduced his award to $542,310, a reduction of $881,973. In contrast, Newton Schwartz, an investing member of the PMC to whom the district court awarded $41,886, was now to receive $513,026, equivalent to an hourly rate of $1,224.81. The awards to all other investing members were similarly enhanced and, in turn, the awards to the two other non-investing members were diminished, resulting in a distortion of the district court's individual PMC member fee awards. The total of all fees awarded by the court to the members of the PMC, of course, remained unchanged.*fn2

Amount of Fees Amount of Fees ...


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