Lawyers in Flint civil cases request up to $202M of $641M settlement

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
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Attorneys who led the massive Flint water crisis civil litigation and settlement negotiations are asking the court for a maximum of $202.6 million of the $641.25 million settlement for their services over more than five years of litigation.

The attorney fee proposal, which would cap fees for each individual plaintiff at less than a third, would take $40.5 million, or about 6.3%, off the top of the $641 million settlement for lead attorneys in the case, according to a motion filed late Monday in federal court.

The plan would then take up to 27% of the remaining $600.6 million, or about $162 million, to be distributed among all lawyers in the case.

Lead counsel in the civil case, according to Monday's motion, had invested more than 182,000 hours of work over five years, or about $84 million worth, as well as more than $7.1 million in expenses. The motion seeks separate reimbursement from the fund for the $7.1 million in expenses.

The lawyers "could have received no reimbursement whatsoever had the cases failed," the motion said. More than 20 law firms representing about 40 lawyers were listed in the motion.

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office said Tuesday that the state's settlement agreement bars her office from commenting on the proposed attorney fees unless asked to by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who will ultimately rule on the attorneys' request.

"The state’s agreement is not unusual and is a term typically demanded by plaintiffs’ attorneys in similar settlements," Nessel's office said in a statement. "The state will rely on the discretion of the court to determine the fair and appropriate amount of settlement funds that will be paid to plaintiffs’ attorneys."

The settlement was criticized by Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, which called it a "grossly excessive money grab" that would leave Flint residents with less cash. The group encouraged residents who wanted to challenge the attorney fees to email info@lawsuitfairness.org.

“Everyone is entitled to fair payment for their services, and this was certainly a complex case, but in our opinion, it’s inexcusable for these lawyers to ask for nearly a third of the money in a settlement this large regardless of what may be customary or allowed by court rules," said Robert Dorigo Jones, president of the advocacy group.

The $40 million off the top will go to co-lead counsel and co-liaison counsel for the various individual suits, including lawyers Theodore Leopold, Michael Pitt, Hunter Shkolnik and Corey Stern. The men played significant roles in representing thousands of Flint's nearly 100,000 residents, shaping the settlement and paying expenses related to the litigation.  

The shares for individual lawyers will vary from the 27% individual maximum depending on whether a person had retained a lawyer, when he or she entered the case or which subclass of claimants a person is part of — such as adults who were exposed, individuals whose property was damaged or businesses that were harmed by the 2014 switch to Flint River water, according to the motion. 

The filing cited Michigan court rules that cap contingent fees for attorneys in such cases at one-third of the amount recovered. Many individuals who contracted with lawyers in the Flint civil case had agreed to attorney fees that didn't exceed one-third.

The proposed attorney fees were designed "to provide reasonable and equitable compensation to plaintiffs’ counsel for the work they have performed, the risk and expenses they have shouldered in prosecuting these cases, and future work they will do in implementing the settlement," the motion said.

Levy granted preliminary approval in January to a $641 million settlement agreement between Flint residents and the state of Michigan, one of the largest in state history. 

Part of the settlement requires 80% of the money go to children who were minors when first exposed to Flint River water in 2014. Another 18% goes to claims from adults and for property damage, and another 1% will go to claims for business losses.

The settlement will affect thousands of people who were harmed by the city's 2014 switch from a Detroit water source to the Flint River while awaiting completion of a separate pipeline for the Karegnondi Water Authority. 

The city, which was under state emergency management at the time for financial distress, failed to properly treat the water for corrosion, allowing lead to leach from the old water lines and into water that was piped into homes.

"... Public policy supports incentivizing counsel to take on important cases like these without upfront or certain compensations as they otherwise might not be undertaken," the motion said. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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