Is the BP Oil Spill Proposed Class Action Settlement Fair, Reasonable, and Adequate?
Is the BP Oil Spill Proposed Class Action Settlement Fair, Reasonable, and Adequate?
Plaintiff Files Motion to Vacate Preliminary Approval Order
Tampa, FL (July 4, 2012) – On April 18, 2012, the MDL 2179 Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (“PSC”) and BP filed their Proposed Settlement. The Proposed Settlement allegedly intends to resolve certain claims by private individuals and businesses for economic loss and property damage resulting from the “Deepwater Horizon Incident.” The Proposed Settlement defines “Deepwater Horizon Incident” as the events, actions, inactions and omissions leading up to and including (i) the blowout of the MC252 Well; (ii) the explosions and fire on board the Deepwater Horizon on or about April 20, 2010; (iii) the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon on or about April 22, 2010; (iv) the release of oil, other hydrocarbons and other substances from the MC252 Well and/or the Deepwater Horizon and its appurtenances; (v) the efforts to contain the MC252 Well; (vi) Response Activities, including the VoO Program; (vii) the operation of the GCCF; and (viii) BP public statements relating to all of the foregoing.
On May 2, 2012, the MDL 2179 Court entered a Preliminary Approval Order [As to the Proposed Economic and Property Damages Class Action Settlement].
On July 2, 2012, Plaintiff Selmer M. Salvesen, a clam farmer in Florida, filed a Motion to Vacate Preliminary Approval Order [As to the Proposed Economic and Property Damages Class Action Settlement], Rec. Doc. 6418 dated May 2, 2012, with the MDL 2179 Court.
The following is an excerpt from Plaintiff Salvesen’s Motion to Vacate.
A. The Proposed Settlement Is Not Fair, Reasonable, and Adequate.
Rule 23(e) places the burden of persuasion on the movers that the proposed settlement is “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” In re Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Prods. Liab. Litig., 2012 WL 92498, at *7 (E.D. La. Jan. 10, 2012). If the proposed settlement “discloses no reason to doubt its fairness, has no obvious deficiencies, does not improperly grant preferential treatment to class representatives or segments of the class, does not grant excessive compensation to attorneys, and appears to fall within the range of possible approval, the court should grant preliminary approval.” In re OCA, Inc. Sec. & Deriv. Litig., No. 05-2165, 2008 WL 4681369, at *11 (E.D. La. Oct. 17, 2008).
1. The Proposed Settlement Provides Misleading Information to Class Members.
Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (‘OPA”), claims for damages must be presented first to the responsible party. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(a). In the event that a claim for damages is not paid by the responsible party within 90 days, the claimant may elect to commence an action in court against the responsible party or to present the claim to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(c).
“The Court is satisfied that, pursuant to the terms of the Proposed Settlement, Class Members who opt out or who possess reserved claims will be able to pursue those claims effectively outside the Class Settlement.” (p. 26, Rec. Doc. 6418). BP and the PSC have misled this Honorable Court and Class Members.
(a) The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
The OPA provides the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (“OSLTF”) to pay for oil spill costs when the responsible party cannot or does not pay. The OSLTF, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard through its National Pollution Funds Center (“NPFC”), is primarily financed through a tax on petroleum products, and is subject to a $1 billion cap on the amount of expenditures from the OSLTF per incident. For any one oil pollution incident, the OSLTF may pay up to $1 billion. Victims of the BP oil spill are at risk as a result of this cap. The cap is for total expenditures. This $1 billion expenditure limit applies even if the OSLTF is fully reimbursed by the responsible party and net expenditures are zero. OSLTF expenditures for natural resource damage assessments and claims in connection with a single incident are limited to $500 million of that $1 billion. NPFC administers the OSLTF by disbursing funds to government agencies to reimburse them for their oil spill cleanup costs (cost reimbursements), monitoring the sources and uses of funds, adjudicating claims submitted by individuals and businesses to the OSLTF for payment (claims), and pursuing reimbursement from the responsible party for costs and damages paid from the OSLTF (billing the responsible party).
On March 9, 2012, Mr. Craig A. Bennett, Director – NPFC, provided the following OSLTF status report in regard to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill incident:
Deepwater Horizon OSLTF Costs = $619 million
Deepwater Horizon Pending Claims = $410 million (for 1,659 claims received)
On March 9, 2012, total OSLTF expenditures (paid + pending claims) in regard to the Deepwater Horizon was $1.019 billion. In sum, since the OSLTF has exceeded, or will very shortly exceed, its $1 billion expenditure cap for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill incident, the OSLTF cannot pay valid individual or business claims which are not paid by BP.
(b) The Litigation Option
OPA, a strict liability statute, governs the MDL 2179 cases alleging economic loss due to the BP oil spill. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”) governs the MDL 2179 personal injury and wrongful death actions and borrows the law of the adjacent state as surrogate federal law.
Judge Barbier aptly stated in his Order dated August 26, 2011, “The Court finds that the text of OPA clearly requires that OPA claimants must first “present” their OPA claim to the Responsible Party before filing suit….The text of the statute is clear. Congress intended presentment to be a mandatory condition precedent to filing suit….There are likely large numbers of B1 claimants who have completely bypassed the OPA claim presentation requirement, others who have attempted to present their claims but may not have complied with OPA, and others who have properly presented their claims but have been denied for various reasons. Claimants who have not complied with the presentment requirement are subject to dismissal without prejudice, allowing them to exhaust the presentment of their claims before returning to court. In the ordinary case, the Court would simply dismiss those claims without prejudice. However, as the Court has previously noted, this is no ordinary case….. A judge handling an MDL often must employ special procedures and case management tools in order to have the MDL operate in an orderly and efficient manner. In this massive and complex MDL, the Court is faced with a significant practical problem. It would be impractical, time-consuming, and disruptive to the orderly conduct of this MDL and the current scheduling orders if the Court or the parties were required to sort through in excess of 100,000 individual B1 claims to determine which ones should be dismissed at the current time. Moreover, such a diversion at this time would be unproductive and would not advance towards the goal of allowing the parties and the Court to be ready for the limitation and liability trial scheduled to commence in February 2012. No matter how many of the individual B1 claims might be dismissed without prejudice, the trial scheduled for February would still go forward with essentially the same evidence…..In summary on this issue, the Court finds that presentment is a mandatory condition precedent with respect to Plaintiffs’ OPA claims. The Court finds that Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged presentment in their B1 Master Complaint, at least with respect to some of the Claimants.” (pp. 29, 30, 31, Rec. Doc. 3830) (Emphasis added).
Pursuant to the terms of the Proposed Settlement, “Regardless of whether the Agreement becomes effective, Claims with a sum certain and some documentation and/or other proof that are submitted to the Settlement Program shall be deemed to satisfy presentment and all requirements of 33 U.S.C. § 2713.” (pp. 62-63, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “OPA Process shall mean the claims presentment procedure pursuant to the OPA, including claims that have been submitted to the BP Parties or claims that have been submitted to the GCCF as part of the OPA Process.” (p. 104, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “Economic Class Members with expired offers from the GCCF who Opt-Out of the Economic Class shall be deemed to have satisfied the presentment requirements under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (“OPA”).” (p. 15, Rec. Doc. 6276-1).
BP and the PSC clearly understand that, under OPA, Congress intended presentment to be a mandatory condition precedent to filing suit. However, yet again, the parties mislead this Honorable Court and Class Members by intentionally failing to counsel those Claimants who may opt-out of the Proposed Settlement that, under OPA, claims for damages must be presented first to the responsible party. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(a). In the event that a claim for damages is not paid by the responsible party within 90 days, the claimant may elect to commence an action in court against the responsible party. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(c). If a Claimant files a Complaint against BP under OPA prior to first presenting his, her, or its claim to BP and then waiting 90 days, the case will be subject to dismissal and the claimant will again be left out in the cold.
BP and the PSC are obviously aware that the OSLTF is not a viable alternative for Claimants who opt-out and, for many opt-out Claimants, filing a suit against BP under OPA will be either thwarted or delayed by the OPA presentment requirement. However, the Proposed Settlement “generously” provides that, “Any Economic Class Member may revoke his, her or its Opt Out from the Economic Class and thereby receive the benefit of this Economic and Property Damage Settlement up until three (3) days prior to the Fairness Hearing; or later, if the BP Parties consent in their sole and unilateral discretion..” (p. 40, Rec. Doc. 6418).
(i) The Statute of Limitations
The PSC further misleads Class Members by intentionally failing to counsel those Claimants who may opt-out of the Proposed Settlement that a lawsuit brought against a non-Responsible Party, e.g., a lawsuit asserting claims for gross negligence, fraud, etc. against Kenneth R. Feinberg, et al, may be barred by the statute of limitations. In federal question cases, the federal court will apply the specific statute of limitations period established by the federal statute under which the plaintiff is seeking relief. Federal courts that are hearing a controversy based on diversity of citizenship of the parties must apply the applicable state law of the forum state. In this case, the statute of limitations for a suit brought against a non-Responsible Party may be only two years.
2. The Proposed Settlement Grants Excessive Compensation to Attorneys.
The question is whether the Proposed Settlement grants excessive compensation to the PSC and other counsel performing common benefit work in MDL 2179. This issue can be determined by a simple two-prong comparison test: First, by comparing the common benefit fees received by attorneys in MDL 2179 with the average total payment amount received by the claimants; and Second, by comparing the common benefit fees received by attorneys in MDL 2179 with the common benefit fees received by attorneys in comparable MDLs.
(a) The Average Total Payment Amount Received From GCCF by Claimants
GCCF Overall Program Statistics (Status Report as of March 7, 2012)
Total Amount Paid = $6,079,922,450.47
Total No. of Paid Claimants = 221,358
Average Total Amount Paid Per Claimant = $27,466.47
The GCCF data indicates that a total of 574,379 unique claimants filed claims with the GCCF during the period from approximately August 23, 2010 to March 7, 2012. The GCCF paid only 221,358 of these Claimants. In sum, the GCCF denied payment to approximately 61.46% of the claimants who filed claims. See “Gulf Coast Claims Facility Overall Program Statistics” (Status Report, Mar. 7, 2012) (a copy is attached hereto as Exhibit A).
On March 8, 2012, this Honorable Court terminated the GCCF claims process and appointed Patrick Juneau as the Claims Administrator of the Transition Process and the proposed Court Supervised Claims Program (“CSCP”). On May 2, 2012, Patrick Juneau was appointed as Claims Administrator to oversee the Claims Administration Vendors, who will process the claims in accordance with the Proposed Settlement. Under the CSCP, the evaluation and processing of claims shall continue to be performed by Garden City Group, Inc., BrownGreer, PLC, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP. Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that the percentage of claimants denied payment and the average total amount paid per claimant will change under the CSCP.
(b) The Common Benefit Fees Received by Attorneys in Comparable MDLs
In order to determine an appropriate common benefit fee, this Court looks to comparable MDL set-aside assessments and awards of common benefit fees. E.g., In re Diet Drugs Prods. Liab. Litig., 553 F. Supp. 2d at 442, 457-58, 491-96 (E.D. Pa. 2008) (describing 9% federal and 6% state assessments later reduced to 6% and 4%, respectively; awarding less than total fund created by assessments); In re Zyprexa, 467 F. Supp. 2d at 261-63 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2007) (1% and 3% of separate settlement amounts); In re Sulzer Hip Prosthesis & Knee Prosthesis Liab. Litig., 268 F. Supp. 2d at 907, 909, 919 n.19 (N.D. Ohio 2003) (awarding common benefit fees out of $50,000,000 fund created through assessment representing 4.8% of settlement value); In re Protegen Sling & Vesica Sys. Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1387, 2002 WL 31834446, at *1, *3 (D. Md. Apr. 12, 2002) (9% federal, 6% coordinated state assessments); In re Rezulin Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1348, 2002 WL 441342, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2002) (6% withholding in federal cases, 4% in participating state cases); See also William B. Rubenstein, On What a “Common Benefit Fee” Is, Is Not, and Should Be, 3 Class Action Att’y Fee Dig. at 87 (2009) (collecting cases and concluding that most common benefit assessments range from 4% to 6%); 4 Alba Conte & Herbert B. Newberg, Newberg on Class Actions § 14:9 (4th ed. 2002) (“Most [MDL] courts have assessed common benefit fees at about a 4-6% level, generally 4% for a fee and 2% for costs.”); Paul D. Rheingold, Litigating Mass Tort Cases § 7:35 (2010) (“[P]ercentages awarded for common funds in recent MDLS … were in the 4-6% range.”)(citation omitted). In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., 760 F. Supp. 2d 640 (E.D. La. 2010) (“October 19, 2010 Order and Reasons”).
The Court’s analysis in the Vioxx MDL case is instructive. In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig. (“MDL 1657”) involves the prescription drug Vioxx. Merck, a New Jersey corporation, researched, designed, manufactured, marketed and distributed Vioxx to relieve pain and inflammation resulting from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, menstrual pain, and migraine headaches. On September 20, 2004, Merck withdrew it from the market after data indicated that the use of Vioxx increased the risk of cardiovascular thrombotic events such as myocardial infarction (heart attack) and ischemic stroke. Thereafter, thousands of individual suits and numerous class actions were filed against Merck in state and federal courts throughout the country.
On February 16, 2005, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) conferred MDL status on Vioxx lawsuits filed in various federal courts throughout the country and transferred all such cases to this Court to coordinate discovery and to consolidate pretrial matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407. See In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., 360 F. Supp. 2d 1352 (J.P.M.L. 2005).
On November 9, 2007, Merck and the Negotiating Plaintiffs’ Counsel (“NPC”) formally announced that they had reached a Settlement Agreement. The private Settlement Agreement established a pre-funded program for resolving pending or tolled state and federal Vioxx claims against Merck as of the date of the settlement, involving claims of heart attack (“MI”), ischemic stroke (“IS”), and sudden cardiac death (“SCD”), for an overall amount of $4.85 billion. In Vioxx, Judge Fallon stated, “The Settlement Agreement created a $4.85 billion fund for the compensation of Vioxx claimants. The Court finds no reason to omit any portion of that settlement fund from consideration with respect to the reasonable amount of common benefit fees. Accordingly, $4.85 billion is the appropriate amount for calculation of a reasonable percentage of common benefit fees.”
The Vioxx Court awarded a common benefit fee of $315,250,000, which is equivalent to 6.5% of $4,850,000,000. In Vioxx, unlike MDL 2179, the attorneys came from states across the country. Accordingly, the Court found that an average hourly billable rate of $443.29 was reasonable.
There are two significant differences between MDL 1657 and MDL 2179:
(i) The Time and Labor Required
The PSC and other counsel performing common benefit work in MDL 1657 documented and submitted over 560,000 hours of work during the course of the litigation. The PSC operated on many fronts, preparing pleadings and Master Class Action complaints, taking over 2,000 depositions, reviewing and compiling over 50,000,000 documents, briefing and arguing over 1,000 discovery motions, assembling a trial package, conducting bellwether trials, negotiating the global Settlement Agreement, and implementing the payout under the Agreement.
In contrast, “In the 20 months that have passed since the JPML’s centralization order, the parties [in MDL 2179] have engaged in extensive discovery and motion practice, including taking 311 depositions, producing approximately 90 million pages of documents, and exchanging more than 80 expert reports on an intense and demanding schedule……..BP and the PSC report that in February 2011 settlement negotiations began in earnest for two distinct class action settlements: a Medical Benefits Settlement and an Economic and Property Damages Settlement.” (p. 3, Rec. Doc. 6418).
In sum, the PSC and other counsel allegedly performing common benefit work in MDL 2179 only took 311 depositions and initiated settlement negotiations “in earnest” merely six (6) months after the JPML created MDL 2179.
The MDL 1657 Court conducted six Vioxx bellwether trials. During the same period that the Court was conducting six bellwether trials, approximately thirteen additional Vioxx-related cases were tried before juries in various state courts.
The MDL 2179 Court did not conduct a single bellwether trial.
(ii) The Results Obtained
Attorneys doing common benefit work on behalf of Vioxx users in MDL 1657 achieved a favorable and meaningful global resolution. The Settlement Agreement ensured fair and comprehensive compensation to all qualified participants. In only 31 months, the parties to the Vioxx case were able to reach a global settlement and distribute $4,353,152,064 to 32,886 claimants, out of a pool of 49,893 eligible and enrolled claimants.
In contrast, attorneys doing common benefit work on behalf of BP oil spill victims in MDL 2179 did not remotely achieve “a favorable and meaningful global resolution.” The MDL 2179 Proposed Settlement does not ensure fair and comprehensive compensation to all qualified participants. This conclusion is supported by the following comparison:
Average Total Amount Paid Per Claimant in MDL 1657 = $132,370.98
Average Total Amount Paid Per Claimant in MDL 2179 = $ 27,466.47
(c) The Common Benefit Fees Received by Attorneys in MDL 2179
The PSC and other counsel allegedly performing common benefit work in MDL 2179 are not double-dipping; they are triple-dipping.
The known sources of compensation received by attorneys allegedly doing common benefit work on behalf of BP oil spill victims in MDL 2179 are:
(a) Six percent (6%) of the gross monetary settlements, judgments or other payments made on or after December 30, 2011 through June 3, 2012 to any other plaintiff or claimant-in-limitation. (p. 3, Rec. Doc. 5274);
(b) BP has agreed to pay any award for common benefit and/or Rule 23(h) attorneys’ fees, as determined by the Court, up to $600 million. (p. 10, Rec. Doc. 6418);
(c) Many attorneys doing common benefit work have their own clients and have also received or will also receive a fee directly from them. (N.B. – On June 15, 2012, the MDL 2179 Court ordered that “contingent fee arrangements for all attorneys representing claimants/plaintiffs that settle claims through either or both of the Settlements will be capped at 25% plus reasonable costs.”) (Rec. Doc. 6684); and
(d) Co-counsel fees received by member firms of the PSC for serving as co-counsel to non-member firms of the PSC. For example, on March 13, 2012, Counsel for Plaintiff Salvesen received an unsolicited mass email from a member firm of the PSC. The email stated, in pertinent part, “Co-Counsel Opportunity for BP Oil Spill Cases: News of the recent BP Settlement has caused many individuals and businesses along the Gulf Coast to contemplate either filing a new claim or amending a claim that has already been submitted. If you receive inquiries of this nature we would like you to consider a co-counsel relationship with our firm. Even if someone has already filed a claim it is advisable to retain legal counsel to analyze the impact of this settlement on claimants and maximize recovery. If you receive inquiries and are interested in co-counseling with us on the BP claims, please email…”
Over the years courts have employed various methods to determine the reasonableness of an award of attorneys’ fees. These methods include the “lodestar” method, which entails multiplying the reasonable hours expended on the litigation by an adjusted reasonable hourly rate, Copper Liquor, Inc. v. Adolph Coors Co., 624 F.2d 575, 583 & n.15 (5th Cir. 1980); the percentage method, in which the Court compensates attorneys who recovered some identifiable sum by awarding them a fraction of that sum; or, more recently, a combination of both methods in which a percentage is awarded and checked for reasonableness by use of the lodestar method.
(i) The Percentage Method
As noted above, “percentages awarded for common funds in recent MDLS … were in the 4-6% range.” Given that the PSC and other counsel allegedly performing common benefit work in MDL 2179 only took 311 depositions and initiated settlement negotiations “in earnest” merely six (6) months after the JPML created MDL 2179, the appropriate percentage should be no greater than 4%.
BP has estimated the cost of the proposed settlement to be approximately $7.8 billion. (p. 156, Rec. Doc. 6266-2). A 4% award would yield $312 million for common funds.
(ii) The Lodestar Cross-Check
The lodestar analysis is not undertaken to calculate a specific fee, but only to provide a broad cross-check on the reasonableness of the fee arrived at by the percentage method.
This Court has previously used a range of $300 to $400 per hour for members of a Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee and $100 to $200 per hour for associates to “reasonably reflect the prevailing [billable time] rates in this jurisdiction.” Turner v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 472 F. Supp. 2d at 868-69 (E.D. La. 2007).
Amount Awarded Billable Hourly Rate Hours Required to Have Been Expended
$312,000,000.00 $300/hr. 1,040,000 hours
$600,000,000.00 $300/hr. 2,000,000 hours
In sum, in order to be awarded a common benefit fee of $312 million, this Honorable Court would have to believe that the PSC attorneys worked more than one million hours; in order to be awarded a common benefit fee of $600 million, this Honorable Court would have to believe that the PSC attorneys worked two million hours. Both of these fee amounts, which do not include the aforementioned (a), (c), and (d) known sources of compensation, fail the reasonableness test.