Lawyers respond to judge's skepticism over expenses

John O'Brien Mar. 22, 2012, 7:50am


SPOKANE, Wash. (Legal Newsline) - Class action lawyers who alarmed a federal judge with their expense requests have responded to his concerns.

Two attorneys from the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman and Dowd sent explanations to U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush, who oversaw a class action lawsuit against the student-travel company Ambassadors Group.

The attorneys are seeking 25 percent of a $7.5 million settlement and originally another $224,211.21 in expenses, though that amount was lowered in late November.

Attorney Joy Bull said any mistakes made by her were the result of a lack of focus stemming from her husband's sickness and death.

"Beginning in 2010 and continuing in 2011, I carried a reduced workload as my husband of 43 years was in and out of the hospital continually fighting and ultimately losing his six-year battle with lymphoma," Bull wrote Monday.

"In April 2011, when I started working on this case, my husband was undergoing treatment three times a week, continually seeing various specialists and was in and out of the hospital three or four times in April and May. He passed away on May 23, 2011.

"I continued to work on this case to complete the settlement documentation, obtain entry of the notice order and submit final approval papers. In retrospect, I am sure I was distracted and not at my best."

In February, Quackenbush's order asked Bull and John Grant to show why class members should pay for expenses that included a $402 dinner for four, expensive hotel rooms and a round-trip plane ticket that cost $1,676.

The dinner included two $72 bottles of wine and a $60 tip for the waiter. Grant wrote that he should've reduced the charge when he submitted it.

He said his choice in hotels was made because of its proximity to a mediation meeting and its business resources. The three hotel rooms cost more than $1,100.

"I have not conducted a survey of alternatives, but savings from a meaningfully less expensive hotel would have been outweighed, at least in part, by the time required to commute to and from the mediation and the lack of document sending and receiving facilities," Grant wrote.

Grant found 14 hours that were inadvertently billed to the case, and Bull said she found one.

Originally Bull and Grant said they paid $125,935 for an investigation conducted by retired police officer Steven Peitler. The expenses provided an hourly rate of $445.

Bull and Grant later changed the amount to $31,710.15 in late November, reducing Peitler's hourly wage by 75 percent.

Also addressed by Quackenbush was more than $15,000 spent on one mediation session.

The mediator's charge was to be equally divided between the plaintiffs and defendants. "This was a one-day mediation and surely the mediator's fee could not have been some $30,000," Quackenbush wrote.

"While some, and certainly those making expense claims as herein, may scoff at what they may consider nit-picking, the court, in its fiduciary capacity, is required to view these matters in that capacity and this court has done so."

"While we understand the amount is very significant, it was the actual fee," the Robbins firm wrote.

"Layn Phillips charged $24,350 for the mediation, approximately one-half for preparation time one-half for the day of the mediation. In this case, Mr. Phillips charged an additional $5,700 for post-mediation follow-up efforts."

The firm added, "We apologize that unintentional yet serious errors resulted in the court spending an undue amount of time considering our fee and expense request and understand that those errors justifiably caused the court to question additional items."

Quackenbush said that the expenses situation caused him to view the claim for attorneys fees with skepticism.

"One would expect that the prior experiences of this law firm and its attorneys, when known under its former name of Milberg Weiss, et al, and Lerach, Coughlin, Stoia, et al, including Mr. Robbins as a name partner, would dictate that members of the firm would conduct themselves in representations to the court, with its avowed 'highest level of integrity,'" Quackenbush wrote.

Four former Milberg Weiss partners pleaded guilty to a scheme in which the firm paid portions of its legal fees to plaintiffs in exchange for their filing suit. Among them were Melvyn Weiss and William Lerach.

Bull is seeking fees in the amount of $96,525 even though she was not involved in the case until after it settled. The firm is seeking payment for paralegals at the rates of $265 to $295 per hour.

"If conduct of the type referenced is found, the court must consider imposing appropriate sanctions, including at a minimum written admonition," Quackenbush wrote, adding that he may be forced to initiate disciplinary proceedings.

"In its 32 years of experience on the federal bench, this court has not previously initiated such disciplinary action. However, Mr. Grant and Ms. Bull, and the Robbins firm, are advised that the court is considering either or both of the foregoing actions."

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