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In Re At&T Mobility Wireless

June 2, 2010

IN RE AT&T MOBILITY WIRELESS DATA SERVICES SALES TAX LITIGATION


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Amy J. St. Eve

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

AMY J. ST. EVE, District Court Judge:

Class Counsel, on behalf of the 92 attorneys who collectively represent the Class and the state-specific Subclasses, have filed a motion for approval of attorneys' fees, costs and expenses, and for approval of incentive awards for Class Representatives.*fn1 (R. 124.) For reasons explained below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Class Counsel's motion for approval of attorneys' fees. It grants Class Counsel's motion for incentive awards in the amount of $5,000 for each Class Representative. It also grants Class Counsel's motion for costs and expenses.

This order accompanies the Court's larger memorandum opinion and order, approving the Settlement Agreement ("the Settlement" or "the Agreement"). In the present order, the Court assumes familiarity with the facts of the case.

LEGAL STANDARD

"In a certified class action, the court may award reasonable attorney's [sic] fees . . . that are authorized by law or by the parties' agreement." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(h). Pursuant to the Settlement, the parties agreed that Class Counsel would "seek a fee no greater than the lesser of ten percent (10%) of the aggregate value of the settlement or twenty-five percent (25%) of the amounts refunded by Taxing Jurisdictions to the Settlement Class." (R. 50-3 at 26.)

In determining a reasonable fee, the Court "must balance the competing goals of fairly compensating attorneys for their services rendered on behalf of the class and of protecting the interests of the class members in the fund." Skelton v. Gen. Motors Corp., 860 F.2d 250, 258 (7th Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 810 (1989). To determine the reasonableness of the sought-after fee in this, a common-fund, case, "courts must do their best to award counsel the market price for legal services, in light of the risk of nonpayment and the normal rate of compensation in the market at the time." In re Synthroid Mktg. Litig., 264 F.3d 712, 718 (7th Cir. 2001) ("Synthroid I"). The probability of success at the outset of the litigation is relevant to this inquiry. See Florin v. Nationsbank of Ga., N.A., 34 F.3d 560, 565 (7th Cir. 1994).

Synthroid I held that the "market rate for legal fees depends in part on (1) the risk of nonpayment a firm agrees to bear, in part (2) the quality of its performance, in part on (3) the amount of work necessary to resolve the litigation, and in part on (4) the stakes of the case." Synthroid I, 264 F.3d at 721. Of course, district courts must exercise caution in focusing on the first factor, for a dogmatic application of the principle would justify large attorneys' fees for frivolous class-actions suits that defendants agreed to settle. In re Trans Union Corp. Privacy Litig., 629 F.3d 741, 746 (7th Cir. 2011) ("[T]he logic of scaling the fee to the risk leads to absurdity if pressed too hard: it would justify an astronomical fee in a frivolous suit in which the plaintiff prevailed by a fluke.") For that reason, it is only "within the set of colorable legal claims" that "a higher risk of loss . . . argue[s] for a higher fee." Id.

The Seventh Circuit has further explained that "[t]he object in awarding a reasonable attorney's fee . . . is to give the lawyer what he would have gotten in the way of a fee in arm's length negotiation, had one been feasible." In re Cont'l Ill. Sec. Litig., 962 F.2d 566, 572 (7th Cir. 1992). That court has nevertheless recognized, however, that "[s]uch estimation is inherently conjectural[.]" Trans Union, 629 F.3d at 744.

With respect to incentive payments, the Seventh Circuit has explained that such "awards are justified when necessary to induce individuals to become named representatives." Synthroid I, 264 F.3d at 722. Thus, if such individuals "would have stepped forward without the lure of an 'incentive award,' there is no need for such additional compensation[.]" Id. at 723. In deciding whether an incentive award is proper, and, if so, in what amount, "relevant factors include the actions the plaintiff has taken to protect the interests of the class, the degree to which the class has benefitted from those actions, and the amount of time and effort the plaintiff expended in pursuing the litigation." Cook v. Niedert, 142 F.3d 1004, 1016 (7th Cir. 1998).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow the Court, in a certified class action, to "award reasonable . . . nontaxable costs that are authorized by law or by the parties' agreement." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(h). The Seventh Circuit has explained that district courts must exercise their discretion to "disallow particular expenses that are unreasonable whether because excessive in amount or because they should not have been incurred at all." Zabkowicz v. W. Bend Co., Div. of Dart Indus., Inc., 789 F.2d 540, 553 (7th Cir. 1986) (quoting Henry v. Webermeier, 738 F.2d 188, 192 (7th Cir. 1984)).

DISCUSSION

I. The Court Grants in Part and Denies in Part Class Counsel's Motion for Attorneys' Fees Equating to the Lesser of 25% of the Cash Recovered in each Subfund and 10% of the Aggregate Value of the Settlement to each Subclass

A. The Requested Fees

Class Counsel seek fees in the amount of "the lesser of 10% of the aggregate value of the relief obtained for each Subclass or 25% of the actual cash recovered for each Subclass." (R. 124 at 1) (emphasis in original).

Dr. Landes estimated at the fairness hearing that the Settlement will create approximately $1.98 billion in going-forward relief to the Class Members.*fn2 Class Counsel have filed refund requests in the amount of $1.159 billion, which they estimate to amount to a maximum possible return of $956,160,000, in light of applicable statutes of limitations, which will time bar some claims. (R. 163 at 23; R. 164 at 14; R. 164-1 at 9.)

If they succeed in recovering every cent of this sought-after amount, Counsel would earn an award in the amount of $239,040,000 under their proposed fee. (R. 164 at 14.) This figure would represent 25% of the actual cash recovered. The aggregate value of the relief obtained would be $1,986,263,000 (the purported value of AT&T's no longer collecting Internet-access taxes) plus $956,160,000 (the cash recovered), for a total of $2,942,423,000. 10% of this amount would be $294,242,300. Because this figure is greater than $239,040,000 (25% of the cash recovered), Class Counsel's fees would equal the latter amount.

Assuming arguendo that Class Counsel only obtain 50% of the maximum recovery, then of the actual cash recovered ($478,080,000, which is half of $956,160,000), 25% would be $119,520,000. 10% of the aggregate value of the relief ($1,986,263,000 plus $478,080,000) would (supposedly) be $246,434,300. Class Counsel would thus receive $119.52 million in attorneys' fees. If they were to obtain only 10% of the total possible refunds, of the actual cash recovered ($95,616,000), 25% would be $23,904,000. 10% of the aggregate value of the relief ($1,986,263,000 plus $95,616,000) would be $208,187,900. Class Counsel would thus receive fees of $23,904,000. If they failed to recovery any cash for the Class, under this fee structure, Class Counsel would receive no fees.*fn3 (R. 164-1 at 5.)

B. The Sought-After Attorneys' Fees Are Unreasonably High

This case requires the Court to determine reasonable attorneys' fees in decidedly unique circumstances. Save for the relatively modest sum it retained in vendor's compensation (an amount it will give back pursuant to the Agreement), AT&T did not hold onto the Internet taxes it collected allegedly in violation of the ITFA. Due in part to this fact, the Settlement requires the parties to cooperate in an effort to recoup the taxes from the relevant taxing jurisdictions-the ultimate recipients of what Plaintiffs allege to be illegally charged taxes. As a result, the Court must determine reasonable attorneys' fees without knowing the cash amount that Counsel will ultimately realize for the Class Members. This makes calculating the optimal fee more difficult than in regular class-action settlements.

There is no way to predict the exact amount that Class Members will realize in refunds with mathematical precision. It is clear, however, that Counsel are likely to secure large refunds for the Class. The maximum estimated recovery would be slightly shy of a billion dollars-$956,160,000. (R. 164 at 14.) It is, of course, improbable that Counsel will succeed in obtaining every cent of that amount. If Counsel were to succeed in obtaining only half of that theoretically maximum amount, it would secure a refund of $478,080,000. If they realize merely a quarter of the maximum, Counsel would obtain $239,040,000 in refunds.

Courts often refer to class actions that involve common funds in excess of $100 million as "megafunds." See, e.g., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Visa U.S.A., Inc., 396 F.3d 96, 123 (2d Cir. 2005); Holman v. Student Loan Xpress, Inc., -- F. Supp. 2d --, 2011 WL 940240, at *11 n.8 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 17, 2011); Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., No. 03-CV-4578, 2005 WL 1213926, at *9 (E.D. Pa. May 19, 2005); In re HPL Techs., Inc. Secs. Litig., 366 F. Supp. 2d 912, 925 (N.D. Cal. 2005); In re NASDAQ Mkt.-Makers Antitrust Litig., 187 F.R.D. 465, 486 (S.D.N.Y. 1998). It is certainly probable that the amount that Counsel will recoup for the Class will exceed $100 million. Indeed, if Counsel succeed in obtaining merely 10.5% of what they estimate to be the maximum recovery, the ensuing fund would surpass $100 million.

The Seventh Circuit has directed district courts to estimate the market price for legal services in calculating an appropriate attorneys' fee. See Synthroid I, 264 F.3d at 718. One factor highlighted by the Seventh Circuit is "the normal rate of compensation in the market at the time." Id. A number of empirical studies on class-action attorneys' fees are relevant to determining this market-compensation figure.

1. 25% of the Cash Realized for each Subclass Is Unreasonable

In 2004, following an examination of two data sets covering class actions from 1993 to 2002, Theodore Eisenberg and Geoffrey Miller found that, for cases with recovery ranges that exceeded $190 million (the highest decile), the mean fee awarded was 12% and median fee was 10.1% in cases for which published-opinion data was available. Theodore Eisenberg & Geoffrey P. Miller, Attorney Fees in Class Action Settlements: An Empirical Study, 1 J. EMPIRICAL LEGAL STUD. 27, 73 (2004). For Class Action Reports Data ("CAR") cases involving recoveries in excess of $190 million, Eisenberg and Miller found the mean fee to be 16.4% and the median fee to be 17.6%. Id. For the second-highest decile, which involved a recovery ...


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