These Class Action Lawyers Made Their Fees The Old-Fashioned Way. They Earned Them!

It's not very often that I see a fee application in a settled class action in the Business Court that doesn't strike me as requesting approval of an overpayment for a less than successful result.  Those are most often in the settlement of merger class action in which the only benefit for the class was the extraction of additional disclosures in a proxy statement.

But last week, looking at the Order approving a class action settlement and a fee petition in Elliott v. KB Home North Carolina, Inc., 2017 NCBC 37, I had exactly the opposite reaction.  It was an excellent result for the class members, and the nearly $2 million in attorneys' fees approved by the Business Court were well earned.

I've written about the Elliott case three times: The class was certified by Judge Jolly in 2012.  Judge Jolly ruled later that KB Home had waived its right to compel arbitration of the claims.  After Judge Jolly's retirement, Judge McGuire ruled that he could modify the membership of the previously certified class due to a change in circumstances.  The class members are homeowners in North Carolina living in houses built by KB Home.  The houses were constructed with siding manufactured by HardiePlank that did not have a weather restrictive barrier (a WRB) behind the siding.  The houses were then damaged by water infiltration.

This is not a settlement where the class members receive something like coupons towards a future home purchase.  Instead, there is real and substantial money being paid to them.  Depending on the square footage of their homes, class members who are current homeowners can be paid between $6500 and $17,000.  In the alternative, these class members can have their existing siding and replaced with new HardiePlank, this time with the missing WRB.

There is also a subclass of class members who have already sold their homes.  These subclass members are entitled to receive either a lump sum payment of $3250 or to prove that the selling price of their home decreased due to the lack of a WRB.  This type of recovery is capped at $12,000.

There is no doubt that the lawyers worked hard to achieve this result, as detailed in the Affidavit of lead counsel in support of the fee petition.  They filed or responded to twenty-seven briefs in the trial court and eight briefs in the appellate courts.  They reviewed 46,000 pages of documents produced, and they took or defended or attended forty-four depositions in five states.  Fee Affidavit ¶41.

Judge McGuire wrote in glowing terms of the qualifications of class counsel.  He said that they had "decades of experience litigating construction product defect cases on an individual, multi-family, and class basis."  He called one of the lawyers "one of the nation's most respected and experienced attorneys in these areas."  Order ¶37.

As a part of the settlement agreement, the Defendants agreed that they would not oppose a request for fees and expenses not to exceed $1,925,00.  That is exactly the amount requested by Plaintiffs' counsel: including $148,493.61 in out-of-pocket expenses and $1,776,506.39 in attorneys' fees.

That fee amounted yielded an "implied hourly rate" of $337.28 (based on 5,267 hours of work), which was approved as reasonable by Judge McGuire. Order ¶¶40-41.  That hourly rate is within the ranges previously approved as reasonable by the Business Court -- like $325.04 per hour in Corwin v. British Am. Tobacco PLC, 2016 NCBC 14 at *15 and between $300 and $500 per hour in Nakatsukasa v. Furiex Pharms., Inc., 2015 NCBC 71 at *24.

I have a hard time reconciling this fee petition to the one from the lawyers representing the class in the Ehrenhaus case (which challenged the merger years ago between Wachovia and Wells Fargo).  The Ehrenhaus lawyers asked for $1,975,00, almost the same as the request by the Elliott lawyers ($1,925,000).  But the Ehrenhaus lawyers obtained nothing of value for that class.  Also, they did not bother to submit any records regarding the hours worked on the case, other than to claim having spent 2300 hours on the case (less than half of the 5267 hours spent by the Elliott lawyers).  They took four depositions (the Elliott lawyers took forty-four) and reviewed 9,500 pages of documents (far less than the 46,000 obtained by the Elliott lawyers).  The Ehrenhaus settlement, moreover, came just a couple of months after the lawsuit was filed.  The Elliott lawyers worked their case for eight years.

The Ehrenhaus fee petition of $1,975,000 ended up getting chopped down by Judge Diaz of the Business Court by nearly half (to $1 million).

Is There A "Secret Rule" In The NC Business Court Regarding Motions To Compel?

Thinking of filing a Motion to Compel in the NC Business Court?  You might want to file it before the close of the discovery period, even though there is no Business Court Rule establishing a deadline for doing so.

That's because there might be a "secret rule," based on Judge Robinson's (unpublished) Order last week in Carmayer LLC v. Koury Aviation.

Here was the situation: The parties were litigating over the Defendant's alleged misrepresentations as to its ability to rent out at a profit an airplane that it advised the Plaintiff to purchase.  In discovery, the Plaintiff asked for financial information as to other aircraft rented out by the Defendant.  The Defendant refused to provide the information.

The Plaintiff initiated a discovery dispute to the Business Court per new BCR 10.9 in January 2017.  In February, Judge Robinson indicated that the requested financial information seemed to be relevant and within the scope of discovery.  Although he did not issue a formal ruling per BCR 10.9(b) (which he wasn't required to do), he stated that he would be likely to grant a Motion to Compel if one were filed.

The discovery period ended a week later, on February 15, 2017.  Five weeks later, the Plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel production of the financial information.

There is neither a Business Court Rule nor an NC Rule of Civil Procedure prohibiting the filing of a Motion to Compel after the discovery period is over.

Likewise, as Judge Robinson observed: "the North Carolina appellate courts have not established a bright-line rule governing the propriety of motions to compel filed after the close of discovery."  Op. ¶16.

Federal courts, on the other hand, take the position that "[g]enerally, in order for a motion to compel to be timely, it must be filed before the end of discovery."  Op. ¶17.  Judge Robinson cited two opinions from North Carolina district courts questioning or denying motions to compel filed at the end of the discovery period or after it.  PCS Phosphate Co., Inc., v. Norfolk Southern Corp., 238 F.R.D. 555, 558 (E.D.N.C. 2006); Greene v. Swain Cty. P'ship for Health, 342 F. Supp. 442, 449 (W.D.N.C. 2004).

It's not always possible to file a Motion to Compel before the close of discovery.  What about the opposing attorney improperly instructing her witness, at a deposition taken on the last day of discovery, to refuse to answer a question?  Or an inadequate response to written discovery served at the very end of the discovery period?

There are exceptions to every rule, even those that might be "secret."  Federal courts look to a variety of factors when deciding whether to exercise their discretion to rule on a motion to compel filed after the end of discovery.  The case relied on by Judge Robinson, Days Inn Worldwide, Inc. v. Sonia Investments, 237 F.R.D. 395, 397-98 (N.D. Tex. 2006)(Op. ¶18), put those factors as follows:

(1) the length of time since the expiration of the deadline, (2) the length of time that the moving party has known about the discovery, (3) whether the discovery deadline has been extended, (4) the explanation for the tardiness or delay, (5) whether dispositive motions have been scheduled or filed, (7) the age of the case, (8) any prejudice to the party from whom late discovery was sought, and (9) disruption of the court's schedule.

Id. 397-98.

Considering those factors, Judge Robinson ruled the Motion to Compel to be untimely and refused to consider it.  He noted that:

  1. The Motion was filed five weeks after the close of discovery.
  2. It was filed roughly ten months after the Defendant initially objected to the discovery request and when Plaintiff therefore was aware of the Defendant's unwillingness to produce the requested financial information.
  3. The Plaintiff failed to file its Motion immediately, but waited weeks after knowing of the Court's position on the discovery.  There was not an adequate explanation for its delay.
  4. The Motion was filed after the Defendant had filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which would "disrupt the schedule of [the] litigation."

Op. ¶22.

Despite my reference to a "secret rule," there is no indication in Judge Robinson's Order that this is a rule that will control in other cases before him or whether it will be applied by the other Business Court Judges.  And, if Judge Robinson had wanted to send a message to lawyers practicing in the Business Court. he probably would have published the Order.  Nevertheless, it's safer not to wait until after discovery has ended to file a Motion to Compel.  Unless you can't avoid it.

It Doesn't Take Magic Words To Revoke An Offer

The lawyers in Baker v. Bowden, 2017 NCBC 30, decided this week by Judge Robinson, were negotiating a settlement agreement by email.  The Plaintiff thought that it had a deal.  When the Defendant balked, the Plaintiff moved the Business Court to enforce the settlement. 

The Plaintiff, whose lawyer had sent an email to the Defendant's lawyer stating "[m]y client accepts the offer," found that there was no offer anymore, and no enforceable agreement.

The Plaintiff's lawyer thought in accepting the offer that the Defendant's offer was still open for acceptance.  But even the Defendant's lawyer wasn't sure if it was.  His last email to Plaintiff's counsel said:

in the interim since yesterday afternoon my client is actually having second thoughts about his offer, so I’m not sure it’s still on the table. I’m not saying it isn’t, but I need to talk with him and see if I can work him through this. I’ll let you know later this afternoon.

Op. ¶12.

The Plaintiff's email accepting the by then questionable offer followed this email, but Judge Robinson concluded that the "second thoughts" email was a valid revocation of the offer.  Op. ¶23.  You don't need to use the word "revoke" to withdraw an offer, and "[a]ny clear manifestation of unwillingness to enter into the proposed bargain is sufficient."  Op. ¶23.

The situation before the Court was spelled out in the Restatement (Second) of Contracts, which gives this example of a similar situation when an offer is revoked:

when an offeror states, “Well, I don’t know if we are ready. We have not decided, we might not want to go through with it." 

Op. ¶22 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Contracts sec. 42, comment d).

Reliance on the Restatement as authority seems like a firm foundation.  The Restatement is said to be "a work without peer in terms of overall influence and recognition among the bar and bench."