One million nine hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. Those are the fees applied for by the lawyers representing the Plaintiff in the almost completely unsuccessful effort to get an injunction against the now completed merger between Wachovia and Wells Fargo.
Plaintiff has presented a Stipulation and Agreement of Compromise, Settlement and Release to the Court, which includes a provision for the $1.975 million fee award. Wells Fargo, the acquiror of Wachovia, is not opposing Plaintiff’s request.
What are Wachovia’s shareholders getting out of the proposed settlement in the Ehrenhaus v. Baker lawsuit? Not money. The merger closed, months ago, at the price offered by Wells Fargo and on Wells Fargo’s terms, after the Business Court denied Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction.
The only arguable "value" for the Wachovia shareholders obtained by the Plaintiff consists of two things. The first is that Judge Diaz’ December 5, 2008 Order held invalid an 18-month "tail" on Wells Fargo’s right to vote its 40% interest in Wachovia if the merger wasn’t approved. After that, Plaintiff filed a Proposed Amended Complaint asserting proxy violations. Although that amendment has never been allowed by the Court, Wachovia made amendments to the Proxy Statement six days after the Proposed Amended Complaint was filed.
The information added by Wachovia to its Proxy Statement was (to me, anyway) completely inconsequential. If you want to make the comparison yourself, the November 21, 2008 proxy statement is here, and the December 17, 2008 8-K filing containing the supplementation is here.
The Brief filed by Plaintiff in support of the settlement doesn’t contain any mention of a legal basis for an award of attorneys’ fees. That might be because there isn’t any basis for such an award. The North Carolina Court of Appeals has held that class counsel is not entitled to fees unless the relief obtained involves some pecuniary benefit to the class.
That case, coincidentally, also involved Wachovia, and is In re Wachovia Shareholders Litigation, 168 N.C. App. 135, 607 S.E.2d 48 (2005). That decision overturned an award of fees to class plaintiffs who got relief similar to the invalidation of the tail in the Ehrenhaus case. So if Wachovia and Wells Fargo opposed a fee petition, it seems almost beyond doubt that they would win, because Plaintiff didn’t obtain any monetary benefit for the class.
If the Business Court is going to be willing to consider fees notwithstanding the roadblock of the In re Wachovia Shareholders case, there isn’t a bit of explanation in any of the papers filed this week about why counsel should be entitled to $1,975,000. Nothing about hourly rates, nothing about the number of lawyers who worked on the case, nothing about the work they did, nothing about their out-of-pocket expenses, and no connection between the $1,975,000 and the value of the results achieved for Wachovia’s shareholders. (Though the Plaintiff’s lawyers did point out that they reviewed 9,500 pages of documents and they took four depositions.)
That’s a pretty glaring omission, because there’s no information for the Court to enable it to assess the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fees. That’s a requirement of the approval of a class action settlement, certainly under federal law. See, e.g., Piambino v. Bailey, 610 F.2d 1306, 1328 (5th Cir.) (holding that by summarily approving attorney’s fees in an unopposed settlement agreement the district court "abdicated its responsibility to assess the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fees proposed under the settlement of a class action, and its approval of the settlement must be reversed on this ground alone."), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1011, 101 S.Ct. 568, 66 L.Ed.2d 469 (1980); Jordan v. Mark IV Hair Styles, Inc., 806 F.2d 695, 697 (6th Cir. 1986)("Even where there has been no objection to the size of the attorney’s fee requested, it is the responsibility of the court to see to it that the size of the award is reasonable.").
Wachovia shareholders who are members of the class will have the right, at a time set by the Court, to object to the terms of the proposed settlement. By the way, this is proposed to be a non-opt out class of shareholders, which means that the settlement will cover every shareholder of Wachovia. Plaintiff says that’s appropriate because this was a "typical merger case" where the claims were "predominately equitable in nature."