I am not a class action lawyer, so forgive me this question: Why do laywers in class action cases get such high fees?
As I understand it, a class action involves bringing a claim on behalf of a wide group of people similarly situated to the representative plaintiff. If the representative plaintiff wins, an award that benefits all class members results.
In Connecticut, a simple case against the Department of Corrections involving strip searches of inmates is about to yield a $2.5 million settlement. Of that some, about $834,000 will go to attorney's fees. Windfall
The claim brought on behalf of 1,600 people arrested on minor charges, detained, and then strip searched as though they were hardened criminals. Damages in the settlement are capped at no more than $20,000 per detainee.
I've litigated scores of unreasonable search claims, and have never had to spend more than 100 hours of time on such a case. It is a rare fee affidavit that I have submitted under 42 U.S.C. Section 1988 that exceeds $30,000.
Eight hundred thousand in attorney's fees seems excessive in this case. Oh, I know that the costs of providing notice to prospective plaintiffs is high, and that there are administrative expenses in contending with a large class of plaintiffs. Perhaps this warrants the eye-popping results here.
But from what I know of class-action lawyering, the savvy lawyer seeks a case involving small harm to a large number of people. Muliply a ten dollar injury times a million class members and you've suddenly proven a $10 million case. Should the lawyer in that case really get a multi-million dollar fee? I have friends who have made tens of millions of dollars in fees this way. It seems less like lawyering than marketing.
Why not limit as a matter of law the fee a class action lawyer can receive to some reasonable muliple of the harm caused to a representative plaintiff? That would free up more money for the aggrieved parties.
Lawyers do not have an unlimited freedom to contract with clients. Our fees cannot be unreasonable. Yet looking at the class action game yields the sorry conclusion that lawyers gorging themselves in a manner we would criticize were they the CEO of a major corporation.