From left, Marilyn Keepseagle, Claryca Mandan, and Porter Holder, plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit by American Indian farmers, stand outside the federal courth in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010, after reaching a settlement with the government. The lawsuit filed in 1999 contends Indian farmers and ranchers lost about $500 million because they were denied USDA loans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Indian Lawyers’ Fees Make Headlines Again

Rob Capriccioso
1/21/11

WASHINGTON – Attention is rapidly turning to the fees requested by lawyers of the Indian plaintiffs in the Keepseagle settlement.

The Legal Times publication (free registration required) reported Jan. 19 that the plaintiffs' lawyers are seeking $60.8M in fees for the successful settlement of the case, which centered on claims of discrimination from Indian farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last October, the Keepseagle lawyers secured a $760 million settlement agreement with the Obama administration on behalf of the farmers. Possible beneficiaries are in the process of being notified.

“This settlement was not achieved easily or quickly, but rather is the fruit of eleven years of hard-fought litigation including a vigorous contest on class [certification],” lawyers for the lead plaintiffs wrote in Jan. 14 court documents filed in D.C. trial court.

The settlement set out a parameter for fees in the range of 4 to 8 percent. The $60.8 million requested would be at the high end of that range.

The amount of fees designated for lawyers in another Indian lawsuit settled last year, the Cobell case, has caused continuing consternation in Indian country. Lawyers involved in that $3.4 billion settlement have said they are due up to $223 million, but agreed in settlement documents with the Obama administration not to ask for more than $100 million. Some Indians have been outraged by the fees, which still must be approved by the overseeing court, given that many plaintiffs will receive less than $2,000.

Individual Indian farmers in Keepseagle will likely receive more than $2,000 each, but none will get anywhere near $60.8 million.

Lead counsel Joseph Sellers of Washington’s Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, said in an interview last fall that he is “not ashamed” to talk about lawyers’ fees because he and his team worked hard on the case, and they achieved “a successful and fair result.”

Sellers estimated that lawyers have invested about 42,000 hours, which equates to about $16.2 million in fees, based on hourly rates, and $1.6 million in expenses, Legal Times reported. He added that the fee percentage is less than half the percentage that is typically awarded in D.C. federal district court.

Further fees are expected to reach up to $8.65 million as the lawyers continue to track down possible beneficiaries through advertising and other means.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers also include Anurag Varma of Patton Boggs, Paul Smith of Jenner & Block, and David Frantz of Conlon, Frantz & Phelan. All of them took on the case knowing they could end up with zero compensation.

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