The NMI Retirement Fund and its trustee ad litem, Joseph Razzano, were greatly surprised at the amount requested by Betty Johnson’s lawyers for their fees—an amount they said is unjustified and which they strongly oppose.
In a statement yesterday, the ad litem said they were astonished at the amount being requested by the plaintiff’s attorneys for their fees, submitted as part of the global settlement in the Johnson v. Inos case.
The huge amount as payment for legal fees of plaintiff attorneys will bring undue burden to the Fund members, they said, “because of the sheer size of the requests, the lack of supporting records to justify them, and the undue burden the requests places on NMI Fund members—members who are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of any settlement.”
“The NMI Fund and its trustee ad litem cannot and do not support, in any way, these requests for fees,” the statement adds.
Johnson’s lawyers filed Tuesday in court legal fees—to be paid by the NMI government—in the amount of over $36 million for their representation in the class action suit.
Based on a court order, the Fund and its ad litem are not permitted to formally object to the fee requests filed by the plaintiff’s lawyers.
“While the settlement agreement provides that plaintiff’s class counsels’ fees are to be paid by the government and not the NMI Fund or the still developing settlement fund, the agreement unfortunately does not provide a mechanism to allow the trustee ad litem to formally object to the fee requests. The trustee ad litem, however, will ask the court to ensure that the government’s obligations to the settlement fund are satisfied before it pays the legal fees requested by plaintiff’s class counsel,” according to the statement.
The proposed fees for Johnson’s lawyers has provoked a harsh backlash from many sectors, including the Legislature, which described the plaintiff’s lawyers as “sharks, bloodsuckers, vampires, and ambulance chasers.”
Retiree Sam McPhetres has only one word to describe the fees being asked: “Obscene.” “It reminds me of the feeding frenzy at the altar of the Hillbloom probate case. There will be some new mansions on Mt. Tapotchau,” he told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
Some, however, believe that what Johnson’s lawyers’ are demanding is “fair” and “equitable.” One of them is Noel Soria, a Fund member located off-island. According to Soria, he is in full support of the settlement agreement between the Fund and the government because this strengthens the rights of retirees to receive their pensions by stipulating the government’s commitments in addition to the constitutional provision of protecting benefits.
“I learned a great deal about the legal process, of the Johnson legal team for taking the case of the retirees on contingency. The legal team risked everything they’ve got: time, effort, reputation and credibility. You asked for my comment on the $30 million legal fee, I see it this way. There is an existing “best practice and rules” regarding contingency fee arrangements. If I am not mistaken, in the CNMI it is 33 1/3 percent of whatever is collectible or court judgment. If the judgment for the Fund is $300 million plus, $30 million in legal fee is 10-percent of that judgment. Personally, I think it’s fair! But then again, the judge will rule on what is fair and equitable,” he told Saipan Tribune.
As for all that has happened with the pension program, Soria put the entire blame on the elected leaders of the CNMI whom he said created the mess in the first place.