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Monday, April 21, 2014

OAG opposes Johnson’s lawyers’ attorneys’ fees, costs

The CNMI government, through the Office of the Attorney General, has strongly opposed the attorneys’ fees and costs filed by different lawyers for retiree Betty Johnson, describing them as “excessive, outrageous, and contained irregularities.”

Except for the fees and costs filed by Johnson’s Honolulu-based counsel Bronster Hoshibata law firm and local counsel Stephen Woodruff, the OAG asked the U.S. District Court for the NMI to deny the requests of Johnson’s lawyers. The OAG, however, still has issues with some of Bronster Hoshibata and Woodruff’s bills.

In his first petition, attorney Bruce Jorgensen is demanding $18.6 million, $29 million or $38.9 million; Bronster Hoshibata is seeking $17.5 million; attorney Timothy Lord is asking for either $3.6 million or $5.9 million; and Woodruff is requesting first for $1.01 million and now $2.9 million.

In the CNMI government’s separate oppositions, assistant attorney general Teresita Sablan asked the court to deny any attorney’s fees for Lord, saying the latter does not qualify as Johnson’s class counsel, to be paid under the settlement agreement in Johnson’s class action against the CNMI government and the NMI Retirement Fund.

Sablan said that Lord did not provide a beneficial result to the class that would justify payment under the common fund doctrine.

“If the court determines that an award under the common fund doctrine is warranted, the court should employ the lodestar approach,” she said.

After the necessary reductions are imposed, Sablan said the lodestar amount without a multiplier will provide Lord with a reasonable fee.

Lodestar refers to “reasonable” hours multiplied by a “reasonable” rate.

The government lawyer pointed out that the settlement agreement defines “class counsel” and it does not include Lord as part of that definition.

Sablan noted, among other things, that Lord bills excessive hours just for reviewing basic documents such as summonses.

As for Jorgensen’s petition, assistant attorney general Charles Brasington asked the court to deny the petition entirely, or at the very least cut the number of Jorgensen’s compensable hours by 90 percent.

After reviewing Jorgensen’s submissions, the government feels that most of its prior objections and the court’s concerns have gone completely unaddressed, and the few objections that were addressed have been replaced by new irregularities, Brasington said. He said the irregularities and shortcomings of Jorgensen’s petition continue to be “pervasive and egregious.”

The government’s most serious objection to Jorgensen’s filings, Brasington said, is that he appears to have shifted hours to different dates to make the billings appear more reasonable without reducing the total number of hours being claimed.

This practice, he noted, is extremely troublesome, and calls the veracity of Jorgensen’s entire report into question.

Brasington said that Jorgensen also inappropriately attempts to collect hours billed by Lord.

He said the court should at the very least reduce any award to Jorgensen by 599.9 hours or $190,382.50 because the latter is not entitled to hours expended by another attorney, especially another attorney that is independently seeking an award of attorney’s fees for the same work.

Brasington said the court should reduce any award to Jorgensen by at least 90 percent because the lawyer has failed to clarify his block billing of hours.

On Woodruff’s petition, assistant attorney general Sablan asked the court to reduce Woodruff’s lodestar hours to 139.7 hours and reduce his hourly rate to one that is “commensurate with his skill and reputation.” She said a multiplier should not be applied.

“Mr. Woodruff, in particular, played a minimal role in the litigation and a multiplier is clearly not warranted,” she said.

As reflected in his billing details, Sablan said, Woodruff primarily reviewed documents, corresponded with co-counsel, and attended court proceedings.

Sablan said Woodruff’s requests for compensation of $2,956,096 is obviously unreasonable. “The reasonable fee is the lodestar amount: his reasonable hours (139.7) multiplied by a reasonable rate that reflects his skill, experience, and disbarred status,” she added.

Sablan said that Woodruff failed to justify his request of 300 hours at an hourly rate of $225, and his lodestar should be adjusted to reflect these deficiencies.

On Bronster Hoshibata law firm’s petition, Sablan said a request for reimbursement of first-class airfare and luxury hotel accommodations is unreasonable.

Sablan pointed out that it was not necessary for the lawyer to travel to Guam before coming to Saipan as the proceedings are on Saipan. Thus, she said, the expenses in Guam totaling $793.90 should be deducted from Bronster’s costs.

Sablan also noted that Bronster’s hotel and meals in the amount of $890.15 on Sept. 30, 2013, is excessive as Fiesta Resort is a beachside hotel with nightly rates of $150 for a standard room.

U.S. District Court for the NMI designated judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood did not rule on Johnson counsels’ petition for attorneys’ fees and costs during the final fairness hearing. Instead, she directed the counsels and the CNMI government to talk about the issue before Hawaii chief bankruptcy judge Robert Faris, who conducted the settlement discussions in Johnson’s class action.

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