The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court’s decision to slash White & Case’s legal fee in a bankruptcy-related case from $5.5 million to $1.8 million, criticizing the firm’s fees as excessive.
“White & Case has not persuaded us that it is entitled to so much more than the attorneys on the other side of the case,” the three-judge panel stated in its unpublished opinion, which is not supposed to be cited as precedent.
White & Case’s lead lawyer on the case, Stephen Corse, a partner in the Miami office, said the firm will not appeal the decision and is relieved the case, which began in 1996, is finally over.
“I’m quite pleased with the thought that went into this 48-page ruling,” Corse said. “We are getting nearly $2 million.” But lawyers for the St. Louis-based law firm Thomas Coburn, which had sought to reduce White & Case’s fee, considers the ruling a clear victory. It had argued that White & Case’s fees were six times as high as those of other law firms involved in the case.
White & Case made the fee request in 1999 in connection with its representation of 25,000 retirees from the textile manufacturer St. Louis-based Monsanto, which later spun off into the company Solutia, also of St. Louis. Solutia subsequently filed for bankruptcy and sought to alter Monsanto retirees’ benefits.
In 1996, the retirees hired White & Case to file suit against their former employer in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. Several other law firms represented union member-retirees. The cases eventually were consolidated in U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Fla. A settlement was reached in 1999.
Several lawyers from the New York office of White & Case assisted, but 70 percent of the work was done by Corse and Eric Roth, then an associate in the firm’s Miami office.
White & Case took the unusual step of charging the retirees an hourly rate to be taken out of the bankrupt estate, rather than taking a contingency percentage of any settlement. Corse said that was to allow the retirees to receive the entire settlement.
All the other law firms reached settlements with Solutia on attorney fees. But White & Case, applying a 2.2 percent multiplier across the board, requested total fees of $5.5 million. White & Case requested fees of $330 to $370 an hour for Corse between 1996 and 1999, and $250 to $300 an hour for Roth for those same years.
By contrast, two other law firms that served as counsel for retirees, Aylstock, Witkin & Sasser in Gulf Breeze, Fla., and Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner & Proctor in Pensacola accepted total payments of $45,000, saying they took into consideration the facts of the case as well as the fact that it was litigated in Pensacola.