Cal. Supreme Court to Decide on Attorneys’ Fees Calculation Method in Laffitte v. Robert Half

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Even seasoned class action practitioners might be surprised to learn that the percentage-of-the-fund method for awarding attorneys’ fees is not settled law in California. After all, California trial courts routinely award attorneys’ fees based on a percentage of the overall recovery, and numerous California courts have endorsed this approach. [1] This common practice has been called into question by David Brennan, an objector to the $19 million wage-and-hour class action settlement in the long-running Laffitte v. Robert Half Int’l, No. S222996, rev. granted, 342 P.3d 1232 (Feb. 25, 2015). [2] Laffitte, which was initially filed in 2004, involved independent contractor misclassification claims against the staffing agency Robert Half; in 2013, the trial court approved a $19 million settlement, including an attorneys’ fee award of one-third of the gross settlement.

In Laffitte, the California Supreme Court will decide whether use of the percentage method is valid under California law. In his petition for review and opening brief (available here and here, respectively), Objector Brennan seized on a footnote from Serrano v. Priest, 20 Cal.3d 25, 48 n. 23 (1977), where the California Supreme Court stated that “the starting point of every fee award . . . must be a calculation of the attorney’s services in terms of the time he has expended on the case,” to argue that California law requires use of the lodestar method for assessing fees. The lodestar method multiplies the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate, and the resulting number can be adjusted at the court’s discretion. While Brennan correctly identified a source of potential confusion, his radical position, if adopted, would unsettle the landscape, upending not just the settlement in Laffitte, where the trial court awarded attorneys’ fees representing 33 1/3% of the settlement fund, but numerous other already-approved settlements. Further, the vast majority of California class action settlements currently pending final approval would have to be renegotiated.

However, there is little doubt that the California Supreme Court will enshrine the use of the percentage method for cases where an ascertainable fund is created. As Respondent Mark Laffitte discussed in his Answering Brief (available here), every Federal Circuit has authorized use of percentage method, with two Circuits, the Eleventh Circuit and the District of Columbia Circuit, requiring use of the percentage method for common fund cases. This is because the percentage method has several significant advantages over the lodestar method: (1) it is less demanding of judicial resources; (2) it connects the fee recovery more closely to the results obtained; (3) it aligns the interests of class members and class counsel; (4) it rewards efficient prosecution; (5) it better approximates the workings of the marketplace; and (6) it leads to greater predictability in fee awards. Lafitte Answering Brief at 35-39 (internal citations omitted).

California also has a venerable tradition of utilizing the percentage method for common fund cases, as detailed in Serrano itself. See Serrano, 20 Cal.3d at 34-38 (observing that the percentage method was first approved in California in 1895 and “has since been applied by the courts of this state in numerous cases”). Serrano declined to apply the percentage method principally because the settlement there did not create an ascertainable fund. Id. at 35-38. Contrary to Brennan’s position, there is nothing in Serrano that would preclude courts from applying the percentage method in awarding attorneys’ fees.

Although Laffitte presents only one question for review—whether the percentage method is permitted under Serrano—several open questions remain even if the Court cements the use of the percentage method. Among other issues, the Court may also decide whether a benchmark percentage is appropriate, and whether to require a “lodestar cross-check” if a court applies the percentage method in awarding fees. In sum: do not expect a sea change, but class action practitioners should nonetheless keep a close watch on Laffitte to see if the Court will provide further guidance to courts on when and how to apply the percentage method.

Authored By:
Ryan Wu, Senior Counsel

[1] See, e.g., In re Consumer Privacy Cases, 175 Cal. App. 4th 545, 558 (2009), Chavez v. Netflix, Inc., 162 Cal. App. 4th 43, 63 (2008), and Apple Computer v. Superior Ct., 126 Cal. App. 4th 1253, 1271 (2005).
[2] Capstone Law APC, on behalf of its clients, submitted a letter requesting publication that contributed to the publication of the intermediate court decision, Laffitte v. Robert Half Int’l Inc., 231 Cal. App. 4th 860 (2014), and intends to submit an amicus brief supporting Respondent Laffitte.