Finding Justice in the Grinding Gears of Litigation

The right judgment is not always the just result — a judgment often fails to account for the time and expense invested to obtain it.

But sometimes, the grinding gears of litigation can be used to achieve some justice. In Leeman v. Adams Extract & Spice Co. (Cal. Ct. App. – May 21, 2015), plaintiff settled a Prop. 65 (toxic chemicals warning) case — cases typically driven by a cottage-industry of “sue and settle” lawyers. The settlement here was for a typically small amount of civil penalties, and a typically much larger amount of fees at $72,500, with hourly rates up to $895. Another victory for cottage-industry lawyers, it would seem.

But not so fast, says Judge Goldsmith. He cuts the requested fee award in half. Plaintiffs move, first ex parte, then on a noticed motion, to modify this award to the stipulated amount. Judge Goldsmith denies both attempts, without explanation.

Predictably, the Court of Appeal reverses, telling Judge Goldsmith that he can’t just whack the fees for no reason, and that he also can’t approve the settlement but reduce the fees, since the entire thing stands or falls as a whole.

So in the end, the cottage-industry lawyers get their fees, to which they have a statutory right. But as professor Shaun Martin explains, it’s Judge Goldsmith who gets the last laugh:

“I wonder if a part of him was thinking:  “You bastards.  You know full well this was a shakedown, and that the $72,500 fee award was excessive.  You think I can’t do anything about that.  And you’re largely right.  I’m not going to keep a crappy case in my court (by disapproving the settlement) just to stop you from getting your fees.  But you know what I can do?  I can make it hard for you.  I can slash your fee award.  Once.  Twice.  Thrice.  Make you file three motions.  Make you prosecute an appeal.  Make you wait a couple of years.  And, yeah, you’ll get your $72,500.  But you’ll at least have to work for it.””