Attorneys who represented Montana’s Elouise Cobell in a class-action lawsuit against the government have asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to award them $223 million in fees and another $1.3 million for expenses.
And Cobell, described by her attorneys as the driving force behind the 14-year-old lawsuit, is seeking $2 million as an incentive award for instigating the action and for her contributions in pressing it to its conclusion. The lawsuit was settled late last year for $3.4 billion.
Three other named plaintiffs from other states want between $150,000 and $200,000 each. The four named class representatives are also requesting $10.5 million in reimbursement for expenses.
Money to pay the named plaintiffs and the attorneys will come from a $1.5 billion common fund that will also be used to compensate an estimated 500,000 American Indians who have trust accounts with the Department of Interior. The lawsuit alleged that the government mishandled and mismanaged those trust accounts, resulting in losses of billions of dollars due to individual Indians.
As a result of the settlement, most Indians with trust accounts will receive about $1,800, though some could get much more.
Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan in Washington, D.C., will decide on compensation for the attorneys and lead plaintiffs after a hearing on the fairness of the final settlement set for June 20.
The attorneys and lead plaintiffs filed petitions with the court on Jan. 25 explaining their cases for compensation.
Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, has been the face of the lawsuit from the beginning, and it is her name that identifies the case.
Attorneys filing a petition on behalf of Cobell and the other three lead plaintiffs assert that problems with Indian trust accounts had been acknowledged for decades, but that no one did anything to fix the system until the lawsuit was filed. The petition credits the lead plaintiffs with a “stunning victory for individual Indian beneficiaries.”
Cobell was singled out for her efforts.
“In the history of the United States, no single person — no president, no senator, no tribal leader — has accomplished more for individual Indians than Ms. Cobell, a Blackfeet Indian from Browning, Mont.,” the petition said.
In justifying an award of $2 million, the petition said that Cobell contributed $390,000 to fund the lawsuit and spent between 500 and 1,200 hours a year working on the case. It said she traveled the country raising money to keep the lawsuit going and made countless trips to Washington for consultation and court hearings. In comparable class-action lawsuits, lead plaintiffs were granted far higher percentages of the award than those in the Cobell case, the petition maintained.
A separate petition for attorneys’ fees was filed on behalf of Dennis M. Gingold and the law firm of Kirkpatrick, Townsend and Stockton. Both have offices in Washington, D C.
Parties in the lawsuit agreed not to contest attorneys’ fees of up to $99.9 million. The attorneys, however, were free to argue for more.
The petition asserts that in accordance with controlling law and the discretion of the court, a fair award would be a percentage of the $1.5 billion common fund included in the settlement. They are seeking 14.75 percent of the fund, which works out to be $223 million.
The attorneys argue that fees in other cases with very large awards are usually a far greater percentage. Further, they contend, they were seeking a percentage of just the common fund portion of the settlement and not the entire $3.4 billion.
Between 1995 and December 2009, when the settlement was reached, the attorneys say they had invested $90 million worth of time in the case.
The petition said that if the attorneys hadn’t taken the case, the government would not have been forced to “reform its broken trust management system” and no compensation would be available.
“Without class counsel, there have been no case and nothing would have been achieved for individual Indians,” the petition says.
The petition covers only the attorneys’ work until Dec. 7, 2009. Work done after that date will the subject or another application for attorneys’ fees.
Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or firstname.lastname@example.org