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Class Action - Attorney Fees


Laffitte v. Robert Half International

A class action employment lawsuit settled before trial for $19 million, with the agreement that no more than a third of that recovery would go to class counsel as attorney fees. In seeking the trial court’s approval of the settlement, class counsel sought the maximum fee amount, $6,333,333.33. After considering information from class counsel on the hours they had worked on the case, applicable hourly fees, the course of the pretrial litigation, and the potential recovery and litigation risks involved in the case, the trial court—over the objection of one class member—approved the settlement and awarded counsel the requested fee.

The objecting class member contends the trial court’s award of an attorney fee calculated as a percentage of the settlement amount violates a holding of this court in Serrano v. Priest (1977) 20 Cal.3d 25 (Serrano III), to the effect that every fee award must be calculated on the basis of time spent by the attorney or attorneys on the case. (See Serrano III, at p. 48, fn. 23.) We disagree. Our discussion in Serrano III of how a reasonable attorney fee is calculated was made in connection with an award under the “private attorney general” doctrine. (See id. at pp. 43–47.) We clarify today that when an attorney fee is awarded out of a common fund preserved or recovered by means of litigation (see Serrano III, supra, at p. 35), the award is not per se unreasonable merely because it is calculated as a percentage of the common fund.


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