Flint, MI– Attorney fees and expenses will account for just less than one third of the $626.25 million Flint water lawsuit settlement per a federal judge’s order, although their total monetary award is still unknown.

On Feb. 4, U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy issued an opinion and order determining the fees and expenses for the attorneys litigating the settlement, assuring that the award for attorneys will be less than 31.33% of the total settlement amount. 

The settlement, announced in August 2020, will resolve all litigation related to the water crisis against the State of Michigan, the City of Flint, Rowe Engineering, and McLaren Hospital. It is one of the largest settlements in the state’s history, and according to Levy’s decision, the case has been “intensely litigated for nearly six years.”

“Determining the appropriate fee award is a challenging task,” Levy wrote in a 99-page decision. That’s because “every dollar awarded to the attorneys is a dollar less for the claimants.”

“Because of this, the Court must balance society’s strong interest in paying lawyers for their work and encouraging counsel to accept similar engagements in the future with the important interest in maximizing the claimants’ monetary awards,” she wrote.

She decided that the attorneys will be reimbursed for expenses in the amount of $7,147,802.36, for “the cost of retaining qualified experts in a variety of fields, including “civil and environmental engineering, chemical engineering, urban planning, human health, economics, and ethics.””

So far, the attorneys “have not been paid for their work or reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses in the Flint Water Cases at all,” Levy wrote. 

According to her decision, the attorneys requested $7,158,987.33, roughly $11,000 more than what she granted them.

This is because on March 22, 2021, The Flint City Council requested that the court “retain a court-appointed expert or appoint a special master to assist in reviewing” the expenses the attorneys wanted reimbursement for. 

As a result, Special Master Deborah Greenspan reviewed their motion and wrote a report based on her analysis. There were some discrepancies between the expense amounts submitted to Greenspan, and the expense amounts submitted in a separate motion. Those discrepancies were reconciled, resulting in the slightly lower expense award. 

Levy also granted an award of nearly $40 million to be divided among the Co-Lead Class Counsel and the Co-Liaison Counsel, and then divided among the individual lawyers. This was called “a common benefit award,” which according to her decision, is designed to “prevent freeloading” of attorneys who did not work as much as others. 

The court ordered that the common benefit award be 6.33% of the total settlement amount, which is $39,641,625.

That leaves $586,608,375 remaining in the settlement. Levy wrote that the “expenses as well as administrative fees and costs,” would be deducted from that amount. 

While the attorneys requested 27% in fees, Levy ordered that the fees be capped at 25% after the common benefit award is deducted. The fee percentage varies based on the date of counsel retention, the kind of assistance given, and the different portions of the settlement. 

The Co-Lead Class Counsel has been awarded 25% of the value of the claims under the Adult Exposure, Property Damage, and Business Economic Loss Subclasses categories, and under the aggregate claims involving a minor who retained Class Counsel before Aug. 20, 2020. 

The Class Counsel is awarded 10% of the value of the Programmatic Relief Fund, which is a different portion of the settlement, and 8% of the aggregate claims involving a minor where counsel assisted or was retained by the minor after Aug. 20, 2020.  

The dollar amounts for these fees and costs are not yet known, meaning the amount of money remaining for the claimants is not known. However, Levy wrote that $35 million from the remaining amount will be set aside for minors who may make claims in the future, and “the legionella death claims.”

Attorney fees were a concern for residents who protested the settlement, and filed objections. According to Levy’s latest order, there were 81 unrepresented people who filed objections related to attorney fees.

These objections stated that the attorneys were “being paid too much and community residents are not receiving adequate compensation in view of the long-term harm the water crisis created,” and “attorneys will receive much more compensation than the average adult in the settlement.”

Levy wrote that attorney fee awards don’t need to be proportionate to the amount of damages individuals recover. 

“It is true that the total attorney fee award exceeds the potential monetary award of any one individual claimant,” she wrote. “However, this does not justify rejecting the entire fee and expense request.”

Ultimately, Levy reduced the fee percentage the attorneys requested to an amount she ruled “is reasonable and well within the range approved by other courts.” The fees will be split among dozens of law firms and “hundreds of lawyers,” she wrote. 

Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch (MiLAW) president, Bob Dorigo Jones, expressed his disappointment in the judge’s order in a press release sent out shortly after her decision.

“The people of Flint have been victimized again, this time by the decision of the federal judge to give their lawyers more than $180 million from the settlement with the State of Michigan,” said Dorigo Jones. “Judge Judith Levy entirely rejected the arguments for lower fees made by experienced and respected national public-interest attorneys representing some individual Flint residents pro bono. Because of that, tens of millions of dollars that should be going toward medical care and other needs of the victims in Flint will be going to lawyers.”

According to Levy, the court’s modifications to the proposed fees “protects claimants’ compelling interest in receiving the highest monetary awards possible.” 

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...