BY ALEXIE VILLEGAS ZOTOMAYOR
|Plaintiff Betty Johnson's counsels|
THE lawyers of the parties in the Betty Johnson case have been advised to settle the issue of attorney fees and reimbursements of costs with U.S. Judge Robert J. Faris.
During Monday’s fairness hearing on the settlement agreement, District Court for the NMI designated Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood said, “I think that the plaintiff’s attorney fees are way too high. I think that the government recommendation on attorney fees is way too low.”
Bronster Hoshibata A Law Corporation was asking for a lodestar of $1,002,678.13 plus $50,861.06 in out-of-pocket costs with 15 as a multiplier. The government recommended only $477,000 without a multiplier.
In total, the plaintiff’s counsels are asking close to $40.73 million, inclusive of terminated plaintiff’s counsel Timothy Lord’s request for payment.
Judge Tydingco-Gatewood ordered the counsels to work with U.S. Judge Robert J. Faris to settle the fees.
“Plaintiff’s counsels should get together on how they want to proceed before Judge Faris,” she said.
She said Judge Faris had agreed to work on settling the fees before a presentation is made to her in a full-blown hearing.
Judge Tydingco-Gatewood said, “The court is separating the issue of attorney fees from the settlement agreement fairness hearing today.”
She gave them three weeks to work with Judge Faris.
She said she and Judge Faris had agreed that two weeks would be sufficient time.
“The sooner the better,” she said.
She also gave attorneys Stephen C. Woodruff and Bruce L. Jorgensen two weeks to work on their billings.
Judge Tydingco-Gatewood said she found Jorgensen’s billings “incomprehensible.”
“If I have incomprehensible stuff before me, I am not going to review that,” she said.
She told Timothy Lord to resolve his issue of termination and work with Jorgensen.
“I really appreciated the AGO’s aggressive submission as to why they believe the court should not approve the attorney fees,” she said.
She was speaking of issues raised relative to the attorney fees such as duplication, hourly rates, block billing and coded billing, among others.
As to Jorgensen, the judge asked, “You better redo your billings. It gave me headache.”
She also told Jorgensen she was concerned about the suggestion that he was a member of the class.
“I have never been a class member. I have never received benefits as a class member,” said Jorgensen explaining via teleconference that he did provide in court a response to this effect.
Even if he were a class member, “It would not preclude me from being class counsel in this case,” he said.
He said he never received any notices from the Fund.
For her part, Pangelinan told the court that Jorgensen is an inactive member.
“If you have a balance of contributions you are a member of the class,” said Pangelinan.
But the court said it will take up this issue at a later time.
Meanwhile, the judge praised the billings made by Bronster Hoshibata a Law Corporation describing them as “very detailed.”
She said their billings are an example of what should be presented in court.
She also recognized the objections made by the Attorney General’s Office and appreciated the detailed objections made.
As to Woodruff, Judge Tydingco-Gatewood said, “I have a concern with you Mr. Woodruff. As you know, there are issues about your eligibility to practice law in the CNMI.”
She cited Woodruff’s failure to pay fees and pending Supreme Court action.
Woodruff explained that there was an ongoing proceeding in federal court which he could not discuss just yet.
“As of this date, I am fuly authozied to practice in this court,” he said.
The Judge said she thought she received a notice that Woodruff had failed to pay his fees.
Woodruff said he was suspended for nonpayment.
Woodruff believes this does not change anything.
He said he was in the process of correcting that.
“I do have a concern about whether or not you can continue to practice in this court,” the judge reiterated.
She said she watned to make sure that Bronster and Hatch had somebody lined up pro hac vice if Mr. Woodruff is not allowed to continue.
“You need to do that,” as she addressed the two other plaintiff counsels present in court.
She told Woodruff, “I am not picking on you. I am trying to look at this whole thing for the class.”
Judge Tydingco-Gatewood indicated that she would approve the Bronster firm as class counsel.
She withheld approval on Jorgensen and Woodruff.
She also raised the issue of there being too many lawyers and said this should be addressed.
“I don’t think we need all of them,” said Judge Tydingco-Gatewood