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Gemert v. Boeing Co.

decided: March 27, 1978.


Appeal from a final order of Judge Sylvester J. Ryan of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York which directed that plaintiffs' attorneys' fees be paid from the entire class fund rather than from that portion which is claimed by class members.

Mulligan, Oakes and Van Graafeiland, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Graafeiland


In 1975, this Court ruled that appellant Boeing did not give adequate notice of its intention to call certain convertible debentures and held it liable in this class action brought on behalf of debenture holders who failed to convert. Van Gemert v. Boeing Company, 520 F.2d 1373 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 423 U.S. 947, 46 L. Ed. 2d 282, 96 S. Ct. 364 (1975). Subsequent proceedings in district court resulted in an order directing the deposit of the amount of the judgment award, approximately six million dollars, in an escrow account in a New York City bank. A Special Master was appointed, with authority to receive and pass upon proofs of claim and to supervise the administration of the judgment.

The order provided further that the members of plaintiffs' committee of attorneys be awarded their fees, expenses and disbursements, as fixed by the court, payment thereof to be made from the total amount of the judgment.*fn1 The sole issue on this appeal is whether that portion of the escrow fund which is not claimed hereafter by class members can be charged with a pro rata share of the attorneys' fees and expenses. We hold that until absent class members receive the benefit of the attorneys' labors by claiming their portions of the award, no such charge or assessment may be paid from their undistributed shares.

The question of unclaimed funds has been before this Court on a prior appeal which followed our original decision on liability. Van Gemert v. Boeing Co., 553 F.2d 812 (2d Cir. 1977).On that appeal, we rejected a request that the shares of non-claiming class members be distributed pro rata among claiming members in order to assist them in paying their legal fees and disbursements. Citing Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 479 F.2d 1005 (2d Cir. 1973), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 417 U.S. 156, 94 S. Ct. 2140, 40 L. Ed. 2d 732 (1974), we held that the "extraordinary remedy" of fluid class recovery was not justified under the circumstances of this case.*fn2 Van Gemert, 553 F.2d at 815-16. Appellees now seek to avoid the effect of our prior holding by requesting only a portion of the unclaimed funds, with payment thereof to be made directly to their attorneys.

In so doing, they rely upon the equitable or common fund doctrine fathered by the leading cases of Trustees v. Greenough, 105 U.S. 527, 26 L. Ed. 1157 (1881), and Central Railroad & Banking Co. v. Pettus, 113 U.S. 116, 28 L. Ed. 915, 5 S. Ct. 387 (1885). Under this doctrine, an attorney who creates or preserves a fund for the benefit of others in addition to his client may be awarded compensation from those who accept the fruits of his labors. Pettus, 113 U.S. at 125, 127. This award is not based upon the existence of an attorney's lien against the fund, but rather upon the equitable principle that those who benefit from the attorney's services should pay for them. General Finance Corp. v. New York State Rys., 3 F. Supp. 975, 976 (W.D.N.Y. 1933) (quoting In re Gillaspie, 190 F. 88, 91 (N.D.W.Va. 1911)). More recent decisions, expanding on the concept of unjust enrichment, have held that under appropriate circumstances an attorney may have a right to compensation from the beneficiaries of his labors even though his efforts have not been directed toward the creation or preservation of a fund. See, e.g., Mills v. Electric Auto-Lite Co., 396 U.S. 375, 391-97, 24 L. Ed. 2d 593, 90 S. Ct. 616 (1970); Sprague v. Ticonic Bank, 307 U.S. 161, 83 L. Ed. 1184, 59 S. Ct. 777 (1939); Kopet v. Esquire Realty Co., 523 F.2d 1005, 1008 (2d Cir. 1975).

Appellees contend that the foregoing line of authorities justifies an award for attorneys' fees from the six-million dollar class award regardless of whether the entire award is distributed to class members. This argument has a surface appeal because it suggests a procedure that not only appears to be reasonable, but also is simple to apply. There are, however, other factors which must be considered in weighing the merits of appellees' proposal.

Class actions, termed by some as "lawyer's lawsuits", see Developments in the Law - Class Actions, 89 Harv.L.Rev. 1318, 1605 (1976), have received a good deal of criticism; and much of this has been directed at the substantial fees awarded to class attorneys. See, e.g., Alpine Pharmacy, Inc. v. Chas. Pfizer & Co., 481 F.2d 1045, 1049-50 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1092, 94 S. Ct. 722, 38 L. Ed. 2d 549 (1973).Terms such as "golden harvest of fees", Free World Foreign Cars, Inc. v. Alfa Romeo, S.p.A., 55 F.R.D. 26, 30 (S.D.N.Y. 1972), "astronomical fees", M. Blecher, Is the Class Action Rule Doing the Job? (Plaintiff's Viewpoint), 55 F.R.D. 365, 366 (1972), and "enormous fees", Comment, 54 U.Det.J.Urb.L. 598, 611 (1977), are used to describe the allowances, which often run into the million of dollars.*fn3 Critics point particularly to over-generous applications of the equitable fund doctrine, by means of which massive fees are awarded attorneys with too little regard for the interests of the class members. See City of Detroit v. Grinnell Corp., 560 F.2d 1093, 1098 (2d Cir. 1977). This criticism, much of which is justified, prompts careful inquiry into whether it would be a misapplication of the equitable fund doctrine to permit counsel herein to collect part of their fees and expenses from the allocable shares of class members who claim none of the proceeds of the recovery.

Although the amendments to Rule 23 have been in effect since 1966, only a few class actions for damages have gone through a trial on the merits to judgment. Eisen, 479 F.2d at 1018-19; C. Wolfram, The Antibiotics Class Actions, 1976 Am.B. Foundation Research J. 251, 357; W. Simon, Class Actions - Useful Tool or Engine of Destruction?, 55 F.R.D. 375, 378 (1972); Note, The Cy Pres Solution to the Damage Distribution Problems of Mass Class Actions, 9 Ga.L.Rev. 893, 900 (1975).As a result, there has been little need to resolve the "troublesome question" of what to do with the unclaimed portion of a judgment for damages in favor of a class. See Eisen, 479 F.2d at 1012.*fn4 Fluid class recovery concepts have been adopted by a number of courts in actions which have terminated in settlement. See, e.g., State of West Virginia v. Chas. Pfizer & Co., 314 F. Supp. 710 (S.D.N.Y. 1970), aff'd, 440 F.2d 1079 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 404 U.S. 871, 30 L. Ed. 2d 115, 92 S. Ct. 81 (1971).*fn5 However, precedents involving settlements are of little help when a case has been litigated through trial to judgment. Eisen, 479 F.2d at 1012; City of Philadelphia v. American Oil Co., 53 F.R.D. 45, 71 (D.N.J. 1971).

This Court expressed in Eisen, supra, its unwillingness to adopt the concept of fluid class recovery, and, on a prior appeal, we refused to apply it in this litigation, which is fundamentally a private dispute arising out of the debenture contract. Van Gemert, 553 F.2d at 815, 816. In Eisen we said that "the claims of many may not be treated collectively or as 'the class as a whole' . . . ." 479 F.2d at 1014. The compensation of appellees' attorneys must come therefore from the individual class members, not from the "class as a whole."

Although the holdings which follow Greenough and Pettus speak broadly of recovering attorneys' fees from funds, intrinsic in every case is the requirement that benefits must accrue to those against whom expenses are assessed. See Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, n.39, 44 L. Ed. 2d 141, 95 S. Ct. 1612 (1975). "The award of fees under the equitable fund doctrine is analogous to an action in quantum meruit: the individual seeking compensation has, by his actions, benefited another and seeks payment for the value of the service performed." Lindy Bros. Builders v. American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., 487 F.2d 161, 165 (3d Cir. 1973).*fn6 Those who receive no benefit from the lawyer's work should not be required to pay for it. Schechtman v. Wolfson, 244 F.2d 537, 540 (2d Cir. 1957); Nolte v. Hudson Nav. Co., 47 F.2d 166, 168 (2d Cir. 1931); Simmons v. Friday, 190 F.2d 849, 852 (8th Cir. 1951); In re Irving-Austin Bldg. Corp., 100 F.2d 574, 578 (7th Cir. 1938); Baltic Independent School District v. South Dakota High School Activities Association, 362 F. Supp. 780, 786 (D.S.Dak. 1973); cf. City of Miami Beach v. Jacobs, 341 So. 2d 236 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 1976), cert. denied, 348 So. 2d 945 (Fla.), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 939, 98 S. Ct. 430, 54 L. Ed. 2d 299 (1977). In a private action for damages such as this, "[there] is no reason why the attorneys should be compensated for potential benefits not accepted by members of the class." Blank v. Talley Industries, Inc., 390 F. Supp. 1, 6 (S.D.N.Y. 1975); see also 2 H. Newburg, Class Actions, Para. 2780 at 1249 (1977); E. Labowitz, Class Actions in the Federal System and in California: Shattering the Impossible Dream, 23 Buf.L.Rev. 601, 647 (1974); cf. Miller v. Union Barge Line Corporation, 299 F. Supp. 718, 721 (W.D.Pa. 1969).

The application of this rule should cause no administrative difficulties on remand. Having directed the creation of an escrow account for the total amount of the possible recovery, the district court must now set a reasonable period of time for the proof of claims by class members. Because both administrative expenses and attorneys' fees and disbursements are to be charged pro rata against the awards to class members, payment of the awards must be deferred until the Special Master has completed processing the claims and his fees and expenses can be determined. At that point, the benefits accruing to class members can be "traced with some accuracy", and the costs can be "shifted with some exactitude to those benefiting." Alyeska, 421 U.S. at 265 n.39. The district court may then make an appropriate award for attorneys' fees and expenses.

If any funds remain unclaimed, the Court must make appropriate disposition of them. Because it is conjectural as to whether there will be any unclaimed funds and because we have not been asked to consider the question of their disposition on this appeal, we express no present view on this matter. Recognizing, however, the possibility that unclaimed funds will be returned to the defendant,*fn7 we point to the Supreme Court holding ...

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