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In re AOL Time Warner Erisa Litigation

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


October 26, 2007

IN RE AOL TIME WARNER ERISA LITIGATION

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shirley Wohl Kram, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

On September 27, 2006, the Court issued an opinion approving a $100 million class action settlement (the "Settlement") reached in litigation brought pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") by participants in AOL Time Warner, Inc's ("AOLTW")*fn1 401(k) defined contribution plans (the "Plans"). See In re AOL Time Warner ERISA Litig., 02 Cv. 8853 (SWK), 2006 WL 2789862 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2006). The Court reserved decision on counsel's application for attorney's fees, and on the three Named Plaintiffs' requests for "case contribution"--or incentive--awards. See id. at *10. On August 9, 2007, David Pikus, the Special Master for attorney's fees, submitted his final report and recommendation ("R&R") to this Court and served it on all relevant parties. Following the passage of a comment period that yielded only positive feedback, the Court now adopts the R&R. Additionally, the Court awards Named Plaintiffs Rita Roberts Hill and Barbara Grant incentive awards of $1,000 each, and Named Plaintiff Steven Winfield an award of $500.

I. THE SPECIAL MASTER'S CALCULATION OF ATTORNEY'S FEES AND COSTS

Special Master Pikus recommends an award of $17,865,395 in fees and $267,552.64 in expenses.*fn2 He reached this recommendation by employing a three-tiered percentage structure, which averages out to approximately 17.9% of the common fund. This tiered percentage structure reflects the varying degrees of risk and complexity inherent in different stages of the litigation, rewards class counsel for negotiating a settlement that was previously thought unattainable, and reflects the fact that the instant ERISA litigation followed the settlement of a parallel securities claim.

Special Master Pikus rightly recommends an award that avoids recourse to a mere benchmark. See Goldberger v. Integrated Res., Inc., 209 F.3d 43, 51-52 (2d Cir. 2000). Although the percentage of attorney's fees awarded in connection with ERISA settlements varies widely (R&R 25; see also Independent Fiduciary's Review of the Motion of Plaintiffs for an Award of Attorneys' Fees, for Reimbursement of Expenses and for Case Contribution Compensation to the Named Plaintiffs, July 18, 2006 ("Independent Fiduciary's July 18 Review")), in this case, the averaged 17.9% award is within the range of percentage awards that have been recently approved by courts of this circuit in connection with large ERISA settlements. See, e.g., In re WorldCom, Inc. ERISA Litig., 02 Cv. 4816 (DLC), 2004 WL 2338151, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 18, 2004) (approving an 18% award); In re Global Crossing Sec. & ERISA Litig., 225 F.R.D. 436, 469-70 (S.D.N.Y. 1994) (approving a 15% award); but see Banyai v. Mazur, 00 Cv. 9806 (SHS), 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25272, at *23 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2007) (awarding 8.45%). Additionally, an independent fiduciary has already considered and approved class counsel's original fee application, which would have resulted in a fee and expense award higher than the one generated by the Special Master and adopted today. After considering the factors set forth in Goldberger and Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, 493 F.3d 110 (2d Cir. 2007),*fn3 which Special Master Pikus thoroughly analyzes in the R&R,*fn4 as well as a cross-check against an hourly rate calculation,*fn5 the Court finds the recommendation to be fair and reasonable and adopts the R&R's recommended award.*fn6 The administration of the award is to be carried out under the terms set forth in the accompanying order approving the R&R and awarding attorney's fees and reimbursement of costs.

II. INCENTIVE AWARDS FOR THE NAMED PLAINTIFFS

In addition to the fees and expenses sought by class counsel, the three Named Plaintiffs also request an incentive award of $20,000 each. Because the R&R does not address this request, the Court has conducted its own analysis. "Incentive awards are not uncommon in class action cases and are within the discretion of the court." Frank v. Eastman Kodak Co., 228 F.R.D. 174, 187 (W.D.N.Y. 2005) (quoting Roberts v. Texaco, Inc., 979 F. Supp. 185, 200 (S.D.N.Y. 1997)). Courts look for the existence of "special circumstances" when determining whether an award is justified and, if so, in what amount. Id. Because the focus is on "special circumstances," "[n]o meaningful guidelines of broad applicability are discernible from the reported decisions as to the appropriate measure for an award . . . ." Roberts, 979 F. Supp. at 201-02. Incentive awards have thus varied in both the methodology underlying their calculation, see, e.g., In re Stock Exchs. Options Trading Antitrust Litig., MDL No. 1283, 99 Cv. 0962 (RCC), 2006 WL 3498590, at *13 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 4, 2006) (computing incentive award by using hourly rate for time spent in deposition), and their size, see Sheppard v. Consol. Edison Co. of New York, Inc., 94 Cv. 403 (JG), 2002 WL 2003206, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 1, 2002) (citing cases with range of incentive awards from $336 to $303,000).

Nevertheless, the case law reveals several factors often cited by courts in adjudicating named plaintiffs' requests for incentive awards in class actions, including: the personal risk (if any) incurred by the plaintiff-applicant in becoming and continuing as a litigant, the time and effort expended by that plaintiff in assisting in the prosecution of the litigation or in bringing to bear added value (e.g., factual expertise), any other burdens sustained by that plaintiff in lending himself or herself to the prosecution of the claim, and of course, the ultimate recovery.

Roberts, 979 F. Supp. at 200. Additionally, when deciding requests for such awards, courts often look to the sums awarded in similar cases, see, e.g., Gross v. Wash. Mut. Bank, F.A., 02 Cv. 4135 (RML), 2006 WL 318814, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 9, 2006); In re Remeron Direct Purchaser Antitrust Litig., 03 Cv. 0085, 2005 WL 3008808, at *18 (D.N.J. Nov. 9, 2005); In re Linerboard Antitrust Litig., MDL No. 1261, Civ. A. 98-5055, Civ. A. 99-1000, Civ. A. 99-1341, 2004 WL 1221350, at *19 (E.D. Pa. June 2, 2004); Dornberger v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 203 F.R.D. 118, 124-25 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), and compare the named plaintiff's requested award to each class member's estimated pro rata share of the monetary judgment or settlement, see, e.g., In re Sprint Corp. ERISA Litig., 443 F. Supp. 2d 1249, 1271 (D. Kan. 2006); Denney v. Jenkens & Gilchrist, 230 F.R.D. 317, 355 & n.249 (S.D.N.Y. 2005), vacated in part on other grounds by Denney v. BDO Seidman, L.L.P., 412 F.3d 58 (2d Cir. 2005); Sheppard, 2002 WL 2003206, at *6-*7.

In this case, the Named Plaintiffs contributed to an ultimately successful class action suit. The Named Plaintiffs' counsel aver that, in filing suit, the Named Plaintiffs "risked that their current or future employers would flag them as potential problem employees because of their willingness to pursue litigation against an employer" (Pls.' Mot. 47), although they do not provide specific evidence of the purported risk's magnitude. Throughout several years of litigation, the Named Plaintiffs consulted with counsel, reviewed litigation documents, produced documents for discovery, and responded to interrogatories. (See generally Pls.' Mot., Declaration of Rita Roberts Hill ("Hill Decl."); Declaration of Barbara Grant ("Grant Decl."); Declaration of Steven Winfield ("Winfield Decl.").) Two of the three Named Plaintiffs were deposed. (Named Pls.' Letter Correcting Mot., Oct. 3, 2007; Pls.' Mot., Supplemental Declaration of Rita Roberts Hill ("Hill Supp. Decl.") ¶ 2; Supplemental Declaration of Barbara Grant ("Grant Supp. Decl.") ¶ 6.)*fn7 Named Plaintiff Grant attended and spoke at the July 19, 2006 hearing on final approval of the Settlement. (See Tr. 17-18, July 19, 2006.) In short, the record demonstrates that all three Named Plaintiffs made sustained contributions to this litigation,*fn8 which ultimately resulted in one of the largest ERISA settlements ever recorded. (See Report of the Independent Fiduciary for the Proposed Settlement in the AOL Time Warner ERISA Litigation, June 29, 2006, at 2 ("Other than the Enron settlement, the pool of funds available for distribution . . . is the largest ever awarded in an ERISA employer stock case.").) An incentive award of some kind is thus warranted.

Nevertheless, the Court concludes that the requested $20,000 per-plaintiff fee would be excessive, especially in light of the indirect, and much smaller, monetary relief accruing to the more than 65,000 absent class members. See In re Sprint Corp. ERISA Litig., 443 F. Supp. 2d at 1271 (reducing requested incentive award from $15,000 to $5,000, despite multimillion-dollar settlement amount, in light of fact that no individual class member stood to recover more than $1,000 from settlement). Although it is true that, without the efforts of the Named Plaintiffs, this litigation may never have occurred, it is equally true that, without the tens of thousands of absent class members, the defendant may never have been induced to settle. An incentive award that compensates the Named Plaintiffs for the time they spent sitting for depositions, plus reasonable deposition preparation time, creates less of a disparity among class members while still rewarding the Named Plaintiffs for their efforts. Cf. In re Stock Options Trading Antitrust Litig., 2006 WL 3498590, at *13.

In this case, Named Plaintiff Hill was deposed for 4.5 hours (Hill Supp. Decl. ¶ 2), and Named Plaintiff Grant was deposed for no more than 6.5 hours (see Grant Supp. Decl. ¶ 6). The deposed Named Plaintiffs should also be rewarded for reasonable preparation time.*fn9 Additionally, given that his deposition was canceled at the eleventh hour, Named Plaintiff Winfield also should be rewarded for time reasonably spent in preparation. Accordingly, the Court concludes that awards of $1,000 each to Named Plaintiffs Hill and Grant, and $500 to Named Plaintiff Winfield, are fair and reasonable.*fn10

No doubt the Named Plaintiffs expected to receive an award much closer to the $20,000 that they each requested. Yet "an expectation is not an entitlement," Sarnoff v. Am. Home Prods. Corp., 798 F.2d 1075, 1080 (7th Cir. 1986), and the desire to incentivize lead plaintiff participation must be tempered by an equally important quest for parity and fairness among class members. Therefore, for the reasons discussed above, the Court concludes that an incentive award is appropriate in the instant case, and that awards of $1,000 each to the deposed Named Plaintiffs and $500 to the un-deposed Named Plaintiff are fair, reasonable, and sufficient to compensate the Named Plaintiffs for their consistent efforts on behalf of the class.

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Court approves an award to Co-Lead Counsel of $17,865,395 in fees and $267,552.64 in expenses, and incentive awards of $1,000 each to Named Plaintiffs Hill and Grant and $500 to Named Plaintiff Winfield. An appropriate Final Order and Judgment accompanies this Opinion.


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