Plaintiffs' lawyers in NCAA case pick up $3.5 mln more in fees

College Station, Texas, USA; Detailed view of the NCAA championships logo during the NCAA West Preliminary at EB Cushing Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
  • Winston & Strawn's fee haul climbs to more than $28 mln in college-athlete antitrust case
  • U.S. Supreme Court in June unanimously ruled for the plaintiffs in long-running dispute

(Reuters) - A California federal judge has awarded an additional $3.47 million in legal fees to the plaintiffs' lawyers who successfully challenged National Collegiate Athletic Association restrictions on education-related benefits for student athletes, pushing the overall attorney compensation award to more than $35 million.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins' order on Tuesday night awarded nearly $3 million in attorneys' fees to lawyers from Winston & Strawn, and designated about $352,000 for Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro and $158,000 for Pearson, Simon & Warshaw.

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 21 unanimously upheld the plaintiffs' antitrust claims against NCAA rules that capped certain benefits for college athletes. Winston & Strawn antitrust partner Jeffrey Kessler argued for the plaintiffs at the high court.

The new fee award covers legal services from July 2020 to July 2021. The plaintiffs' lawyers earlier were awarded more than $31 million for their work on the case, filed in 2014 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Plaintiffs lawyers including Kessler, co-executive chairman of the firm, and Hagens Berman co-founder Steve Berman, did not return messages seeking comment on Wednesday.

Lawyers advising the NCAA, including Beth Wilkinson of the litigation boutique Wilkinson Stekloff, also did not return messages seeking comment.

Tuesday's award builds on more than $25.8 million in fees awarded to Winston & Strawn. In that December 2019 order, Cousins also awarded nearly $3 million to Hagens Berman and more than $2.8 million to Pearson Simon.

In 2019, the NCAA's lawyers had said they opposed what they called an "enormous" fee request and said then that the demand surpassed "the bounds of what could possibly be described as reasonable."

A declaration from Kessler filed in July offered a fresh peek at hourly rates at Winston & Strawn. Major U.S. law firms often adjust their rates at the start of a new year. Fee filings in the NCAA case showed Winston & Strawn had increased some rates by about 5.9% above last year.

The records showed Kessler, co-chairman of the firm's antitrust team, has billed at $1,695 an hour this year, compared to $1,600 last year. David Feher, co-chairman of the firm's sports practice, has billed at $1,315 hourly. Linda Coberly, managing partner of the firm's Chicago office, has billed at $1,235 in 2021. Coberly was counsel of record to the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court.

"Winston monitors prevailing market rates in regions where it works, including the Northern District of California, taking into account attorneys of comparable skill, expertise and qualification," Kessler, who is based in New York, wrote in his declaration. "The firm maintains a number of internal metrics to benchmark its rates relative to those charged by competitor firms, a number of which represented defendants in this matter."

The case is In Re: National Collegiate Athletic Association Athletic Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, No. 4:14-md-2541-CW.

For the plaintiffs: Steve Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro; Jeffrey Kessler of Winston & Strawn; and Bruce Simon of Pearson, Simon & Warshaw

For the NCAA: Beth Wilkinson of Wilkinson Stekloff; and Jeffrey Mishkin of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

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