Chicken price-fixing litigation yields $57.4 mln in fees for plaintiffs' firms

Chickens are pictured inside a poultry farm in Ifo
Chickens are pictured inside a poultry farm in Ifo, Ogun State, Nigeria October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Seun Sanni
  • Chicago court spurned objections to "excessive" fee bid
  • Consumers represented by Hagens Berman, Cohen Milstein

(Reuters) - A Chicago federal judge has awarded $57.4 million to plaintiffs' lawyers who represented a class of chicken consumers that settled civil price-fixing claims for $181 million against poultry producers including Pilgrim's Pride Corp and Tyson Foods Inc.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, in rebuffing objections to the fee request, said in his order that court-appointed lead plaintiffs firms Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll took on the legal work "when few other counsel expressed interest" and moved ahead without the foundation of a government investigation as a guide.

"A substantial award is warranted here as a proper incentive for high quality counsel to take on complex cases, requiring a massive investment of time and money, with such a high risk of non-payment," Durkin wrote in his order on Oct. 7. He called the plaintiffs' legal work "exemplary."

Steve Berman of Hagens Berman and Brent Johnson of Cohen Milstein on Monday said they "appreciate the court's thoughtful attention to the application."

Representatives from Tyson and Pilgrim's and lawyers for the two companies did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Both defendants have denied liability.

M. Frank Bednarz of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute Center for Class Action Fairness, representing an objecting class member who called the plaintiffs' fee bid "grossly excessive," did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a court filing, the institute argued class counsel faced "minimal risk" in the litigation that began in 2016. Bednarz and the center argued a fee between $25.4 million and $31.5 million was "more proportionate to the benefit realized by the class."

Durkin in August, responding to objections, ordered Hagens Berman and Cohen Milstein to provide further information about the fees sought by — and awarded to — the two firms in other antitrust cases. The firms were allowed to file their submission under seal.

Last December, Durkin gave final approval to consumer settlements with defendants including Pilgrim's Pride, which agreed to pay $75.5 million, and Tyson Foods, which settled for $99 million.

The consumer plaintiffs' antitrust claims against other defendants including Perdue Farms Inc are pending. Non-settling defendants have contested the plaintiffs' allegations.

In related litigation, Durkin last year awarded $55.2 million to lawyers at firms including Lockridge Grindal Nauen and at Pearson, Simon & Warshaw, which represented direct-purchase plaintiffs such as New York's Maplevale Farms Inc and Ferraro Foods Inc in New Jersey in settlements valued at more than $170 million.

The case is In re: Broiler Chicken Antitrust Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, No. 1:16-cv-08637.

For consumer end-user class: Steve Berman of Hagens Berman, and Brent Johnson of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll

For Tyson: Rachel Adcox of Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider

For Pilgrim's: Carrie Mahan of Weil, Gotshal & Manges

For Perdue: J. Douglas Baldridge of Venable

Read more:

Poultry workers' $85 mln antitrust deal ready for judge's approval

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