SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The NCAA owes over $45 million to lawyers of college athletes who sought a cut of broadcast revenue led by one-time UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, a federal judge ruled.
O’Bannon led the legal charge against the governing body for college athletics over the right to a share in the television broadcast revenue for their names, images and likenesses. The case was filed in 2009, and took five years to get to trial. By then, O’Bannon’s counsel included over 30 law firms.
Last August, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust law by imposing rules that kept student-athletes from receiving such compensation. The 9th Circuit heard the NCAA’s appeal in March, but has yet to rule.
In his ruling late Monday, U.S. District Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins awarded O’Bannon’s lawyers led by Hausfeld LLP $44.4 million in attorneys fees and $1.5 million for expenses. He rejected the attorneys’ $3.7 million request for expert fees.
The NCAA fought vigorously to whittle down the award, arguing that O’Bannon’s lawyers shouldn’t recover fees for time spent on class claims that were unsuccessful. These included efforts on behalf of former college athletes who were prevented from licensing their names, images and likeness after they stopped playing college sports.
“Here, plaintiffs did not succeed on every claim,” Cousins wrote. “But the time spent on the unsuccessful claims contributed to the decisive success by laying the groundwork for the eventual trial victory.”
Cousins said the NCAA tried to “downplay” the class’ success. But “plaintiffs were vindicated on their core claim – that the NCAA violated the Sherman Act by setting rules that bar student-athletes from receiving payments for the use of their name, image or likenesses – and granted a substantial remedy: a permanent injunction prohibiting the NCAA from enforcing a set of its own longstanding rules.
The fact that plaintiffs did not get certified for a damages subclass or achieve compensatory damages does not detract from this unprecedented success in the antitrust field. This win against a behemoth of an institution like the NCAA could significantly change American college sports; in particular, the way the NCAA treats its student- athletes,” he continued.
Cousins noted that in support of the NCAA’s argument for a significantly smaller fee award, it alluded to the Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities” by depicting the case as a “tale of two lawsuits.” The original 2009 lawsuit involving former student-athletes looked much different by 2012, when it included current student-athletes.
“Admittedly, in their five-year uphill fight to trial, plaintiffs’ experiences did fluctuate between better times and worse times,” Cousins wrote.
But he said George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” where “individuals with seemingly long odds overcome unthinkable challenges, but suffer stark losses along the path to victory,” would have made a better reference.
“For plaintiffs, their trial victory in this adventurous, risky suit, while more than a mere game, is nothing less than a win that warrants attorneys’ fees for work spent on all claims-successful or unsuccessful,” the magistrate wrote.
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