NEW YORK (CN) – A federal judge refused to approve settlement of four of the last remaining plaintiffs against airlines and other aviation defendants in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, finding the proposed $28 million settlement, and the fees claimed by the law firm Azrael, Gann & Franz, “unfair and unreasonable” and “substantially higher than those of similarly situated plaintiffs in previous settlements.”
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein refused to pay Azrael, Gann & Franz their requested “higher percentage of the settlement amounts as a contingent fee award that were received by all other law firms in all previous cases, but for three approved exceptions.”
Hellerstein found the total payments of $28.5 million to the estates of four victims, three of them “modest wage earners at the Pentagon … disproportionately large.”
A 25 percent fee, which Azrael wants, or a 15 percent fee, which Hellerstein prefers, would yield legal fees of $7,125,000 or $4,275,000. But Judge Hellerstein wrote, “Presumably, since Azrael fails to identify any expenses incurred in prosecuting the cases, there may not have been anything significant that he proposes to absorb. And since he does not bother to set out the time rates of the lawyers in his firm who provided services, nor provide any details about the services he describes in a conclusory fashion, I am unable to agree with his conclusion that his services were ‘significant,’ ‘substantial’ and ‘extensive.’ Azrael ignores the criteria required by my order of August 9, 2007. In my opinion, an award of the magnitude he requests would reflect a very large windfall.”
In a footnote, Judge Hellerstein wrote: “Out of respect for the privacy of the earlier settling parties, I will not, in this opinion, provide comparative information about earlier settlements. I will, however, be filing under seal an addendum to this footnote, providing comparative information about previous settlements, to illustrate the disproportionate nature of these four settlements.”
Judge Hellerstein vacated the final judgments in these four cases, ordered the papers submitted to justify fees returned to counsel. He will hold a conference with counsel only on Aug. 6, to decide on future proceedings.