October 2, 2006

"To have to listen to people say, ‘You lied to us, you cheated, you did this to us!' It hurts, especially since they are survivors.”

NYU lawprof Burt Neuborne tells of his painful struggle representing Holocaust victims.
The crusading attorney helped to win $1.25 billion for his clients, but some of them now regard him as just another big shot looking out for himself.

The battle is over legal fees. Neuborne is seeking $4.76 million for almost eight years of work representing Holocaust survivors in the distribution of the Swiss-bank settlement for plundering Jewish assets in World War II. Some of the survivors are furious. They thought he had been working for free. They had heard him say so several times, or so it seemed....

For Neuborne, it is all a giant misunderstanding: “To the extent that the survivors are confused and misunderstood that I would be seeking fees,” he says, “I feel terrible.” The outcome of the Swiss case could not have been more successful, he believes. He spent years as the lead settlement counsel, and the pace was relentless. After collapsing with chest pains in 2002, he worked on his laptop as he was being prepped for open-heart surgery....


HaloJonesFan said...

This is like the Perfect Storm of stereotypes. A lawyer charging fees to Holocaust survivors, and Jews haggling over money. All we need is a black guy eating watermelon and a white guy in a V-neck sweater and it's a comedy routine waiting to happen. (Oh wait, we also need a dimwit Polish construction worker and an Italian plumber.)

Eli Blake said...

I have to really wonder about this, and especially question his side of it. What is the FIRST rule about hiring anybody to work for you? You put together a contract or a statement and set it in writing. Now, I understand that there were many of these people, but in today's society it absolutely is mind boggling that this would happen without some sort of written documentation regarding fees. Now, the reason why I tend to question him is quite simple-- if there is no written agreement, that would be much more of a suggestion to me that there was a verbal agreement, and any verbal agreement other than 'zero' would have to be written down. Ergo, my belief is that if there was a verbal agreement, that it was, indeed, 'zero.' Even if it is free, I guess that should have still been put in writing but in the absence of any written document regarding fees I think 'free' sounds a more rational explanation than '$4.76 million but we never wrote anything down until it was time to figure the bill.'


Your paltry attempt at humor, isn't.

Cedarford said...

I recommend the New Yorker article as a great read.

While much of the Holocaust lawsuits industry has reinforced the worst stereotypes - money-mad contingency fee Jewish lawyers haggling over their millions, European companies and property owners innocent or guilty forced to pay in muttering about the money grubbers being back, Swiss bankers with amnesia, groups claiming they best represent the long-dead and naturally know best what "they" would have wanted -

This case is a little different and goes to ethics, arbitrary judge decisions, a perhaps too close relationship with the judge and a lawyer with clients who claims his obligations changed once he was named "special disbursion lawyer" by the judge.

This is about 1.25 billion won back in 1999 for 8 days arguing in an American trial by a lawyer representing Jewish Americans directly and distant peoples by class action claim. And how the people that retained the lawyer were cut out by a judge that decided the 1.25 billion was really charity rather than reparations for people that actually had assets looted in W Europe. The judge, moved by articles on the needs of Soviet Jews and Jews in Israel and elsewhere, decided that the awards would be split 75% to Jews in the former Soviet Union lands (where little in individual wealth lost in looted assets actually happened and what was looted was paid to Russia by E&W Germany in long-past settlements of the 40s and 50s, as reparations.

By the judges idea, of the 1st 100 million allocated to asset losers not instead of those with actual Swiss bank account records who were also paid from the 1.25 billion - only 4% of the looted asset money would go to Americans. 15% to Israeli charities, 6% to a few other countries and of course the 75%..Although the judge said he would increase the amount American victims got in subsequent distributions, he "changed his mind" and held his early assurances "were not binding".

And how the lawyer that was supposedly representing the Americans in a reparations suit pro bono - then claimed after the award he changed to a "paymaster" who would be compensated at his usual 700/hr but neglected to tell his American clients that directly.

In court papers, Neuborne argues that even though Korman never entered an order declaring that Neuborne’s pro bono status changed when he became lead settlement counsel, his bill should not have been a surprise. The issue of fees came up in a January 2001 court hearing and in a 2002 law-journal article Neuborne wrote, he says. A transcript of the hearing shows only that Korman was willing to award Neuborne....

But no letter to his clients saying the pro bono period had ended and he was going to charge for his work finding and paying the 96% of those the judge had determined would best use the money, based on Jewish People's need, rather than likelihood of damages deserving compensation. Over 8,000 hours, billed at 700 an hour.

His American clients feel screwed and deceived. IMO, they have a point.

Dave said...

Assuming he worked on this full time, then the fee assessed doesn't sound unreasonable (if you think it sounds unreasonable, get a clue about the rates high-end litigators in NYC charge).

What doesn't sound reasonable, as others here have mentioned, is that there was apparently no agreement delineating fees. This lawyer sounds rather odd pleading his case, in light of he never having signed an retainer agreement with his clients.

goesh said...

-seems a fair and reasonable fee given the 1+ billion he pulled in. We never worry too much about lawyer's fees when the noose is starting to tighten on our necks, or when we sniff a windfall of cash. Likewise we go crying to a Dentist with a toothache not overly concerned about the bill in our moment of pain. When this lawyer upgrades his home and buys a better car and puts his kids into a better college, nobody on that end of things will think of the victims and the compensation for the heirs. I think he should have charged more and I'm not an attorney. His legal arguments were cheered by the heirs and he was celebrated and patted on the back until he submitted his bill. How typical.

Nasty, Brutish & Short said...

Here in Ohio, we consider it unethical not to have a fee agreement in writing. Especially in Plaintiff's cases. Not sure how, exactly, this works in class action cases though.

In any event, the Plaintiff's should count their blessings the attorney is not asking for a third of the recovery. That'd be the norm around here.

Ann Althouse said...

Goesh and others: It was a class action. Here's the part of the class action rule -- rule 23 -- that refers to attorneys' fees:

(h) Attorney Fees Award.

In an action certified as a class action, the court may award reasonable attorney fees and nontaxable costs authorized by law or by agreement of the parties as follows:

(1) Motion for Award of Attorney Fees.

A claim for an award of attorney fees and nontaxable costs must be made by motion under Rule 54(d)(2), subject to the provisions of this subdivision, at a time set by the court. Notice of the motion must be served on all parties and, for motions by class counsel, directed to class members in a reasonable manner.

(2) Objections to Motion.

A class member, or a party from whom payment is sought, may object to the motion.

(3) Hearing and Findings.

The court may hold a hearing and must find the facts and state its conclusions of law on the motion under Rule 52(a).

(4) Reference to Special Master or Magistrate Judge.

The court may refer issues related to the amount of the award to a special master or to a magistrate judge as provided in Rule 54(d)(2)(D).

The man is a brilliant and highly accomplished lawyer who worked for 8 years. The amount that would go to him is tiny compared to what the members of the class received. Why are they torturing him over this? It's horrible!

Doug said...

As others have pointed out, this hardly seems unreasonable, especially when you look at the money grab that occurred when lawyers took on the tobacco companies on behalf of the AG's.

MadisonMan said...

I fully expected to read the quote "It's not about the money" and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't there.

Unknown said...

Sounds like he deserves the money. If the clients were worried about fees, they should have sought out a lawyer who would do it pro bono.

Why is this any different than a parent who sues a doctor for malpractice when one of their children dies? They're both tragedies.

HaloJonesFan said...

Eli Blake: Who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?