NC Court of Appeals Approves Payments of Attorneys’ Fees in Class Action Settlements

Can a class action settlement agreement contain a fee-shifting provision that provides for a payment of attorneys’ fees? In a question of first impression, the North Carolina Court of Appeals said yes, subject to a trial court’s approval of the settlement at a fairness hearing.

In the long-running Ehrenhaus v. Baker case, the Plaintiff brought a class action challenging the merger of Wells Fargo and Wachovia. The parties ultimately entered into a settlement agreement that also provided for a payment of attorneys’ fees to Plaintiff’s counsel. The trial court approved the settlement, but two shareholders objected.

In Ehrenhaus I, the Court of Appeals affirmed the approval of the settlement but remanded the case for additional findings regarding the attorneys’ fees. The Court’s remand implicitly indicated that a defendant could agree to pay fees to plaintiffs’ counsel in settling a class action, subject to court approval. But some of the language in Ehrenhaus I had raised questions about the trial court’s authority regarding fees and how the American Rule—which generally requires litigants to bear their own expenses—applies (or does not apply) in class actions. On remand, after receiving additional evidence, the trial court issued an order approving the payment of attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ counsel, and the two objecting shareholders appealed again.

This Tuesday, in Ehrenhaus II, the Court of Appeals rejected this challenge to the trial court’s decision on fees. The Court began by laying out the law related to fee-shifting. Under the “American Rule,” the Court explained, “a successful litigant may not recover attorneys’ fees . . . unless such a recovery is expressly authorized by statute,” and here it was not. The Court then identified two exceptions to the American Rule in the class action context, but concluded that neither applied. First, under the “common fund doctrine,” a “litigant or a lawyer who recovers a common fund for the benefit of persons other than himself or his client is entitled to a reasonable attorneys’ fee from the fund as a whole.” The Court said that this doctrine did not apply here because Plaintiff’s lawsuit did not result in the establishment of a common fund. Second, under the “common benefit” doctrine, even if no common fund is created, “an award of attorneys’ fees to a litigant’s counsel is permissible when that litigant confers a common monetary benefit upon an ascertainable stockholder class in a shareholder action.” North Carolina, however, has declined to adopt the common fund doctrine.

Although neither the common fund nor common benefit exceptions to the American Rule applied, the Court of Appeals held that the award of attorneys’ fees was permissible. That is because, the Court held, “the award of attorneys’ fees in this case did not trigger the operation of the American Rule” because the fee award “was provided for in a voluntary settlement between the parties.” The Court explained that “our caselaw expressly recognizes the enforceability of settlement agreements providing for the payment of one party’s attorneys’ fees by the other party to the lawsuit.” That rule furthers the “well-established policy of encouraging the settlement of disputes between litigants and is therefore permissible despite a lack of explicit statutory authorization for such an award.”

The Court acknowledged that this was the first time the Court has addressed whether this rule applies in the class action context, which presents “unique” concerns because not all class members will participate in negotiating the settlement or be before the court. Hence, the Court noted, “the settlement of class actions—unlike settlements in ordinary civil actions—must be judicially approved” pursuant to North Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure 23(c), which requires the court to hold a hearing to determine whether the proposed settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. But the Court found no “persuasive argument as to why a trial court’s ability to evaluate the fairness and reasonableness of a class action settlement does not include the concomitant ability to determine whether a provision in such a settlement authorizing the payment of attorneys’ fees is likewise fair and reasonable.”

Accordingly, the Court held that “the parties to a class action may agree to a fee-shifting provision in a negotiated settlement that is—like all other aspects of the settlement—subject to the trial court’s approval in a fairness hearing. During the fairness hearing, the trial court must carefully assess the award of attorneys’ fees to ensure that it is fair and reasonable.”

The Ehrenhaus II decision also addresses an important appellate procedure question regarding Business Court appeals. For more on this issue, see Ehrenhaus Is Here To Stay from the N.C. Appellate Practice Blog.

(Robert Fuller and Adam Doerr of our firm represented the Defendants in this litigation.)