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Judge in high-stakes suit praises lawyers

Greg Andrews
December 21, 2011
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Indiana Lawyer Commentary

Indianapolis class-action attorney Irwin Levin just helped lead a legal team that is going to collect more than $6.7 million in fees in a high-profile Iowa lawsuit involving price fixing in the concrete industry.

That in itself is great news for Levin and his firm, Cohen & Malad. So perhaps it’s icing on the cake that the judge, in his Nov. 9 order approving the fees, lavished praise on all the attorneys in the case.

He said class counsel achieved “fabulous results with incredible efficiency” and that he had never been more proud of his profession in his 36-year legal career.

“This case has been to me what it was like when I stood before da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and Michelangelo’s David, observing the great masters’ works,” wrote Mark Bennett, U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Iowa. “I was overcome with a rare and gargantuan sense of awe that will likely last a lifetime.”

Bennett isn’t some country judge who has never seen a big case before. Appointed in 1994 by President Clinton, he is a former chief judge for the district and is widely regarded as a candidate for a federal appeals court judgeship.

While serving on a special, three-judge panel in 2000, Bennett wrote a “brilliant and detailed” dissent in a criminal case that became the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court’s later reversal, Slate magazine wrote in a 2008 profile of standout judges.

Levin, managing partner of Cohen & Malad, said: “I’ve been fortunate to have many kind words directed at our efforts in the past. But this is obviously quite unique. It is especially gratifying coming from a judge with the stature of Judge Bennett.”

The judge on Nov. 1 approved an $18.5 million settlement to resolve the case brought by Iowa buyers of ready-mix concrete against five concrete companies and three executives who had pleaded guilty to price-fixing.

The topic of the case probably rings a bell. Levin waged a similar battle in Indiana after prosecutors brought price-fixing charges in the state in 2004. The last of seven defendants settled last year, bringing the total recovery to more than $60 million. The legal team – led by Levin and Stephen Susman of Susman Godfrey in Houston – received $18 million in fees.

Iowa is the only other state where prosecutors have brought similar concrete price-fixing charges. In that litigation, Levin – working closely with Cohen & Malad’s Scott Gilchrist – served as co-lead counsel with Gregory Hansel of Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios of Portland, Maine.

levin-irwin-mug.jpg Levin

Bennett praised attorneys for bringing the case to conclusion in a little more than a year, despite myriad “complexities in proving the scope of the price fixing conspiracies and damages to class members.”

He also noted that the settlement was so large that plaintiffs recovered all their losses, even after paying attorneys’ fees. And that’s based on the loss estimate provided by plaintiffs’ expert witness. The Justice Department had estimated the total volume of commerce affected by the price-fixing conspiracy was just $5.7 million.

Despite the favorable outcome for plaintiffs, Bennett said in his order that attorneys for the defendants – including Krieg DeVault in Indianapolis – did a bang-up job as well.

“These exceptionally knowledgeable and sophisticated defense antitrust counsel provided their clients – from rural northwest Iowa small businessmen to an international conglomerate – with invaluable and insightful guidance and representation, sparing their clients likely treble damages, years upon years of litigation stress, and millions of dollars in litigation costs,” Bennett wrote.

Things weren’t always looking so good for Cohen & Malad. Plaintiffs lost on a key motion early on, forcing attorneys to replead the case in a different way.

Given that early setback and the speedy resolution of the case, at first blush the attorneys’ request for more than $6 million in fees “might read more like a ubiquitous Nigerian email scam than the highly meritorious motion it has turned out to be,” Bennett wrote.

He added: “This case is a model for the nation that class actions can, indeed, work exactly as Congress and the federal courts intended – though they rarely do.”•

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Greg Andrews is the managing editor of the Indianapolis Business Journal, a sister publication of the Indiana Lawyer, and writes Behind the News. This column ran in the Dec. 12 issue of IBJ.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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