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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. People have heard of Magna Carta, and not the Provisions of Oxford & Westminster. Not that anybody really cares. Today, it might be considered ethnic or racial bias to talk about the "Anglo Saxon common law." I don't even see the word English in the blurb above. Anyhow speaking of Edward I-- he was famously intolerant of diversity himself viz the Edict of Expulsion 1290. So all he did too like making parliament a permanent institution-- that all must be discredited. 100 years from now such commemorations will be in the dustbin of history.

  2. Oops, I meant discipline, not disciple. Interesting that those words share such a close relationship. We attorneys are to be disciples of the law, being disciplined to serve the law and its source, the constitutions. Do that, and the goals of Magna Carta are advanced. Do that not and Magna Carta is usurped. Do that not and you should be disciplined. Do that and you should be counted a good disciple. My experiences, once again, do not reveal a process that is adhering to the due process ideals of Magna Carta. Just the opposite, in fact. Braveheart's dying rebel (for a great cause) yell comes to mind.

  3. It is not a sign of the times that many Ind licensed attorneys (I am not) would fear writing what I wrote below, even if they had experiences to back it up. Let's take a minute to thank God for the brave Baron's who risked death by torture to tell the government that it was in the wrong. Today is a career ruination that whistleblowers risk. That is often brought on by denial of licenses or disciple for those who dare speak truth to power. Magna Carta says truth rules power, power too often claims that truth matters not, only Power. Fight such power for the good of our constitutional republics. If we lose them we have only bureaucratic tyranny to pass onto our children. Government attorneys, of all lawyers, should best realize this and work to see our patrimony preserved. I am now a government attorney (once again) in Kansas, and respecting the rule of law is my passion, first and foremost.

  4. I have dealt with more than a few I-465 moat-protected government attorneys and even judges who just cannot seem to wrap their heads around the core of this 800 year old document. I guess monarchial privileges and powers corrupt still ..... from an academic website on this fantastic "treaty" between the King and the people ... "Enduring Principles of Liberty Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. There are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day: "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." "To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Inspiration for Americans During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land." http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/

  5. I'm not sure what's more depressing: the fact that people would pay $35,000 per year to attend an unaccredited law school, or the fact that the same people "are hanging in there and willing to follow the dean’s lead in going forward" after the same school fails to gain accreditation, rendering their $70,000 and counting education worthless. Maybe it's a good thing these people can't sit for the bar.

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