LITIGATION:

La. AG feuds with judge, governor over Gulf-spill attorneys' fees

Louisiana's attorney general has lashed out at the federal judge presiding over attorneys' fees in the massive multi-district litigation concerning the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Republican James "Buddy" Caldwell is asking a federal appeals court to resolve the dispute, which has also led to friction between him and a fellow Republican, Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Caldwell objects to Louisiana's involvement in a plan to set aside a proportion of funds that various plaintiffs could potentially win from Macondo well operator BP PLC and other companies involved in the April 20, 2010, explosion and resulting spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The money would ultimately pay fees for dozens of lawyers, who represent both private plaintiffs and government entities in litigation in the Eastern District of Louisiana.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, a former trial lawyer, issued the "holdback" order Dec. 28 that requires private plaintiffs to pay 6 percent of any award to the common fund. Government plaintiffs are required to pay 4 percent.

The order is not limited to those who have filed lawsuits. It also covers people filing claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility that was set up by BP to settle claims out of court. Lawyers involved in the multi-district litigation say the work done by the plaintiffs steering committee -- lawyers who are coordinating the litigation for the plaintiffs -- has in many cases made it easier for claimants to secure payouts from the claims facility. Attorneys representing claimants dispute that and have asked Barbier to reconsider.

In his order, Barbier said holdback funds "are often used by courts" in multi-district litigation where a steering committee of plaintiffs' lawyers is formed to "organize and spearhead the litigation on behalf of thousands of claimants and hundreds of attorneys."

He included strong language critical of Caldwell, saying lawyers representing the attorney general have "often obstructed and frustrated the progress of the litigation."

Jindal was forced to intervene, according to Barbier, because Caldwell's office and outside lawyers he hired were "unable to comply" with various court orders.

"In fact, the governor's office and the PSC [plaintiffs steering committee] have reached an agreement to work collaboratively to pursue their common interests," Barbier wrote.

Jindal "has no objection" to the holdback, he added.

If Louisiana was exempt from the fees, the state "would be entitled to essentially a free ride" because it would still benefit from what the plaintiffs steering committee is doing, Barbier wrote in a footnote.

Furthermore, he added, "the attorney general has apparently no qualms about paying substantial legal fees to multiple lawyers from five outside law firms who are representing him" in the litigation.

Caldwell, who switched parties last year after being elected as a Democrat, objected to the move, as did some plaintiffs attorneys who are not involved in the multi-district litigation.

He has now filed a petition with the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking it to intervene. Caldwell's office declined to comment on the filing.

In the petition, Caldwell says the holdback fund infringes on Louisiana's right to pursue its claims as it sees fit without interference from the plaintiffs steering committee.

'Inaccurate facts'

The colorfully worded brief features outspoken criticism of Barbier and takes issue with the description of Jindal's involvement.

Caldwell said that Barbier's order was a "clear abuse of discretion" that was entered over "repeated objection by the state of Louisiana."

The order included "inaccurate facts" and an "inappropriate diatribe," the attorney general added. He disputed Barbier's finding that his office was unable to comply with court orders and rejected the notion that Jindal had to intervene.

The governor "has apparently attempted to circumscribe or limit" the ability of Louisiana to challenge any payments made from the fund, Caldwell alleged.

A meeting between Caldwell and Jindal arranged in November to discuss the issue was canceled by the governor's staff the day before because they thought the attorney general "would try to intimidate the governor," Caldwell added.

The attorney general also took offense at Barbier's remarks about his willingness to hire his own outside counsel.

"It is rank political comment and attack in an area that is of no concern to the district court," he said. Any lawyers Caldwell has hired are paid on an hourly basis, he added.

A spokesman for Jindal did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana political pundit, said it was no surprise that the governor would want to insert himself into the litigation.

"He doesn't want to be seen to be in charge. He wants to be in charge," he said. "If he feels it's big enough or important enough he doesn't care whether any other office holder cares."

In Louisiana, the attorney general "has some independence, but not a lot," Pinsonat added. Both Jindal and Caldwell were re-elected in 2011.