Prop 65 Settlements Predominantly Benefit Claimants’ Lawyers

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Over the last several years, the  California Attorney General’s Office (OAG) has released annual reports of Proposition 65 settlements through 2017.  These reports make one thing clear – Proposition 65 continues to be a lucrative source for private Proposition 65 claimants and their lawyers, as the total settlement payments continues to rise through the years.

In the past, we noted that private Proposition 65 claimants and their lawyers collected at total of $17 million in settlement payments (comprised of civil penalties, “PILPs” or “Payments in Lieu of Penalties” [also known as “Additional Settlement Payments”] and attorneys’ fees and costs) in 2013, and $20 million in 2012. The trend since then has been upward on all fronts, with one notable recent qualification regarding PILPs.

Proposition 65 contemplates that private claimants will share any civil penalties collected, with 75 percent going to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and 25% being kept by the private claimants.  However, Prop 65 claimants are allowed an alternative remedy of PILPs, in which the claimants can pocket 100% of the PILPs and share nothing with OEHHA. All private claimants needed to do is establish that the PILP payments will go to fund some kind of activities with a nexus to the basis for the litigation, and show how those funds would be spent.  Until recently, this was not a big obstacle for Prop 65 claimants. As can be seen from the OAG reports, many Prop 65 claimants are special-purpose entities that contend their own business of pursuing Prop 65 claims serves the environmental interests they are trying to protect through pursuit of more Prop 65 claims.  As a result, these entities could pocket the PILP money to self-fund their own activities to make more Prop 65 claims. Being able to keep all of the PILP money, rather than the alternative of having to give 75% of civil penalties to OEHHA, undoubtedly made PILPs very attractive to Prop 65 claimants. Perhaps the only bright spot in the chart below is the significant reduction (by more than 50%) in PILP recoveries, which followed an amended regulation that went into effect on October 1, 2016 to tighten requirements for PILP settlements. We’ll develop more on this amendment and its effects in a future blog post.

Finally, but clearly most significantly in terms of dollars spent on settlements of Prop 65 claims, private claimants’ lawyers are entitled to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. As seen in OAG reports, and displayed graphically below, this attorney fee recovery constitutes by far the largest portion of Prop 65 settlements.

2014-2017 Summary of Proposition 65 Resolutions (Updated from OAG Data as of 3/25/2019)
2014-2017 Summary of Proposition 65 Resolutions
(Updated from OAG Data as of 3/25/2019)

Since 2012, total settlement payments have increased substantially, reaching their high-water mark in 2016 but not declining very much in 2017 (2018 figures have not yet been fully released by OAG). Between 2014 and 2017, Prop 65 settlement payments totaled well over $25 million per year.  Overall, the settlement payments are comprised of attorney fee recoveries to claimants’ lawyers, PILP recoveries to claimants, and a smaller number of civil penalties that are shared 25% with claimants and 75% with OEHHA. In sum, every dollar shown in the chart below, other than the OEHHA portion shown in red, has gone to either the Prop 65 claimants or the claimants’ lawyers:

When viewed graphically, it becomes all the more evident that the vast majority of Prop 65 settlements benefit claimants and their lawyers, not OEHHA or any other government agency charged with protecting the public. Questions must arise whether this was really the intent of Proposition 65, however beneficent was its purpose.

2016 was the biggest year for Prop 65 private claimants, according to data released by the California Attorney General’s Office.  In 2016, private claimants settled 760 cases, suing smaller businesses and larger entities like K-Mart, Michaels, Williams-Sonoma, and Twinings.  The settlements for that year totaled over $30 million.

Of the $30 million collected in settlement payments in 2016, attorneys’ fees made up more than $21.5 million, or 71.5% of all private settlements.  In addition, while civil penalties amounted to just over $5 million, or 18% of all private settlements, private claimants can take 25% of any civil penalty assessed as a “bounty.”  In 2016, the civil penalties retained by claimants represented a sum of $1,361,500, or 4.51% of all private settlements.  PILP money made up 10.42% of all private settlements.  That means approximately $3.1 million landed in the hands of private claimants and their attorneys, in addition to the attorneys’ fees and civil penalty bounties they received.

A few firms did particularly well that year.  In 2016, The Chanler Group brought in 242 settlements for over $7.4 million.  83% of this figure, or over $6 million, was paid out in the form of attorneys’ fees and costs.  Brodsky & Smith brought in 99 settlements for nearly $2.5 million.  90% of the nearly $2.5 million, or $2.2 million, in settlement payments went to the lawyers as attorneys fees and costs.

Some claimant representatives obtained settlements that were not quite as disproportionately in favor of attorneys’ fees and costs.  For example, the Center for Environmental Health brought in 93 settlements in 2016, for a total of $4 million, broken down as follows: 11% as non-contingent civil penalties, 16% as PILP payments, and 74% as attorneys’ fees and costs.  Similarly, the Consumer Advocacy Group brought in approximately $4 million across 71 settlements, recovering 11% as non-contingent civil penalties, 14% as PILP payments, and 75% as attorneys’ fees and costs.

The Environmental Research Center brought in 55 settlements for nearly $5 million, and the breakdown of payments was split more evenly: 36% as civil penalties, 31% as PILP payments, and 33% as attorneys’ fees and costs.

In 2017, private claimants continued to pursue Prop 65 claims, settling or obtaining judgments in 693 cases.  The recoveries totaled more than $26 million. As can be readily seen in the chart above, although the total claimants’ recoveries were somewhat lower, they were on par with 2015 recoveries. Further, attorneys fees were proportionately even higher in 2017 than in preceding years, and the reduction was primarily in the PILP recoveries. Attorneys’ fees made up more than $20 million, or 76% of all private settlements, and civil penalties retained by claimants represented an additional $1,431,496 or 5.4% of all Prop 65 recoveries.

If these trends continue, total Prop 65 settlement payouts will continue to rise, imposing the “unnecessary burdens for businesses” that “are cause for public concern,” as the OAG noted in 2014. Conkle, Kremer & Engel routinely represents businesses against Prop 65 claims and lawsuits brought by private claimants, and works with businesses to develop compliance strategies to minimize the risk that they will be future targets of Prop 65 claimants.

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Summer Fun 2018 at the Conkle Firm

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Sure, we’re serious lawyers but we like to have a little fun too, especially during the summer with our law clerks.  This summer, our law student clerks joined us for a lot of hands-on, real world experience in commercial litigation, intellectual property and transactional practice.  And they still had time for some fun, including an outing to a Dodgers vs. Angels game in the Freeway Series.  We started with a limo stop for dinner at Wurstkuche in DTLA, and ended the evening with fireworks after the game.

Conkle Kremer and Engel at Dodgers vs. Angels 2018

We also attended a special evening at the Hollywood Bowl – Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, with a live orchestra and even more lively lightsabers.  The evening began with a special private dinner served at the Hollywood Bowl Volunteers Cottage, and ended with a limo ride home for our stormtroopers.

Star Wars at Hollywood Bowl 2018Star Wars at Hollywood Bowl 2018Conkle Firm Light Saber Battle at Star Wars at Hollywood Bowl 2018

Back in the office, our lawyers and summer law clerks joined in a lark of a project that one of our attorneys, Evan Pitchford, dreamed up as an homage to the movie “Inception”.  Rather than dreams within dreams, Evan decided he wanted to create “Shirtception” – T-shirts within T-shirts.  Evan photographed himself wearing successive generations of T-shirts to organically create an infinite mirror effect of image within image of himself in his T-shirt.  When Evan was done, attorneys and our summer law clerks wanted to join in.  This photo of our attorneys and summer law clerks wearing successive generations of the T-shirts followed:

Evan's T-Shirts Within A T-Shirt

One of our clients imports kites and other toys and games, and gave our attorney Desiree Ho a couple of kites as a gift of appreciation.  As summer wound down and fall breezes picked up, a few of our attorneys decided to hold a kite-flying contest – from the roof of our building.

We can’t say exactly what next summer will bring, but we can say that we expect to have more fun.

 

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The Conkle Firm’s Relaunched Website

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel is pleased to announce the relaunch of its website, with improved speed and access.

A new feature in our Conklelaw Blog is industry-specific filtering so visitors can quickly focus on the blog posts most of interest to them.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel began in 1982 as Conkle & Olesten, Professional Law Corporation.  After 25 years, in 2007 the firm changed its name from Conkle & Olesten to Conkle, Kremer & Engel, Professional Law Corporation. Since 1982, the firm has operated continuously without change to its practice, and with complete commitment to service of its clients.

When we created our first website in the mid-1990’s, the Conkle & Olesten homepage featured “The Gavel” to announce recent case developments.  It seems appropriate to bring The Gavel back to announce the relaunch of the CK&E website.  We hope you enjoy the website and find the blog posts and articles interesting.  We welcome your feedback – just use the Contact page.

 

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CK&E Lawyers CRASH Santa Monica Superior Court

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel lawyers John Conkle and H. Kim Sim recently volunteered their time and expertise to the Santa Monica Superior Court, serving as attorney volunteers in the Court’s Civil Referee Assisted Settlement Hearing (CRASH) mediation program.  Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process in which a neutral person (usually an experienced lawyer or retired judge) meets with the opposing parties to discuss the merits and risks of their claims and defenses, to try to reach a negotiated settlement.

The services of John and Kim were in high demand due to severe budget cuts affecting California courts. In an effort to deal with a significant budget shortfall for the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Los Angeles Superior Court announced in March the implementation of a countywide consolidation plan that will create regional hubs for certain types of cases. Personal injury civil cases filed in local courthouses are slated for transfer to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, and when they come up for trial they can be transferred to be tried anywhere in Los Angeles County. The CRASH mediation program took on increased importance as parties in those personal injury cases – in danger of being transferred out of Santa Monica – were sent to participate in mediation conducted by attorney volunteers in a final attempt to settle and avoid a transfer.

CK&E attorneys seldom handle personal injury matters, but they are well practiced in the ways that insurance can be used to help resolve claims.  John and Kim also brought to the table their extensive experience in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practice, including the mixture of law and psychology that is mediation.  But it was a different experience for them to sit at the center as a neutral, rather than as one of the advocates.  The Court and litigants were not the only beneficiaries of their work.  Volunteering for this program enhanced their insight into the mediation process and will enhance their effectiveness as client advocates.

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Announcing Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s New Website

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel started in 1982 as Conkle & Olesten, Professional Law Corporation.  After 25 years, in 2007 the firm changed its name from Conkle & Olesten to Conkle, Kremer & Engel, Professional Law Corporation. Since 1982, the firm has operated continuously without change to its practice, and with complete commitment to service of its clients.

When we created our first website in the mid-1990’s, the Conkle & Olesten homepage featured “The Gavel” to announce our entries about recent case developments.  It apparently was a memorable image because some of our visitors still ask about The Gavel.  It seems appropriate to bring The Gavel back to announce the launch of the revamped CK&E website.

Conkle & Olesten Gavel

Conkle & Olesten Gavel

We hope you enjoy the website and find the articles and posts helpful.  Please let us know if there are any topics that you suggest we address in future posts, or if there are any questions about previous articles and posts.

Conkle & Olesten Homepage

Conkle & Olesten Homepage

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