Law firms ask court to force Plaquemines to pay its share of $45 million BP settlement

A New Orleans law firm that represented Plaquemines Parish in its $45 million Deepwater Horizon oil spill damages settlement with BP has gone to federal court to demand its share of the settlement, which it says is $6.4 million. Plaquemines Parish officials responded with a request that the demand be transferred to a state court in the parish, but on Monday asked the federal judge to delay a hearing on the case indefinitely as both sides discuss a settlement.

On Tuesday, the parish amended its request, asking the judge to delay a hearing on the fees until Sept. 13, while a federal clerk issued notes in the record pointing out that a pretrial order in the BP case prohibits the parish and its attorneys from setting hearing dates without permission of the judge. Attorney Scott Bickford, one of the attorneys hired by the parish that’s seeking the fees, said Tuesday that there are no settlement discussions between the attorneys and the parish.

The Plaquemines Parish Council unanimously voted in April 2011 to hire the New Orleans law firm of Martzell & Bickford and New Orleans attorney David Landry to represent it in what turned out to be a lengthy battle with BP over the damage settlement. In August 2011, it added King, Krebs & Jurgens, a law firm with offices in New Orleans and Houston, to the team.

Under the terms of that agreement, the attorneys were to receive 15 percent of the first $15 million included in a settlement, 10 percent of any amount above $15 million, and would be paid its expenses from the net settlement amount. That works out to 12.7 percent of the $45 million settlement amount.

On the advice of the legal team, in July 2015, the late Parish President Amos Cormier Jr. recommended against participating in an omnibus settlement agreement between BP and federal, state and local government agencies, saying the $9 million offered the parish — which experienced more oiling than most other coastal locations during the Deepwater Horizon spill — was outrageous.

Cormier died in June 2016 and his son, Amos Cormier III, was elected to fill his position in December.

In May of this year, the younger Cormier announced that the parish had agreed to a $45 million settlement, which was almost five times what BP and a court “neutral” working on the government settlement originally recommended for the parish.

Under the settlement agreement, BP was to pay the parish the first $25 million of the settlement this year, and $5 million a year thereafter, with a first check of $15 million going to the attorneys on Aug. 1 for distribution.

After Parish Attorney Peter Barbee raised questions about whether the legal team was properly hired by the council, the team put the $6.4 million it says it is owed in an escrow account and forwarded the remaining $8.6 million to the parish.

In their filing with U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who oversaw the BP damage cases, the attorneys pointed out that the 12.7 percent contingency fee they should receive is significantly smaller than what attorneys representing other local governments were paid: Attorneys representing New Orleans were paid about 18 percent; Jefferson Parish, 22 percent, and St. Tammany, Terrebonne and Tangipahoa attorneys received 25 percent.

In an Aug. 7 letter to Cormier, attorney Scott Bickford said that he had supplied Barbee with documents showing that the council voted to approve the contract, and pointed out that then parish attorney Steve Braud had read the contingency fee terms of the contract into the record during the initial meeting when it was approved. A video of that meeting shows that Braud was requested to explain the contract after an audience member questioned whether the attorneys might receive a third of the settlement.

Bickford pointed out in his letter, which was attached to the attorneys’ federal court filing, that the attorneys were still representing the parish in continuing negotiations over a separate settlement with BP and other parties to the Deepwater Horizon accident concerning punitive damages.

Also included in the filings were the minutes from a Plaquemines Parish mid-year budget meeting, dated Aug. 7, in which Cormier said that neither he nor Barbee could find proof that the council had approved the contract.

Barbee said during that meeting that he expected the attorneys “to shift to a second strategy of trying to go to just a formula based upon what they are going to claim they’ve earned, but that would be a much reduce rate because frankly i don’t know how they are going to justify. Even with the number of hours they told me they worked, it would be over $1,000 an hour which would be absurd to be paying.”

In an Aug. 9 email to Barbee, Bickford pointed out that the attorneys actually invested more than $600,000 of their own money in moving forward with the case, and pointed out that the contingency fee terms were agreed to by the council as part of a request for qualifications, and that the team provided the lowest contingency fees “of any parish which retained attorneys.”

In the parish’s motion to dismiss, filed Friday, Barbee argued that the contract’s own language requires that any disputes be considered in the 25th Judicial District Court in the parish. But on Monday, Barbee instead asked for an indefinite continuance of any hearing on either the attorneys’ payment demand or the parish’s dismissal motion.

He said the indefinite delay was recommended by both sides following a Sunday discussion by both sides “until further communication from the parties.” But on Tuesday, Barbee filed a new motion with the court only asking for a delay in a hearing on the fees until Sept. 13. 

This story was updated on Tuesday (Aug. 22) to show that Plaquemines Parish filed a new motion asking for a delay of a hearing on the fees until Sept. 13, and that one of the attorneys demanding the fees said no negotiatons are under way between them and the parish.

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Mark Schleifstein covers the environment and is a leader of the Louisiana Coastal Reporting Team for | The Times-Picayune. Email: Facebook: Mark Schleifstein and Louisiana Coastal Watch. Twitter: MSchleifstein.

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