Scorned by Judge, Objectors to Equifax Settlement Fight to Clear Their Names
Lawyers scorned by a judge who approved the $1.4 billion Equifax settlement last month fired back, defending themselves and their profession representing objectors to class actions.
In his Jan. 13 order approving the Equifax deal, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. of the Northern District of Georgia took the opportunity to chastise many of the objector lawyers, specifically mentioning previous instances in which other judges had criticized the same lawyers. He rejected all the objections.
At least two the objector lawyers have sought to amend the judgment to exclude the personal attacks against them, and four others, including prominent class action critic Ted Frank, have filed notices to appeal Thrash’s order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
“Court rulings that wrongly impugn a lawyer’s professional reputation can have serious adverse professional consequences,” wrote John Davis in a Feb. 10 motion to amend the judgment.
Many of the lawyers are frequent objectors in class action settlements—the target of 2018 amendments to the Federal Rule 23 of Civil Procedure. The amendments were designed to halt the practice of “professional objectors” extorting money from class counsel in exchange for dropping their appeals of class action settlements.
Two of the objectors in Equifax, Christopher Andrews and Davis, who both filed pro se, implied in court filings that Thrash’s attacks on their profession were the work of class counsel, who got $77.5 million in fees and costs for the deal.
Thrash’s findings about objectors and their lawyers had “nothing to do with the issues in this case,” Davis wrote, “but rather, with a bid by class counsel to obtain an order that impugns the reputations of lawyers singularly effective in limiting attorneys’ fees in class action cases, which class counsel can then cite to limit or prevent their working in subsequent cases.”
“The dignity and authority of this court should not be enlisted in service of those base ends,” he wrote.
Andrews, who previously filed motions to remove class counsel and others from the Equifax case, blamed Thrash’s “long winded rant” against objector lawyers on a “false smear campaign” lead by the lead lawyers.
“The court got bamboozled, fell for the old bait and switch-a-roo, it’s the oldest of blunders, a typical maneuver by the lawyers who are losing,” he wrote. “The court took class counsel’s email bait trick, hook, line and sinker.”
Both lawyers, and a third, Robert Clore, also insisted that the judge had his facts wrong. As to Andrews, a resident of Livonia, Michigan, who is not an attorney, Thrash noted that a federal judge in a case against Blue Cross found his court filings were not made in “good faith” and designed “to harass class counsel.” He also cited a Nov. 27 email from Andrews that class counsel submitted in the Equifax case in which he appeared to extort $400,000 to drop his appeal and resolve the Blue Cross case.
“My offer in that email to class counsel in that case was made the day after mediation failed two months ago,” Andrews wrote in a Feb. 10 notice of appeal.
Thrash also rejected what he called the “frivolous” arguments of Davis, who is from Tampa, Florida, then cited two other cases in which judges had criticized him.
Davis, in this week’s motion, disputed the importance of those cases. In a class action against Godiva Chocolatier, he wrote, Thrash relied on the remarks of a federal magistrate judge about “professional objectors who threaten to delay resolution of class action cases unless they receive extra compensation,” but a district judge ignored those findings, Davis wrote.
“Putting aside whether these cases could be cited in the first place, this court could not in any event rely on either of the cited documents as evidence to establish that Mr. Davis is a ‘professional objector,’ even if there were court orders that actually said that,” he wrote.
Objector lawyer Clore sought to distance himself from the founding partner of his firm, Bandas Law Firm. In 2019, a federal judge Illinois issued a judgment against Christopher Bandas, founder of the Corpus Christi, Texas-based firm, that limited his ability to act as a “professional objector.”
“Mr. Clore does not have any history of inappropriate conduct,” he wrote in a Jan. 23 motion to amend the judgment. “Mr. Clore has never been sanctioned for anything, including filing a frivolous objection.”
Class counsel responded by mentioning an April 5 order by a federal magistrate judge denying Clore’s pro hac vice motion in a New Jersey class action over plumbing products.
Regarding Frank, who is the director of the Center for Class Action Fairness at the Hamilton Law Institute, Thrash found that he “disseminated false and misleading information” about the Equifax settlement, using a “chat-bot” created by claims aggregator Class Action Inc. to drum up objections.
Another lawyer at his Washington, D.C., nonprofit, Melissa Holyoak, represented Frank and another objector, David Watkins, in the Equifax case.
Frank previously told the Daily Report he has “no idea what the judge thinks I said that was false and misleading.” He also said he has “no affiliation” with Class Action Inc. and called the judge’s attacks on objector lawyers “regrettable and highly irregular.”
In an email Friday, Frank noted that his organization had obtained hundreds of millions of dollars for class members in the past decade, and that other judges have praised his work. But, he wrote, he declined to make Thrash’s personal attacks part of his appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.
“Our focus is on the legal issues rather than collateral litigation over the court’s name-calling,” he wrote. “Other district court judges have said worse things about us, and it didn’t stop us from winning reversals.”