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Judge blasts plaintiff in trans-fat lawsuit vs Smucker for claiming ‘grossly excessive’ attorneys’ fees, costs

By Elaine WATSON , 20-Mar-2014
Last updated the 20-Mar-2014 at 15:11 GMT

Uncrustables frozen sandwiches have recently been reformulated to exclude partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)
Uncrustables frozen sandwiches have recently been reformulated to exclude partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)

The fees claimed by the plaintiff in a high-profile - but ultimately unsuccessful - class action lawsuit against JM Smucker over trans fats are “grossly excessive”, according to the judge handling the case.

In a lawsuit filed in 2010 (Henderson v. The J.M. Smucker Co., No. 2:10-4524), plaintiff Mary Henderson claimed Smucker violated California consumer protection laws by making health and wellness claims about Uncrustables frozen sandwiches and Crisco shortenings despite the fact that they contained trans-fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs).

(Uncrustables have recently been reformulated to exclude PHOs altogether and Smucker is working on removing them from Crisco products.)

While Henderson’s claims were dismissed in 2012, the court agreed she was still entitled to claim fees under the ‘catalyst theory’ because her lawsuit prompted Smucker to make formulation changes.

We find this request to be entirely unreasonable  

However, in a Feb 28 order , California district judge George H King said Henderson’s request for a whopping $3.25m in attorneys’ fees and $35,000 in costs was “entirely unreasonable”, and ruled that the most she was entitled to claim was $72,000 in attorneys’ fees and $19,000 in costs.

He added: “Defendant… argues that the claimed time is excessive, unnecessary, and unjustly seeks fees for aspects of the case where Plaintiff was entirely unsuccessful. We agree. We find Plaintiff’s request grossly excessive, especially in light of the limited success Plaintiff actually achieved in this lawsuit.”

For example, Henderson’s attorneys claim they spent “a staggering 112 partner hours, 29.3 associate hours, and 35.9 paralegal hours in this category [‘Settlement Conferences, Mediation, and Other Negotiations’]”, said King.

We find this request to be entirely unreasonable. Only one five hour settlement conferences and one forty-five minute follow-up phone conference were held in this case.”

Smucker: Lawsuits force food manufacturers to undergo wasteful, expensive and time-consuming litigation  

In court documents relating to a similar case filed against Smucker over trans fats (Caldera v The J.M. Smucker Company Case No. 2:12-cv-04936), Smucker claimed the suits were just money-grabbing exercises that “force food manufacturers to undergo wasteful, expensive and time-consuming litigation that cannot and will not benefit the public”.

Smucker - which makes Crisco oils and fats, Jif peanut butter and Folgers coffee - said the lawsuits were “aimed at shaking Smucker down for token class relief and massive attorneys’ fees for their efforts”.

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