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August 26, 2016
The National Football League (NFL) has been under intense scrutiny over the safety of the game, the debilitating head trauma current and retired players suffer, and what can be done to improve safety and to take care of injured players both past and present. Former NFL players, including Junior Seau and Frank Gifford, even donated their brains for the cause. Many players have been diagnosed with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) — a disease linked to repetitive head injuries. Will Smith’s recent movie Concussion dealt with the topic. In addition, a huge lawsuit involving retired NFL players resulted in a $1 billion dollar settlement. The settlement covers around 20,000 former players.
Now, some former NFL players set to receive a portion of the $1 billion dollar settlement are suing the attorneys who represented them. They want to stop the attorneys from getting part of their portions of the settlement as payment for legal services. The NFL is a defendant with deep pockets and the plaintiffs had a legitimate, if novel, claim against them.
This is the type of case that an attorney would accept on contingency.
It is common for attorneys to accept personal injury and class action lawsuits on contingency, meaning the attorneys would only be paid for their work if the plaintiff wins money. Then, the attorney would receive a percentage of the money awarded to the plaintiff as compensation for the attorney’s work on the case. Under a standard contingency fee agreement, the attorney receives 30% of any money awarded to the client after expenses are deducted. The client is always responsible for paying any costs of litigation (such as retaining an expert witness) but they are not responsible for paying for the attorney’s time unless they win. If no settlement is reached or if the plaintiff loses at trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys risk never getting paid for the time they spent working on the case. However, if, as in this case, a huge settlement is reached— they get 30% of the money their client is awarded (or around $300 million in legal fees).
Some of the Defendant law firms admit to filing liens on the settlements of their clients. Others deny that they have filed liens, but maintain that they are entitled to payment for the work they did on behalf of their clients.
The players claim that the attorneys are not entitled to a giant payday because the players fired them prior to receiving the settlement. They allege that the attorneys were not properly representing them. In the complaint, the plaintiffs argue that the attorneys worked only for the class action settlement and not for their “individual monetary award claims.”
The structure of the lawsuit will be a relevant issue. Are the disgruntled players a part of the class action and did they forfeit their individual claims in order to become part of the class plaintiff players? Did the players actually fire their attorneys? Did the attorneys stop working on the case? If so when, and how much work had they done before being fired?
The players are going to have to prove that the attorneys did not work on their behalf, or represent them, which will be tough. Likely, the law firms will argue that they put vast amounts of time and resources into their representation and that the players want to renege on the fee agreement, which was arranged in the beginning of the representation.
The players would have an easier time winning this case in a proverbial court of public opinion. However, this case will come before a judge, and will require that the plaintiffs prove there is a legitimate reason not to pay the attorneys according to the agreement struck at the very start of their attorney/client relationship.