Lawyers representing alleged victims of Harvey Weinstein could get as much as 10 times more than some of the accusers themselves if a controversial settlement deal goes ahead, legal sources have told the Guardian.
Last week it was reported that more than 30 women accusing the disgraced Hollywood mogul of sexual misconduct had reached a tentative settlement deal. If approved in court, the settlement will bring to an end most of the civil lawsuits pending against him.
However, the agreement has drawn much criticism from lawyers and some of the accusers themselves, several of whom are now considering objecting to its terms and opting out of the agreement altogether. This comes after two years of negotiations.
Elizabeth Fegan, the lead attorney representing the women who are part of the original class action lawsuit and all future claimants who choose to join it, could receive up to 25% of the payout if the settlement goes ahead, legal observers said. They pointed out that sum could end up being 10 times or more the payment to individual victims, especially if more join the case and dilute the amount of the awards.
Lawyer Douglas Wigdor says this is one of the grounds upon which he intends to fight the proposed settlement on behalf of two of his clients who have announced they will object.
He says Fegan’s fee “could end up being significantly more than 10 times the amount” that individual plaintiffs will receive.
“She stands to make millions of dollars in attorney fees if it settles and if it doesn’t, then she’s out of luck.”
The proposed settlement is part of a $47m deal aimed at paying the Weinstein Company’s debts. Of this sum, around $6.2m would go to 18 accusers who filed cases in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. And approximately $18.5m is thought to be set aside for the class-action participants – more of whom are expected to join.
Lawyer John Clune, who has advised a number of the women who are dissatisfied with the terms, says: “It certainly doesn’t seem fair that lawyers could be getting more than their clients.
“This is one of the things that I think the judge is going to have to take a close look at.”
Fegan said in a statement to the Guardian: “Since we filed the case in November 2017, we’ve fought to forge a meaningful settlement against strong headwinds.
“As in all class actions, attorneys’ fees are ultimately determined by the judge, who must evaluate and approve the percentage. If the court awards them 25% for fees, the attorneys will receive less than the value of time spent on the case using industry standard defined billing rates.”
New Zealand model Zoe Brock told the Guardian that she intends to file an objection to the proposed settlement, becoming the fourth accuser to say publicly that she will do so.
She says she feels “hopeless and defeated” by the proposed terms, under which Weinstein would not have to pay a penny to his accusers or admit any wrongdoing. The settlement would be paid by insurance companies representing the producer’s former studio, the Weinstein Company.
Brock, who was part of the original class action filed against Weinstein in November 2017, says she feels her hands are tied. “Even if I walk away I can’t take another suit against Harvey, or anyone connected to him, because the class action has already been filed,” she said.
“I have been dealing behind the scenes with the weight of this negotiation for months and I have been very vocal about how unhappy I am about it with my legal team,” she told New Zealand radio station, Stuff.
“They have been very careful in every email and every interview to say that no one is being forced into this settlement but I feel forced … I don’t feel like I have a choice.”
Brock is among the Weinstein accusers who have sought outside advice from lawyers not involved in the settlement negotiations.
Dominique Huett, who says Weinstein sexually assaulted her in 2010, is also considering filing an objection, but is worried that if the settlement is not passed there may be no other way for accusers to be compensated.
“I’m not sure I want to sign up to this,” she said, “but I feel I need to do what’s best for the collective and don’t want to get in the way of other women who feel this is their only option.”
“It has been a very disturbing process. He [Weinstein] is still holding all of the power and all of the cards.”
Former Weinstein assistant Zelda Perkins, who reached a settlement with the producer in 1998, said: “I feel that this is exactly what happened to me all over again.”
“What’s so alarming about this is that nothing has changed. It is morally wrong that the people benefiting from this are again Harvey and the lawyers.
“The women who have already been through so much now feel they don’t have a choice … It’s absolutely heartbreaking.”
Perkins, who is now driving a campaign for the overhaul of the use of settlements in sexual harassment cases, added: “This will continue to happen with a hundred other Harvey figures if the law sector does not change.”
Perkins is one of at least eight women to have reached settlements with Weinstein over the past three decades following his alleged misconduct.
More than $12m – a quarter of the overall settlement package – will go towards legal costs for Weinstein, his brother, Bob, and other former members of their company’s board, if it goes ahead.
Wigdor says it is “patently unfair” to give a considerable sum “to the people alleged to have enabled Harvey Weinstein, while inadequately compensating the victims”.
Wigdor, who represents plaintiffs Wedil David and Kaja Sokola, who will both object to the settlement, says there is also a clause stating that if they do not participate, $1m from the fund could be given instead to Weinstein for his own defence costs.
“This is unprecedented.” he says. “There is no sexual assault case that I have ever seen or heard of in which money was going to the defendants and they were seeking to bind the non-participating members of an agreement.”
Thomas Giuffra, who represents a third objecting plaintiff, Alexandra Canosa, has described this as “so morally wrong”.
On 6 January Weinstein’s separate criminal trial is scheduled to open with jury selection in a Manhattan court.
The criminal charges against him include the alleged rape of a woman in 2013 and an accusation of forced oral sex on a similarly unnamed woman in 2006.
Weinstein has denied any claim, criminal or civil, of non-consensual sex.