Plaintiff's lawyer Stephen Tillery practices law with a straight face while laughing all the way to the bank.
And why shouldn't he?
As approved in January by Judge Barbara Crowder, Tillery will pocket a cool $17 million fee from Sears to settle his 2004 class action lawsuit involving the retailer's allegedly scary stoves. The Belleville lawyer charged they were poorly designed and, if you put too much weight on an open oven door, could tip over.
Not that the ovens did tip over. That's not what Tillery alleged. His clients weren't injured, nor did they suffer damage from the stoves. Rather, they feared they could be and deserved compensation for their perceived uneasiness.
Tillery's feigned concern for kitchen safety wasn't unanimously welcome among stove owners.
An incredible 4,896 class members took time to fill out a form and opt-out of his proposed settlement, which required Sears to pay for a handyman to install "anti-tip" brackets on the tipsy stoves.
The company said it would pay owners up to $100 each for repairs, while Tillery will get his $17 million in fees upfront.
"For the first time in my career I am part of a settlement where we have achieved complete satisfaction for our class in every respect," Tillery told the court with a straight face.
In class actions, legal fees are set as a percentage of what the defendant would pay if every single class member accepted the settlement offer. However, a tiny fraction will ever do it.
Just how few, we'll never really know. It's a guarded secret among class action lawyers as to how many class members accept a settlement.
Last summer, it leaked that the class in a North Carolina lawsuit against Sears over automobile wheel alignment pricing received a grand total of $2,402 in coupons and reimbursements. The lawyers who brought the case got $950,000 in fees.
Superior Court Judge Ben Tennille was none too pleased when he heard about the case.
"The shocking incongruity between class benefit and the fees ... leave the appearance of collusion and cannot help but to tarnish the public perception of the legal profession," he said.
If only Judge Crowder, who predictably fawned over the settlement as protecting "children and elderly," was equally concerned about tarnished public perceptions.
Then she might be seen as more than a mere means to Stephen Tillery's multi-million dollar end.