Thursday, September 15, 2022
Public Importance Standing
The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded a complaint filed by the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation against the state Attorney General challenging contingent fee agreements with private law firms
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson retained Respondents Willoughby & Hoefer, P.A., and Davidson, Wren & DeMasters, P.A., (collectively, the Law Firms) to represent the State in litigation against the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Wilson and the Law Firms executed a litigation retention agreement, which provided that the Law Firms were hired on a contingent fee basis. When the State settled its claims with the DOE for $600 million, Wilson transferred $75 million in attorneys' fees to the Law Firms. Appellants challenged the transfer, claiming it was unconstitutional and unreasonable. The circuit court dismissed Appellants' claims for lack of standing, and we certified the case for review of the standing issue. The merits of the underlying case are not before us.
Appellants' complaint presents a threshold issue of the Attorney General's statutory authority to enter contingency fee agreements with private law firms. This issue will inevitably arise again in the future because Wilson has seven other litigation retention agreements with private attorneys. These agreements are currently listed on the Attorney General's website, and five contain contingency fee provisions. Although the agreements differ in some respects, all contingency fee provisions persist. For example, Wilson recently announced a $300 million settlement with opioid distributors. The litigation retention agreement in that case contains a contingency fee provision identical to the one here. There is a need for future guidance as to whether subsection 1-7-150(B) authorizes the Attorney General to enter into contingency fee agreements. We therefore hold Appellants have public importance standing.
Thus a remand to address the merits. (Mike Frisch)