As reported in the San Francisco Daily Journal, (subscription required), there is a wide disparity in attorney fees awarded in class actions. Though many jurisdictions provide fee award guidelines, judges are largely left to their discretion to decide what is fair.

The Journal reports that several recent awards have raised eyebrows. For example, an Arizona federal court last month approved $50 million in fees for securities firm Barrack, Rodos & Bacine after it achieved a $145 million settlement against the Apollo Group, Inc. for misleading investors. That fee far exceeded the amount awarded to lawyers who recovered four times as much for Countrywide Financial investors last year.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has established a guideline that fee awards should be set at approximately 25 percent of the final award, the Journal reports. Judges, however, have discretion to assess factors such as the amount of time attorneys actually worked, and reasonable rates and expenses.

The firm Robbins Geller recently drew the ire of U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush for unreasonable expenses. The Journal reports that the judge threatened sanctions upon discovering that the firm sought $125,000 for an in-house investigator that was paid only $30,000. The lawyers also sought reimbursement for a $400 meal that included an expensive wine.

According to the Journal, cost markups are a common practice, especially among plaintiffs firms that attempt to cover overhead from costly litigation. Defense firms are not immune from the practice either, though their clients are more likely to monitor the invoices for unjustified expenses.

The Journal reports that class members sometimes must file objections to fee awards in order to learn the details of a request. That happened in the New York federal case of Cassese v. Washington Mutual, Inc., where the relationship between plaintiffs and their attorneys deteriorated to the point that the firm sought to depose its former clients. The judge eventually ordered the firm to pay plaintiffs’ new lawyer nearly $19,000 for his costs in opposing the deposition.