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SC Supreme Court rules in favor of parties suing Attorney General over lawyers fees in $600M DOE settlement

Ruling says those denied by the lower court have standing to sue Alan Wilson after the AG paid lawyers in the case $75 million in contingency fees.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina State Supreme Court has ruled in favor of those seeking to challenge Attorney General Alan Wilson over his distribution of $75 million in lawyers fees after the state won a $600 million settlement with the US Department of Energy (DOE).

The ruling is the latest in a back-and-forth litigation between South Carolina Public Interest Foundation and John Crangle (the Appellants) against Wilson and Willoughby & Hoefer, P.A.; and Davidson, Wren & DeMasters, P.A  -- the law firms receiving the settlement fees.

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After almost six years of litigation, the State of South Carolina received $600 million from the federal government in August 2020 after the Department of Energy failed to meet a deadline to remove plutonium from the Savannah River Site (SRS). Wilson had retained Wilson and Willoughby & Hoefer, P.A.; and Davidson, Wren & DeMasters, P.A. to represent the State against the DOE. Upon securing the settlement, Wilson then transferred $75 million in attorneys' fees to the law firms.

Crangle brought a suit challenging the transfer, "claiming it was unconstitutional and unreasonable."

Wilson then challenged Crangle, saying Crangle had no standing to bring his lawsuit. 

The circuit court agreed with Wilson and dismissed the case.

Now, the State Supreme Court has ruled that Crangle does indeed have standing to challenge, based on a "threshold issue of the Attorney General's statutory authority to enter contingency fee agreements with private law firms." The Court cites that Wilson has seven other litigation retention agreements with private attorneys in pending cases -- five of those cases contain contingency fee provisions. The Court points out the recent case where the State received a $300 million settlement with opioid distributors has a contingency fee provision identical to the one in the DOE case.

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The Court -- Justices Beatty, Kitteredge, Hearn and Few -- concludes "We reverse the circuit court's finding that Appellants lack public importance standing and remand for the circuit court to consider the merits of Appellants' claims. We reiterate that nothing in this opinion should be construed as a comment or conclusion on the merits."

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