Curbing Class Action Settlement Abuses

In 2007, Facebook launched the controversial “Beacon” program, which automatically broadcast purchases made by Facebook users. The disclosures revealed embarrassing movie choices, indulgent spending habits, and even ruined the purchase of a young couple’s engagement ring.

In the subsequent class action lawsuit, a $9.5 million settlement was reached in which Facebook would pay $3 million to cover attorneys’ fees and a remaining $6.5 million would be used to set up a new charitable organization—controlled by Facebook—whose mission would be to educate the public about Internet privacy. The millions of class members, however, would get nothing.

This redistribution of settlement money from the victims to other uses is referred to as cy pres. “Cy pres” means “as near as possible,” and courts have typically used the cy pres doctrine to reform the terms of a charitable trust when the stated objective of the trust is impractical or unworkable. The use of cy pres in class action settlements—particularly those that enable the defendant to control the funds—is an emerging trend that violates the due process and free speech rights of class members.

Accordingly, class members objected to the Facebook settlement, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in approving the agreement and failed to engage in the required rigorous analysis to determine whether the settlement was “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the settlement, however, and expressed its unwillingness to inquire into the nature of the award because to do so would be “an intrusion into the parties’ negotiations.”

Now that the objecting class members have asked the Supreme Court to review the case, Cato filed an amicus brief arguing that the use of cy pres awards in class actions violates the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Specifically, due process requires—at a minimum—an opportunity for an absent plaintiff to remove himself, or “opt out,” from the class. Class members have little incentive or opportunity to learn of the existence of a class action in which they may have a legal interest, while class counsel is able to make settlement agreements that are unencumbered by an informed and participating class.

In addition, when a court approves a cy pres award as part of a class action settlement, it forces class members to endorse certain ideas, compelling speech in violation of the First Amendment. When Facebook receives money—essentially from itself—to create a privacy-oriented charity, the victim class members surrender the value of their legal claims in support of a charity controlled by the defendant. Class members are left uncompensated, while Facebook is shielded from any future claims of liability.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take the case of Marek v. Lane.