Tag: class actions

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.

Lawyers Can’t Game the Class-Action System at the Expense of Would-Be Plaintiffs

To discourage plaintiffs’ lawyers from trying to keep class-action lawsuits in state courts that have a reputation for trial awards and settlements that benefit those same lawyers, Congress passed the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.

In relevant part, CAFA provides defendants with the right to move class actions to federal court where the claim for damages against them exceeds $5 million.  But can clever lawyers keep these cases out of federal court by simply “stipulating” that potential damages are less than $5 million — and before the named plaintiff is even authorized to represent the alleged class?

In The Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, the named plaintiff in a putative insurance-recovery class action in Arkansas state court tried to avoid that removal to federal court by stipulating that his not-yet-certified class would not seek more than $5 million in damages at trial.  Notably, the stipulation is worded in such a way that it will not apply if the class definition is later altered.  Treating this stipulation as “binding,” however, implicates the Fifth Amendment due process rights of the would-be class members who are thus far absent from and unaware of the lawsuit.

After the lower federal courts denied removal, the Supreme Court took the case to determine whether a plaintiff in a class action may indeed defeat a defendant’s statutory right to federal removal under CAFA simply by stipulating to a limit on the amount in controversy.  On Monday, Cato filed an amicus brief arguing that the plaintiff and his attorneys are violating the due process rights of absent class members who would be bound by the judgment in a lawsuit that, if allowed to proceed, would end their right to sue over the same claims while simultaneously limiting their compensation under those claims.

CAFA was enacted specifically to discourage attorneys from “forum shopping” (seeking friendlier courts) and attempting to keep cases out of federal court. Lawyers who game the system by agreeing to cap damages in an effort to keep cases in more favorable state courts violate the federal due process rights of absent would-be class members, thereby flouting CAFA.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in early 2013.

Getting Class Action Rules Right Makes Markets More Efficient

Getting the rules governing class actions right means balancing the need to keep the courthouse door open for legal claims not lucrative enough to pursue individually with the need to prevent wholesale extortion by opportunistic would-be plaintiffs (and their lawyers) who know that the settlement values of class actions are generally much larger than those of individual lawsuits.

In its recent (2011) decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court reiterated that when considering whether to certify a lawsuit as a class action (which aggregates presumptive claims from a national “class” of plaintiffs), a trial court must conduct a “rigorous analysis” to determine that the putative plaintiffs satisfy the key requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23: (1) the class is so large that each potential plaintiff can’t join the suit individually (“numerosity”); (2) questions of law or fact are common to the class (“commonality”); and (3) the claims/defenses of the plaintiff representatives are typical of the class as a whole (“typicality”). Despite Dukes, many courts have fallen back on a misinterpretation of an earlier Supreme Court decision, Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, to hold that a court can’t consider at the class-certification stage any issue that will overlap with the merits of the case.

In Comcast v. Behrend, the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s certification of a class of nearly two million past and present Comcast cable customers in an antitrust action against the company. In certifying the class, the district court refused to evaluate the admissibility of testimony presented by plaintiffs’ expert witness regarding the ability to calculate class-wide damages, considering such an inquiry to go to the merits of the case. The court thus failed to conduct “rigorous analysis” with respect to that issue, and so the Supreme Court decided to review whether a class can be certified without first determining, as part of the Dukes analysis, whether a plaintiff’s methodology for calculating damages is admissible.

Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Court to clarify that what it meant in Dukes was that a full inquiry into the reliability and admissibility of expert testimony (a so-called Daubert inquiry) is required at the class-certification stage. A lower standard would obviously prejudice defendants because class certification “magnifies and strengthens the number of unmeritorious claims” and creates “insurmountable pressure on defendants to settle.” But it would also prejudice absent class members because certification based on inadmissible evidence may distort their perception of the likelihood of success and encourage the members to stay in the class. Since all class members who don’t opt out of the class are ultimately bound by a class action judgment, there’s a large potential for harm to these potentially valid claims as well.

The only way to sufficiently protect the interests of defendants and absent class members, as well as to stay faithful to the basic commonality requirement of Rule 23 — which balances the overall social interests described above — is for the Supreme Court to reverse the Third Circuit and clarify that the Daubert standard applies at the class-certification stage, not just at trial.

The Supreme Court will hear the case of Comcast v. Behrend on November 5.

Wal-Mart v. Dukes: The Court Gets One Right

In today’s decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court unanimously found that the Ninth Circuit had jumped the gun in certifying what would have been one of the largest class actions in history, a job-bias action against the giant retailer on behalf of female employees. A five-justice majority led by Justice Scalia found that the plaintiffs had clearly not met the requirements needed to have the case certified for class treatment; four dissenters led by Justice Ginsburg would have sent the case back for more consideration.

While some press commentary simplistically treated this case as a “Which Side Are You On” parable of workplace sexism, both the majority and the dissent spend much time grappling with more lawyerly issues specific to class actions as a procedural format, such as the exact role of “common questions,” whose implications will inevitably be felt in litigation far removed from the employment discrimination context. To sweep hundreds of thousands of workers (or consumers or investors) into a class as plaintiffs even if they personally have suffered no harm whatsoever – to use sexism at Arizona stores to generate back pay awards in Vermont, and statistical disparities to prove bias without allowing defendants to introduce evidence that a given worker’s treatment was fair – bends the class action mechanism beyond its proper capacity. Also to the point, it is unfair.

Because both class action law and employment discrimination law are in the end creatures of federal statute, the elected branches will have the last word. Advocates of expansive employment litigation can be expected to introduce legislation in Congress to overturn key elements of today’s decision, a strategy that has worked well for them in the past on issues like back pay, “disparate-impact” law and the scope of coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While we will soon be hearing a drumbeat to that effect, Congress should resist it, because the majority’s opinion today is to be preferred as a matter of policy, fairness, and liberty.

In particular – to take just one of the policy issues in employment law brought to center stage by today’s case – plaintiffs seek to establish that Wal-Mart’s policy of decentralized manager discretion over pay and promotions is itself an unlawful practice because (they argue) it allows too wide a scope for (unconscious or otherwise) bias on the part of store managers, notwithstanding the company’s adoption of overall policies banning sex bias. The majority led by Scalia marveled that Wal-Mart’s corporate non-policy – that is, its decision not to micromanage its local executives on personnel choices – would wind up being legally interpreted as amounting to an affirmative centralized decision to discriminate. But it’s not – and we should be glad lawyers at every big company aren’t yet insisting that every local HR decision be sent to a distant headquarters for fear of liability.

Supreme Court Rules That Arbitration Provisions Should Be Enforced

A few readers have now asked me about the “libertarian” reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that allows companies to use boilerplate contract provisions that require consumers to arbitrate any disputes individually rather than coming together as a class action for arbitration purposes (let alone being able to bring claims into court).  That is, where an individual claim isn’t worth that much money (about $30 in yesterday’s case of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion), no lawyer will take the case and so only by having a class file collectively, the argument goes, will justice be served.

The ruling broke down 5-4 on “conventional” lines, with an opinion by Justice Scalia, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, holding that the Federal Arbitration Act trumped (“preempted” by operation of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause) California law that was more favorable to the plaintiffs.   Justice Thomas also filed a concurrence, noting that “state public policy against arbitration” is not enough to revoke a contract with an arbitration agreement.  Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, arguing that certain class action waivers are unenforceable.

Here’s some more background (edited from a useful summary I received in a Heritage Foundation email):  A cellular telephone contract between the parties provided for arbitration of all disputes, but did not permit classwide arbitration.  After the Concepcions were charged sales tax on the retail value of phones provided for free under their service contact, they sued AT&T, and their suit was consolidated with a class action alleging false advertising and fraud.  The district court denied AT&T’s motion to compel arbitration.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that the Federal Arbitration Act, which makes arbitration agreements valid and enforceable except on such grounds as exist to revoke any contract, did not require arbitration because the prohibition on classwide proceedings was “unconscionable” under California law.  The Supreme Court reversed, stating that arbitration agreements must be placed on equal footing with other contracts and California’s rule was preempted by the FAA and its strong federal policy favoring informal arbitration.

I’ll leave it to my colleagues Walter Olson, our expert on civil litigation, and Roger Pilon, who has written and spoken extensively on preemption, to comment on the particulars of the opinion if they wish.  What I will say generally is that (1) we at Cato take the enforceability of contracts quite seriously, but (2) preemption is a very technical area of law that has to be examined on a case-by-case, statutory-provision-by-statutory-provision basis. See, for example, this Cato Supreme Court Review article from a few years ago, and also the relevant section of last year’s “Looking Ahead” essay that presciently previewed the Concepcion case (kudos to Erik Jaffe!).  Finally, Roger will be writing an article piece on this term’s preemption cases for the next Review – but you’ll have to wait till Constitution Day in September for that!

Google Book Search, Class Actions and the Separation of Powers

In response to yesterday’s post making the case against the Google Book Search Deal, I had spirited conversation with Google policy analyst Derek Slater, who helped me understand Google’s perspective on the case and some of the issues I discussed.

He raised a reasonable objection to my claim that “the settlement would give Google carte blanche to use these orphan works without making a serious effort to contact their owners.” He points out that the settlement stipulates that the Book Rights Registry will make an effort to locate orphan works holders and hold funds in escrow for five years to be paid to any orphan work holders who surface. Describing this as “carte blanche” was probably too strong. I think my basic point—that Google won’t be required to conduct the kind of “diligent search” for rightsholders before using a work—is still valid, but I could have made this point more carefully.

He also quibbled with my contention that the settlement would confer permanent competitive advantages on Google. I think I’m on firmer ground here; although the settlement does extend to Google’s competitors some of the advantages Google itself enjoys, the fact remains that Google would receive broad immunity from copyright lawsuits that would not be extended to Google’s competitors.

Much of our conversation focused on how various parties would be helped or harmed by the settlement. Derek explained that approving the settlement would have some worthwhile consequences: the orphan works problem would be mitigated, libraries and universities would get access to a vast database of books online, and consumers would continue to enjoy access the great product that is Google Book Search. He pointed to various provisions that give third parties access to some of the same licensing opportunities available to Google itself. And he may be right, for example, that most orphan works holders would be made better off by the settlement, since the deal would generate extra income that would be escrowed for them should they subsequently surface.

The problem is that I don’t really know how the various class members might be affected by the settlement. And more importantly, I don’t think the judge does either. The settlement is extremely complex, and it will have too many effects on too many parties for anyone to fully evaluate all of them. In the last month, we’ve seen literally dozens of parties file comments with the courts in support or opposition to the settlement. Indeed, the volume of the comment is so large that I suspect the judge is beginning to feel overwhelmed. And there are doubtless many other parties that would object to the settlement but lack the knowledge or legal savvy to submit comments.

The judicial process works well precisely because it typically makes decisions on a case-by-case basis, fitting the circumstances of each case to an evolving body of precedent. This incremental approach tends to produce a body of law that adapts well to changing circumstances while giving all affected parties the opportunity to have their interests represented. Because different cases are heard by different judges, the mistakes of any one judge won’t unduly influence the direction of the law’s evolution. The class mechanism tends to undermine these beneficial properties of our legal system. Rather than many cases being decided by many judges over a period of years, a class action lawsuit asks a single judge to render justice for thousands of plaintiffs whose individual interests can’t possibly all be represented by the attorneys presenting arguments to the judge. Especially when the proposed class is as large and heterogeneous as the plaintiffs in the Google Book Search case, the class action mechanism demands that the judge to balance the competing interests of thousands of different parties, many of whom have divergent interests. No single person could possibly weigh all the competing arguments in a systematic fashion.

Fortunately, we have an institution with the infrastructure and accountability to deal with precisely this kind of situation: the legislative branch. I think many people find the Google Book Search settlement appealing precisely because it provides an opportunity to bypass the stalemate on Capitol Hill and achieve some de facto changes in the copyright regime that lots of people (including me) regard as desirable. But this perspective misunderstands why the legislative process is so slow and cumbersome. The problem isn’t that Congress is taking a simple problem and making it more complicated than it needs to be. The problem is that orphan works reform is a genuinely difficult problem that will affect the rights of many different people. Achieving consensus is genuinely difficult, we want a slow, sprawling, messy process to make sure everyone gets a fair hearing. The Google Book Search deal wouldn’t really resolve the complex trade-offs Congress is wrestling with, it would simply put the judiciary’s thumb on the scales in favor of those who happen to have the judges ear thanks to the peculiar structure of this lawsuit. This is undoubtedly a faster way to deal with the orphan works problem, but I don’t think it’s a better one.