When a user clicks on a Google search result, the web browser transmits a “referral header” to the destination website, unless a user has disabled them. The referral header contains the URL of the search results page, which includes the user’s search terms. Websites use this information for editorial and marketing purposes.
In 2010, Paloma Gaos filed a class action in the Northern District of California, seeking damages for the disclosure of her search terms to third-party websites through referral headers, claiming fraud, invasion of privacy, and breach of contract, among others. She eventually settled with Google on behalf of an estimated class of 129 million people in return for an $8.5 million settlement fund and an agreement from Google to revise its FAQ webpage to explain referral headers. Attorneys’ fees of $2.125 million were awarded out of the settlement fund, amounting to 25 percent of the fund and more than double the amount estimated based on class counsel’s actual hours worked.
But no class members other than the named plaintiffs received any money! Instead, the remainder of the settlement fund was awarded to six organizations that “promote public awareness and education, and/or…support research, development, and initiatives, related to protecting privacy on the Internet.” Three of the recipients were alma maters of class counsel.
This diversion of settlement money from the victims to causes chosen by the lawyers 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 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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the settlement, so two objecting class members, including Competitive Enterprise Institute lawyer Ted Frank (a friend of ours), have asked the Supreme Court to review the case.
Cato filed an amicus brief arguing that the use of cy pres awards in this manner 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, which constitutes a speech compulsion. The defendants receive money—essentially from themselves—to donate to a charity, and the victim class members surrender the value of their legal claims. Class members are left uncompensated, while defendants are shielded from any future claims of liability and even look better than they did before the lawsuit given their display of “corporate social responsibility.”
The Supreme Court will decide later this winter or spring whether to take up the case of Frank v. Gaos.
Thanks to research assistant Anthony Gruzdis for his help with this post.