When class actions have a low settlement value relative to the size of the class, it is normal for defendants to pay out money to non-profit groups that advocate for issues relevant to the case rather than directly to class members. Last July, in “Give the Money to One Percenters, Not to Non-Profits,” I reported that 11 state Attorneys General had decided to buck this ongoing trend, asking the Third Circuit to reject a class action settlement in which Google would have paid $3 million to non-profit groups advocating for privacy rights.  The Third Circuit has not ruled on that appeal, but with a new brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the number of state AGs advocating for this change now has grown to a bipartisan group of 20.

Courts approve these “cy pres” distributions to non-profits where they find it “infeasible” to distribute money directly to class members.  The Circuits are slightly split on what it means to be “feasible,” however, and in the new brief, the AGs chastise the Ninth Circuit for approving cy pres “whenever there is a large class.”  The AGs prefer “feasible” to be synonymous with “possible,” and whenever possible, they want money to be distributed, somehow, at least to a subset of affected class members.

In the new case, In re Google Referrer Header Privacy Litigation (captioned at the Supreme Court as Frank v. Gaos, with “Frank” being Ted Frank, head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Class Action Fairness), Google would pay out $8.5 million to settle claims that it inappropriately shared user searches with third party marketers.  The Ninth Circuit “quickly disposed of the argument that the district court erred by approving a cy pres-only settlement.”  Because “[o]bjectors do not contest the value of the settlement” or plead that they suffered any out-of-pocket injury from Google’s conduct, the only question was whether it was “feasible” to distribute $8.5 million to a class with 129 million estimated members who performed searches through Google.
Continue Reading State AGs Still Really Don’t Like Cy Pres Class Action Settlements

This week, by a 2-1 vote, a Ninth Circuit panel reversed a district court’s approval of a massive class action settlement involving Hyundai’s and Kia’s allegedly inflated statements of fuel efficiency.  The majority’s long decision, over a vigorous dissent, amounted only to a “greatest hits” collection of Ninth Circuit class action and settlement skepticism.  Nothing in it was new, and importantly, the panel majority Court said explicitly that the district court could approve the settlement anew upon remand.   

Put another way:  Settlement proponents in Ninth Circuit cases are going to have to deal with this decision in In re: Hyundai and Kia Fuel Econ. Litig. for the foreseeable future, but the case really did not erect any hurdles to approval that weren’t already there.

Twenty years ago, when the asbestos bar proposed a multibillion-dollar, highly creative settlement of tens of thousands of asbestos cases, the Supreme Court bounced the settlement because the proposed class raised too many individual issues.  The Supreme Court’s holding in that case—Amchem Prods. Inc. v. Windsor—was that although federal judges need not consider the manageability of a class action trial when a settlement is proposed, a settlement class still has to satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common questions “predominate” over questions that are purely individual to each class member.  That a settlement would resolve a matter on fair terms is not enough if the settlement glosses over too many individualized issues. 
Continue Reading The Ninth Circuit’s Hyundai Decision Is Regrettable But Forgettable

Today, the New Jersey Supreme Court drove a stake into the many class actions alleging claims under New Jersey’s Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”).  That law provides for $100 in damages whenever an “aggrieved consumer” demonstrates that a contract or other document contains provisions that violate any “clearly established legal right.”  The Supreme Court’s new decision construed both of those statutory limitations in a manner that should preclude virtually all the pending class action cases. 

The decision in Dugan v. TGI Fridays, Inc. and Bozzi v. OSI Restaurant Partners concerned those restaurants’ alleged practice of not printing drink prices on their menus.  The plaintiffs alleged that keeping consumers in the dark about those prices until they received their checks allowed the restaurants to inflate drink prices by a dollar or two each.  They sued under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, and because they also contended that the menus were “notices” that violated a “clearly established right” to see prices, they sued under the TCCWNA.  An appellate court found that the claims could not proceed on a class basis because the plaintiffs’ issues were too individualized, and the Supreme Court today affirmed that holding. 

The Supreme Court began by rejecting the plaintiffs’ consumer fraud class action theories, holding that whether any person was “overcharged” and by how much could only be decided person-by-person.  The Court then engaged in an extensive discussion of the TCCWNA, laying waste to the theories under which so many plaintiffs recently have sued online and brick-and-mortar retailers for TCCWNA violations. 
Continue Reading NJ Supreme Court Disapproves Class Certification In Landmark TCCWNA Case

What should a corporation do when a class action lawsuit claims it broke the law, the group of allegedly affected people is massive, but the real-world “harm” is effectively nil?

If the lawsuit fails to state a valid claim, obviously you move to dismiss it. But what if your best arguments require expensive discovery, you can’t be certain of a victory even then, and the downside risk—such as from statutory minimum damages—is intolerable to you?

One good strategy for corporate defendants facing these situations is to settle by making corrective changes to address the alleged problem and, in lieu of what would be tiny damages payments to affected class members, contribute a palatable amount of money to non-profit groups working to protect the interests of those consumers.
Continue Reading Cy Pres Class Action Settlements Just Fine, Ninth Circuit Says

Yesterday, a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals took another step back from a circuit split over the extent to which aspiring class plaintiffs must show a “reliable and administratively feasible means of determining whether putative class members fall within the class definition,” and one judge called for scrapping that requirement altogether.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Steps Back from the Brink of a Circuit Split over “Ascertainability”

A mini-trend in food litigation last year was the spate of class action cases alleging that foods advertised as “natural” contained trace amounts of the herbicide glyphosate.  “Trace” is the operative word; to the extent plaintiffs alleged the amounts they found, those amounts always were far below even what the U.S. Department of Agriculture permits to exist in foods labeled “organic.”  The plaintiffs nevertheless argued that foods labeled as “all natural” cannot contain any traces of a biocide, no matter how small.

Continue Reading Minnesota Federal Judge Says Glyphosate Claims are “Unreasonable”

On Friday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in In re Petrobras Securities refused to adopt what it called a “’heightened’ two-part ascertainability test in class action cases.  The Second Circuit agreed that class action plaintiffs must show that ‘the class is defined with reference to objective criteria,’ but did not agree that plaintiffs

On July 5, bipartisan Attorneys General from 11 states filed an astonishing brief in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to reject the proposed class action settlement in In re Google Inc. Cookie Placement that would give settlement monies to non-profits rather than class members.

The plaintiffs in Google Cookie allege that

On Feb. 9, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee introduced a bill titled the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017” (FCALA) (H.R. 985).  Although the FCALA has a worthy goal and several provisions that build on existing, successful class action reforms, it may have too many “poison pills” to pass the Senate,

On Monday, a California federal judge enforced the California choice-of-law clause in Facebook’s online terms of use, and on that basis refused to consider the claims of a New Jersey resident that aspects of those terms of use violated New Jersey’s consumer contract disclosure law, the Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty, and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”).  The decision