Class Settlement

No Pay, No Play

** District Court Rejects Settlement Deal That Extracts a Broad Release of Claims But Provides No Money to Class Members **

Pay writing on Keyboard

It is not common for judges to reject class settlements, usually because lawyers for the opposing sides — putting aside their adversary roles — are savvy enough not to give the judge cause.  That was not the case recently, however, in a long running homeopathic product false advertising case in the Southern District of California.  Allen v. Similasan Corp., No. 12-CV-376-BAS-JLB, 2016 WL 4249914, at *1 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 9, 2016).

The allegations in this case, which are similar to those of other recent homeopathy cases (see e.g., Nat’l Council Against Health Fraud v. King Bio Pharms., 107 Cal. App. 4th 1336, 1348 (2003); Herazo v. Whole Foods Mkt., Inc., No. 14-61909-CIV, 2015 WL 4514510, at *1 (S.D. Fla. July 24, 2015); Conrad v. Boiron, Inc., No. 13 C 7903, 2015 WL 7008136, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 12, 2015)) complain that Similasan engaged in false advertising by omission by not including on its products’ labels statements to the effect that (i) the product was not FDA approved as medically effective and (ii) the active ingredients were diluted.  Notably, neither of those disclaimers is required on homeopathic products – but even so, many companies voluntarily include them.

In Similasan, after four years of hard fought litigation  the Defendant had successfully narrowed the claims by summary judgment [Dkt. No. 142] and Plaintiffs had certified  a class [Dkt. No. 143].  Similasan, however, filed a motion to decertify, arguing that Plaintiffs would not be able to prove materiality or falsity with their expert witnesses’ survey evidence [Dkt. No. 164].  With the motion to decertify pending, the parties settled and sought judicial approval of their agreement [Dkt. No. 196].  But the settlement was not a cure the district court could swallow.  Judge Bashant noted her role in the fairness hearing was to look for “subtle signs that class counsel have allowed pursuit of their own self-interests and that of certain class members to infect the negotiations.” (2016 WL 4249914, at *3 citing In re Bluetooth Headset Prods. Liab. Litig., 654 F.3d 935, 947 (9th Cir.2011)).  In this case, the signs were not subtle, and it was not a close call for the Court to deny approval.

In particular, Judge Bashant took exception to the following features of the proposed agreement:

  • The remedy for the unnamed class was injunctive relief only. While the company agreed to add the disclaimers that Plaintiffs’ counsel had complained were omitted, Similasan was not required to compensate class members;
  • The only money went to the class representatives who would pocket $2,500.00 each and Plaintiff’s counsel who secured a clear-sailing agreement which would permit an award of fees in excess of $550,000.00;
  • In exchange for injunctive relief, class members released Similasan from all claims identified in the complaint;
  • The release covered a nationwide class even though the Court had certified a California class only.

These settlement terms were not good enough for the Court.  The class was being asked to give up the right to sue but receiving nothing in return.  Indeed, to the extent the remedy was an injunction, a class member who opted out would receive the same benefit without forfeiting any rights.  Tellingly, eight State Attorneys General (Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Wyoming) filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to reject the proposed settlement. [Dkt. No. 219].

The Court also discussed the role that notice (or lack thereof) played in its decision making.  The Court observed that the proposed class would have been in the tens of thousands [Dkt. No. 216], but the settlement notice prompted only 136 views of the settlement information website and 21 phone calls to the settlement hotline.  The Court attributed this lackluster response to the weakness of the notice, which consisted of a single ad in USA Today and some incidental online placements.  But the reality is the paucity of the economic return (i.e. zero) likely resulted in mass indifference.

 

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A Lodestar Off Our Mind!

** The California Supreme Court endorses the Percentage of Common Fund Approach for Class Action Settlements **                                                                                                                                                                                        

4427950_HiResIn a decision that consumer class action lawyers have been on pins and needles awaiting, the California Supreme Court just issued its opinion in Lafitte v. Robert Half Int’l Inc, Cal., No. S222996 (Aug. 11, 2016) regarding the proper way to determine attorney fee awards in common fund cases.  The Court concluded that the percentage of the fund method favored by plaintiffs’ class action lawyers (and, frankly, defense attorneys who settle consumer class actions by agreeing to a common fund) is alive and well.

For the past several years, objectors to class action settlements in California have become increasingly vocal with their criticism of this prevalent class action settlement device that creates a fund to compensate class members and pay class counsel (and sometimes claims administration costs as well).  In consumer fraud actions, after compensation to the class has been negotiated, additional money is placed in the common fund to compensate class counsel for their work on the case – typically 25% of the entire fund amount. Critics of the percentage of the common fund approach argue that it incentivizes plaintiffs’ counsel to put their interests ahead of class members (see e.g., Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations (1776)) and settle cases quickly in an amount that may not fully compensate class members in order to avoid otherwise needless effort in obtaining their fee.

Lafitte was a wage and hour case against Robert Half, the well-known staffing company.  The parties preliminarily settled the lawsuit by establishing a $19 million settlement fund that included a “clear sailing” provision for attorney fees of $6,333,333 – 33% of the common fund.  (Because courts must rule on the reasonableness of fees, a plaintiff and defendant settling a class action cannot agree on the plaintiff’s attorney’s fee award.  Instead, the defendant will sometimes agree that it will not oppose a specific fee award – giving plaintiff’s counsel “clear sailing” toward their requested fee.)

One of the class members in Lafitte thought the $6+ million award was a bit rich and believed it was not sufficiently justified or substantiated by class counsel, who relied primarily on the fact that 33% was within the range of typical class action settlement awards (20%-50%).  The class member filed an objection to that effect citing Serrano v. Priest (1977) 20 Cal.3d 25 (“Serrano III”) for the proposition that fee awards must be calculated on the basis of time spent by the attorneys on the case plus a multiplier.  The Los Angeles Superior Court denied the class member’s objection determining that a percentage of the common fund was the correct approach but double-checking it against the reasonable fee class counsel would have charged if it was a billable hour case – the “lodestar.”  The court analyzed plaintiff’s counsel’s billing records and concluded that the lodestar was between $2,968,620 and $3,118,620.  The gap between the lodestar amount and the $6,333,333 percentage fee was closed by applying a multiplier of between 2.03 and 2.13.  Why apply a multiplier?   To compensate class counsel “for the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (2) the skill displayed in presenting them, (3) the extent to which the nature of the litigation precluded other employment by the attorneys, (4) the contingent nature of the fee award.”  Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1132 (2001) (citing Serrano III).

Viewing the “double check” methodology with Pope’s “jaundiced eye,” one might conclude that – because the multiplier is completely subjective – a court can always engineer a proposed percentage fee award in a class action settlement with the lodestar analysis.  This is precisely what the objector argued.  Any student of algebra can solve this simple equation where the contingent fee award and lodestar fee are known:

contingent fee award = lodestar fee x multiplier

In Lafitte, the California Supreme Court charted the birth, death and resurrection of the common fund percentage approach for attorney fee awards throughout legal history — at least from 1966 when Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 was amended so as to usher in the modern class action.  The Court also carefully analyzed the pros and cons of each approach.  For those keeping score:  Lodestar MethodPros:  (1) better accountability from class counsel for case handling, (2) encourages class counsel to pursue marginal increases in class recovery; Cons:  (1)  discourages early settlement, (2) consumes judicial resources in reviewing class counsel’s timesheets; Percentage MethodPros:  (1) easy to calculate, (2) creates reasonable expectations for class counsel in terms of recovery, (3) encourages early settlement; Cons:  (1) encourages class counsel to settle too early for a reduced amount, (2) may create a windfall when the common fund is very large.  After this detailed analysis, the Court concluded, “[W]e clarify today that use of the percentage method to calculate a fee in a common fund case, where the award serves to spread the attorney fee among all the beneficiaries of the fund, does not in itself constitute an abuse of discretion.”  Moreover, “[T]rial courts have discretion to conduct a lodestar cross-check on a percentage fee . . . [but]; they also retain the discretion to forgo a lodestar cross-check and use other means to evaluate the reasonableness of a requested percentage fee.”  The Lafitte Court acknowledged that Serrano III may have caused confusion on the issue, but limited Serrano III’s lodestar requirement to cases involving enforcement of statutes with fee-shifting provisions – for example, where prosecution of the case “has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest.”  Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §1021.5.

Before California consumer class action lawyers fire up their calculators, however, a few words of warning are in order.  First and foremost, the Lafitte Court did not dispense with the fundamental requirement that the fee award be reasonable.  While the Court’s opinion does not require a lodestar double check, it does mandate that the trial court use some means to evaluate the reasonableness of the fee.  Interestingly, the Court shied away from endorsing the “sliding scale” approach sometimes employed in class action settlements to promote reasonableness where the fee percentage decreases as the settlement increases in amount:  “[W]e do not mean to endorse the use of a sliding percentage scale. That issue is not before us and is not without controversy.” In addition, the California Supreme Court made clear that its ruling does not inform whether and how a contingent fee can be applied where there is no common fund – i.e., where class counsel argues for a “’constructive common fund’ created by the defendant‘s agreement to pay claims made by class members and, separately, to  pay class counsel a reasonable fee as determined by the court.”

Most importantly for counsel who settle consumer class actions, the Court stated that its decision does not apply to a case where “a settlement agreement establishes a fund but provides that portions not distributed in claims revert to the defendant or be distributed to a third party or the state, making the fund‘s value to the class depend on how many claims are made and allowed.”   Because it is often the case that the common fund settlement amount in a consumer class action includes more money (even minus class counsel fees and administration costs) than is needed to compensate class members’ claims, such settlements often include cy pres provisions requiring that left-over money not claimed by class members (or eaten up by fees and costs) be donated to a specific charity.  Cy pres provisions are employed to:  (1) convince the court deciding whether to approve the settlement that the amount is “real” in that the defendant isn’t getting any of it back; and (2) establish a concrete settlement number on which to apply the attorney fee percentage.  The Lafitte Court grounded its decision to approve the percentage of fund method on the basis that “the percentage of the fund method more accurately reflects the results achieved.”  But if cash in the settlement fund ends up going to a charity – no matter how worthy the cause – does this amount “reflect the results achieved” for the class?  No doubt, given the ever-increasing use of cy pres provisions in consumer class actions, we will almost certainly learn the answer to this question in the very near future.

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Hitting Back at Class Settlement Objectors

**Plaintiff Class Counsel Seek Sanctions Against Alleged “Lawyer-Driven” Objections to its Becks Beer Settlement**

Plaintiff’s Class Counsel have been successfully using the threat of sanctions to ward off late game class objectors.  See prior post.  Another recent case has highlighted the issue.  In 2013 Beck’s Beer was sued under the theory that it’s packaging claims such as “originated in Germany” with “German quality” and “export bier” implied that the beer was a German import.  And certainly while that was true at one time, after 2008 the Beck’s Beer label was sold to the Belgian brewer Interbrew which later merged with American giant Anheuser Busch – and production of the beer moved to the U.S (in fact Beck’s Beer is brewed in the same facility as the synonymous American: Budweiser).  Plaintiff’s sued on allegations of false advertising and a class settlement was reached in June 2015: the settlement allowed a maximum award of $50 per household (less for those consumers without proof of purchase).  Marty v. Anheuser-Busch Companies, 1:13-cv-23656-JJO (S.D. Fl. June 18, 2015) ECF No. 149.  The class settlement was capped at $20 million and the attorneys’ fees were set at $3.5 million.  Id.  Class member Rene Muller (through his counsel Stephen Field) filed a settlement objection – claiming, generally, that the settlement terms were inflated and that attorney fees were too high.  Id. at ECF No. 161 (September 29, 2015).  The Court considered the objection, held a fairness hearing and overruled the objections.  Id. at ECF No. 171 (October 22, 2015).  It then granted final settlement approval.  Id. at ECF No. 172 (October 22, 2015).  Class counsel however were not satisfied – they took the deposition of Muller who (class counsel alleges) revealed that he generally knew nothing about the case, or the settlement, or his objection and was interested merely in a payoff (similar to a payoff he had received in a previous class action objection).  Id. at ECF No. 174 (November 12, 2015).  As such – class counsel sought sanctions against Muller’s attorney Stephen Field under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 which provides that: “[a]ny attorney . . . who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct.”  Id.  Essentially, class counsel has argued that the only rational explanation for the objectors threadbare knowledge of his objection – was that the attorney Stephen Field put him up to it – in hope of a hefty settlement.  Id.  Field has opposed the Motion for Sanctions, amongst other things, noting the inherent irony of Plaintiff’s class counsel (who seek to get paid to settle suits) asking for sanctions against him for doing inherently the same thing.  Id. at ECF No. 177 (November 30, 2015).  The matter of sanctions is currently under advisement.

 

 

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Stop the Press – Lawyers Fighting Over Fees

**Plaintiffs’ Counsel for Class of Student Athletes Seeks Sanctions Against Late-in-the-Game Class Objectors’ Bid to Derail Settlement in Landmark NCAA College Football Case in the Northern District of California** . . .                                                                                                                                                                          

One of the blockbuster class actions cases of the last few years appeared to be settled in August of this year when Judge Wilken approved the settlement motion between Electronic Arts Inc., the National Collegiate Athletic Association and a class of former players whose names and likenesses were “licensed” (without compensation to the players) for use in video games.  O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 4:09-cv-03329-CW, ECF No. 429 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 19, 2015).  Plaintiff’s counsel sued on the basis that the players’ “right of publicity” was unlawfully expropriated – and after 6 years of litigation – a $60 million settlement was agreed.  Id.  (This settlement should not be confused with the bifurcated issues of anti-trust violations by the NCAA also bought in this suit – which has recently been affirmed in part by the Ninth Circuit in favor of the athletes.)  Of the $60 million settlement in this “right of publicity” suit – the named class representatives (including name lead Plaintiff UCLA great Ed O’Bannon) will get incentive awards ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 and the balance split amongst approximately 20,000 college athletes who made claims.  Of course that is after attorney fees which were set at $17.8 million.  But not so fast.  Plaintiff counsel still had to deal with objectors who filed an appeal to the approval with the Ninth Circuit.  O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, No. 15-16860 (9th Cir. October 10, 2015).  On October 28, 2015, Plaintiff’s counsel made a pre-emptive strike: filing a scathing motion for sanctions.  Id. at ECF No. 9. The sanction motion makes a number of allegations against Objectors’ counsel – leaving little to the imagination – (and is worth the read).  Interestingly, Plaintiff counsel did not just seek dismissal of the appeal – they sought an award of sanctions – and engaged an expert to measure the “cost” of the delay in distributing the $60 million caused by objectors’ appeal.  The expert came up with this cost – $55,109.00.  Unsurprisingly, a week after Class counsels’ motion for sanctions Objectors stipulated to withdraw their appeal.

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That Settling Feeling – Private Settlement of Auto-Renewal Cases in California

payment

**Many high profile companies have had California Bus. & Prof. Code § 17600 Auto Renewal cases bought against them recently – from Spotify to Tinder – the trend among these companies has been to settle – and settle privately**                                                                                                                                                                                        

In December 2010, California entered into effect its Auto-Renewal Law (“ARL”) (California Bus. & Prof. Code § 17600 et seq) intended to protect consumers from unwanted charges for ongoing subscription fees, i.e. such as those used by online subscription services.  The law does not outlaw the practice of auto-renewal altogether, however it creates an onus on subscription services to present auto-renew terms in a “clear and conspicuous manner”; to obtain affirmative consent to payment terms; and to provide an easy-to-use mechanism for cancelation.  See § 17602.  The ARL creates a novel (and as yet judicially untested): if the consumer doesn’t give the affirmative consent required by the statute, the “the goods, wares, merchandise, or products shall for all purposes be deemed an unconditional gift . . . .” See § 17603.  With the popularity of the subscription service business model in the new economy, it was probably inevitable that Plaintiff lawyers would pick up on this law as a basis for purported consumer class action suits.  As listed below, most of the big name online subscription companies – in media, data, shopping and dating – have been targeted.  The majority response to date, has been to settle – quickly and privately.

  • In Vemma Nutrition’s case (D. Cal Case No. 3:13CV02731) the ARL complaint was filed 11/14/2013 and on 5/20/2014 a joint motion to dismiss under Rule 41 ended the case.
  • As to Spotify the case against it initially bought in the Superior Court, San Francisco County CGC-13-535309 was removed to Federal Court. (N.D. Cal) 3:13-cv-05653-CRB on 12/6/2013 and on 7/16/2014 a joint motion to dismiss under Rule 41 was filed.
  • With Dropbox the case filed Superior Court, San Francisco County, No. CGC-14-537731 was removed to Federal Court. (N.D. Cal) 3:14-cv-01453-CRB on 3/28/2015 and on 6/27/2014 a stipulated dismissal
  • In the case filed against Tinder (C. D. Cal. Case No. 2:15-cv-03175) in response to the Complaint filed 4/28/2015, the matter was voluntarily dismissed on 7/21/15
  • For Defendants American Automobile Association (D. Cal. Case No. 3:15-cv-00246) with respect to the complaint filed 2/6/2015 the matter was voluntarily dismissed on 3/23/15.
  • LifeLock’s case filed 2/2/2015 (D. Cal. Case No. 3:15-cv-00220) was voluntarily dismissed 5/11/15.
  • As to Blizzard Entertainment (D. Cal. Case No. 3:15-cv-00230) the complaint filed 2/5/2015 was voluntarily dismissed on 8/3/2015
  • The Birchbox case (S.D. Cal. Case No. 3:15-cv-00498) is currently stayed pending mediation.

The trend here is, first, get out of state court!  California state rules mandate judicial approval (and thus public disclosure) of the private settlement of a purported class action – even in its pre-certification infancy.  Cal. Rules of Court S  3.770; see Cal. Prac. Guide Civ. Pro. Ch. 14-C, Cal. Civ. Prac. Procedure § 32:18, see discussion Pirjada v. Superior Court, 134 Cal. Rptr. 3d 74, 81-82 (Cal. Ct. App. 2011).  This generally prevents a truly confidential settlement.  However, in Federal Court, only a certified class settlement needs court approval.  See Rule 23(e); Eckert v. Equitable Life Assurance Soc’y, 227 F.R.D. 60, 62 (E.D.N.Y. 2005); see also Wasserman, Secret Class Action Settlements, 31 Rev. Litig. 889, 901 (2012).  And if the parties can agree prior to an Answer being filed – all the better – the dismissal itself does not need court approval.  Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(i); Commercial Space Mgmt. Co., Inc. v. Boeing Co., Inc., 193 F.3d 1074, 1077 (9th Cir. 1999); Bailey v. Shell W. E&P, Inc., 609 F.3d 710, 719 (5th Cir. 2010). The second trend here is obvious – early – private settlement.

That’s not to say that Defendants are not coming out swinging.  One litigation trend is for Defendants to use the arbitration provision in their terms and conditions to force the case out of court.  In this vein Guthy-Renker’s case in Superior Court, Los Angeles County BC499558, the defense has moved to compel arbitration – a hearing on the motion to compel is 10/19/2015.  In the case of Hulu,  Superior Court, Los Angeles County BC540053 on 8/11/2015 the court entered an order to compel arbitration – this is currently under appeal.

Not surprisingly behemoths Google and Apple have also both been sued under the ARL.  Neither seem content to settle and are both actively defending the cases.  See Mayron v. Google, Inc., Superior Court, Santa Clara County 1-15-CV-275940 demurrer filed 7/20/2015, hearing scheduled for December 4, 2015; see also Siciano v. Apple, Superior Court, Santa Clara County 1-13-CV-257676 on 4/20/2015 the Court overruled Apple’s demurrer and the case is set for case management conference on November 13, 2015.

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