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