New York

Uber Investigated for Investigating

** Uber Sanctioned for Their Tactics in Consumer Class Action Case **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

San Francisco, USA - May 12, 2016: Uber headquarters entrance in San Francisco with sign on the right. A woman is leaving the building through the front door. Reflections of Market street in the window.

Some interesting detours have developed in the Uber anti-trust consumer class action in the Southern District of New York (Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 1:15-cv-09796-JSR (S.D.N.Y December 12, 2015)).

The first is that the case was actually not bought against Uber, but against its CEO Travis Kalanick, possibly in order to avoid an arbitration clause in the Uber User Agreement.  Uber was successful in joining the corporation as a necessary party (Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15 CIV. 9796, 2016 WL 3509496, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 20, 2016)). The court heard argument on whether the joinder case should be subject to the Uber arbitration agreement on July 14, 2016 (Dkt. No. 91).

The second detour – and not one you’d expect – Uber and its lawyers (and the private investigative firm Ergo hired by the legal team) are accused of fraudulent conduct during their informal investigation of opposing counsel and opposing parties.  Plaintiff’s counsel began to get suspicious when his friends, colleagues and acquaintances started receiving phone calls in which, it was alleged, false statements were made that the caller was compiling a profile of up-and-coming labor lawyers in the United States.  Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15 CIV. 9796, 2016 WL 3189961, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. June 7, 2016).  Similar phone calls were allegedly made regarding the putative class representative – purportedly profiling his work as an environmental conservationist.  Plaintiff’s counsel confronted Defense counsel about these suspicious calls – and they initially responded by denying any involvement, then backtracked and admitted they had hired Ergo (but asserted that Uber or counsel did not direct Ergo to make any misrepresentations).  Id.  This was enough for the court to order discovery on what Uber and its lawyers knew and did – taking the extraordinary step of allowing depositions of Uber’s in-house legal director and Ergo over Uber’s privilege objections.  Id. at *2.  The court also ordered legal communications be turned over for in-camera review to determine if defense counsel was involved in the alleged fraud.  Id. at *3.  Following the Ergo discovery, Plaintiff’s counsel moved for sanctions under Rule 37 (Dkt. No. 103) arguing that Uber was at best reckless in its oversight of the investigation – and at worst part of the fraud.  Id. at 11.

Judge Rakoff ruled on the sanctions motion on July 29, 2016.  Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15 CIV. 9796, 2016 WL 3981369, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 25, 2016).  Judge Rakoff began his opinion and order with this salvo: “It is a sad day when, in response to the filing of a commercial lawsuit, a corporate defendant feels compelled to hire unlicensed private investigators to conduct secret personal background investigations of both the plaintiff and his counsel. It is sadder yet when these investigators flagrantly lie to friends and acquaintances of the plaintiff and his counsel in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to obtain derogatory information about them.”  Id.  Judge Rakoff noted that Uber claimed work-product privilege over relevant material – but at the same time – argued that the purpose of the investigation was not to secure derogatory information about Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s counsel (but merely to determine if there was a security threat to Uber personnel).  Id. at *4.  The court noted that Uber could not have its cake and eat it too.  If Uber wanted to allege that the purpose of the investigation was security–focused, then it was not in anticipation of litigation and the privilege did not apply.  As to the investigative methods employed by Ergo, Judge Rakoff was scathing.  He characterized lying to the target witnesses about the nature and intent of the calls as inherently fraudulent – and materially so.  Id. at *6.  He rejected the argument that a party to litigation may properly make misrepresentations in order to advance its own interests vis-a-vis its legal adversaries.  Id. at * 7.  The court further observed that Uber’s in-house and external counsel are bound by the New York Rules of Professional Conduct to adequately supervise non-lawyers retained to do work in order to ensure that the non-lawyers do not engage in actions that would be a violation of the Rules if a lawyer performed them.  Id. (citing N.Y. Rules of Professional Conduct § 5.3).  Judge Rakoff was also scornful of Ergo for not licensing in New York as a private investigative firm and for recording calls with targets located in states (Connecticut and New Hampshire, for example) where unilateral recording of conversations is illegal.  Id. at *8.  Judge Rakoff enjoined the Uber defendants from using any of the information obtained through Ergo’s investigation in any manner, including by presenting arguments or seeking discovery concerning the same and enjoined both Uber and Ergo from undertaking any further personal background investigations of individuals involved in the litigation.  Id.  The court noted that the parties had already come to a confidential agreement as to the payment by Uber of Plaintiff’s fees in bringing the motion.  Id.

Uber’s litigation detour provides some valuable insights into how judges will likely treat “enhanced investigation techniques” during formal discovery – and further proves the maxim that it is not the original scandal that gets people in the most trouble – it’s the attempted cover-up.

 

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No Parm, No Foul?

** Class actions Filed Following Bloomberg Reports of Cellulose Filling in Parmesan Cheese **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       iStock_000015614674_Medium Two putative class action lawsuits have been filed over cellulose in parmesan cheese – one in federal court in New York against Wal-Mart (Moschetta v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., S.D.N.Y., No. 16-13770) and one in the Northern District of California against the newly merged Kraft Heinz group (Lewin v. Kraft Heinz Foods Co., 316-cv-00823).  Plaintiffs’ counsel wasted no time filing their lawsuits after Bloomberg Business published a February 16, 2016 online article regarding the common practice of cheese makers adding cellulose (plant pulp) to grated parmesan cheese.  Bloomberg had various brands of grated parmesan tested by an independent laboratory and reported the results of at least some of those tests — Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese sold by Jewel-Osco tested at 8.6% cellulose, Wal-Mart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan weighed in at 7.8% cellulose, and the ubiquitous Kraft 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 3.8%.  Some grated parmesan makers list cellulose as an ingredient on their labels as an additive “to prevent caking.”  The FDA has no specific regulations regarding the amount of cellulose in grated cheeses (and most other foods), and it is a common food additive — cutting calories (it’s non-digestible), reducing fat content, and providing a source of dietary fiber.

While it is unclear what prompted Bloomberg to commission the lab tests, they came in the wake of a federal criminal prosecution of the now-defunct Castle Cheese Inc. and its CEO, Michelle Myrter, on food adulteration and misbranding charges.  Castle Cheese, however, was a different beast altogether where the problem was not only the addition of cellulose, but the fact that its parmesan cheese did not contain any parmesan at all (rather, a combination of Swiss, white cheddar, Havarti, and mozzarella – sometimes from the rinds).  A ex-employee blew the whistle on Castle, which was investigated by the FDA in 2014.  Castle declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

The U.S. parmesan business seems beset on all sides by detractors.  The  Italian Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium recently published the results of a consumer survey it commissioned that purportedly showed that Americans who viewed a package of parmesan cheese that “recalled” an Italian flag believed that Italy was the country of origin for that cheese and, even in less suggestive packaging, 38% of those surveyed believed the cheese to have been made in Italy.  The Italian consortium is taking its complaint that U.S. consumers are being duped into buying parmesan they believe is made in Italy to Brussels in the hope that they will be dealt with in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade agreement (T-TIP).  Currently, cheese makers are prevented under European Union protected designations of origin regulations (“PDOs”) from labeling their cheeses as parmesan if they are not made by dairies in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna.  If this regulation was “imported” into the US, would the millions of 4-17 year olds who dump the off-white powder onto their noodles take note?

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No New Year Cheer For “Meaningless” Class Settlements

** Second Circuit Affirms Denial of Class Certification in Low Ball Settlement of New York Fair Debt Collection Suit **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

A recent Second Circuit decision highlights the thorny issues involved in a “low dollar” class settlement.  In Gallego v. Northland Group Inc. No. 15-1666-CV (2d Cir. Feb. 22, 2016), Gallego, along with about 100,000 New York residents, received a rather perky dunning letter from defendant collection agency Northland in January 2014 declaring, “IT’S A NEW YEAR WITH NEW OPPORTUNITIES!” and inviting Gallego to settle his debt with a department store credit card company.  Rather than heralding the new year by settling the claim, Gallego rang it in by bringing a putative class action lawsuit against Northland under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).  The substance of the claim was dubious – attempting to bootstrap a technical violation of the New York City Administrative Code (not providing the name of an individual to contact) into a false representation or unfair or unconscionable means under the FDCPA.

Northland, apparently calculating that it was cheaper to settle than fight, entered into a proposed settlement with Gallego.  In addition to an attorneys’ fee cap of $35,000, Northland agreed to establish a settlement fund of $17,500 – approximately 1% of the net worth liability limit under the FDCPA.  Gallego would receive a $1,000 incentive fee and the remaining $16,500 would be distributed pro rata to class members who made a claim.  The proposed settlement dissolved if there were 50 opt outs – who could then bring individual actions under the FDCPA with statutory damages of $1,000 each plus attorney fees.

The district court denied class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) superiority observing that class members would receive 16.5 cents each while, if they brought individual actions, they might each recover $1,000 statutory damages and attorney fees. Gallego v. Northland Group Inc. 102 F.Supp.3d 506 (S.D.N.Y 2015).  The court opined that the prospects of a recovery measured in pennies would likely result in “mass indifference” among most class members who would be deterred from filing individual lawsuits or joining the class.  This could result in a few class members reaping a windfall from the settlement.  “The prospects of mass indifference, a few profiteers, and a quick fee to clever lawyers is hardly the intended outcome for Rule 23 class actions.”

On appeal, the Second Circuit agreed that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying certification.  Gallego argued that it was unlikely that all 100,000 class members would make claims so the individual class member recovery would be higher (a particularly noteworthy admission given that because Northland sent the offending letters in the first place – individual notice was practical and would likely be effective in this case) – basically agreeing with the district court that there would be “mass indifference” to the settlement.  The Court of Appeals retorted, “An expected low participation rate is hardly a selling point for a proposed classwide settlement.”  The Second Circuit went even further, determining that the district court would have been right in doubting that Gallego would “fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class,” as required by Rule 23(a)(4) pointing out that the proposed settlement included a release – not only of class members’ FDCPA claims – but all “claims arising out of any of the facts, events, occurrences, acts or omissions complained of in the Lawsuit, or other related matters . . . relating to letters sent to them that are substantially similar to the letter” received by Gallego.

It is important to reiterate that the FDCPA provides for an individual right of action with statutory damages as well as attorney fees, which are often absent from general consumer protection statutes.  This made it easy for the district court to find that the class action lawsuit was not a superior method for resolving the dispute given the proposed settlement value.  Nevertheless, the district court’s “a plague on both your houses” conclusion on class certification serves up a cautionary note:  “Because I find that certifying a class would do little more than turn [Nortland’s] settlement with Mr. Gallego into a general release of liability from all similarly situated plaintiffs at minimal extra cost while furthering a cottage industry among enterprising lawyers, class certification is denied.”

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