This appeal presents a straightforward application of the Ninth Circuit precedent Six Mexican Workers v. Arizona Citrus Growers, 904 F.2d 1301 (9th Cir. 1990)—a precedent that the district court entirely failed to apply. For a cy pres award to a third party to be permissible it must actually be “cy pres”—as near as possible to actual class recovery. Id. at 1308. Here, there was a nationwide class of tens of millions of AOL members allegedly victimized by AOL practices, but the vast majority of the cy pres distribution went to local charities in the Los Angeles and Oklahoma areas; all of the cy pres was entirely unrelated to the class and unrelated to the claims of the case.
The potential of cy pres to create conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas for the judiciary have garnered increasing attention in recent years. See, e.g., Adam Liptak, Doling Out Other People’s Money, N.Y. TIMES (Nov. 26, 2007) (available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/26/washington/26bar.html); Martin H. Redish, et al., Cy Pres Relief and the Pathologies of the Modern Class Action: A Normative and Empirical Analysis, 62 FLA. L. REV. __ (forthcoming 2010) (available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1485047); Sam Yospe, Cy Pres Distributions in Class Action Settlements, 2009 COLUMBIA BUS. L. REV. 1014 (available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1492105); Amanda Bronstad, Cy pres awards under scrutiny, NAT’L L. J. (Aug. 11, 2008) (available at http://is.gd/dyFk0-). If courts are going to countenance cy pres distributions in class actions settlements at all, such distributions must be strictly tethered to the standard of class benefit, lest cy pres become a slush fund for plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, and judges that creates the appearance of impropriety—or worse, actual impropriety.
The problems of potential conflicts of interest are not just a hypothetical concern in the case at bar. Neither the court nor the class was informed of the conflict of interest that one of the plaintiffs was the assistant director of development for one of the cy pres recipients. And yet still another cy pres recipient was a local charity where the spouse of the district court judge sits on the board. It is not exaggerating to say that this case is a poster child for the problem of cy pres abuse: indeed, in a story on the issue, the Wall Street Journal singled out the very settlement in this case as an example. Nathan Koppel, Proposed Facebook Settlement Comes Under Fire, WALL ST. J. (Mar. 2, 2010) (available at http://is.gd/dyl7A-).
For both precedential and sound public-policy reasons, this court should reverse the approval of the proposed class action settlement as an abuse of discretion.