Friday, April 29, 2011

Illegal coupon settlement in Nevada

Daniel Greenberg of the Center for Class Action Fairness LLC has filed an objection on behalf of two class members to a coupon settlement where the attorney-fee request does not even begin to comply with the basic Class Action Fairness Act requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 1712. We are mystified how the plaintiffs intend to justify the settlement; perhaps they will contend that the $10 discount "certificates" issued to the class are not coupons. The attorneys and class representatives are asking for $1.46 million without even an attempt to predict the redemption rate of these certificates.

The case is Sobel v. Hertz Corp., No. 06-cv-545 (D. Nev.), and the fairness hearing will be in Reno May 17.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reply brief in Bachman v. A.G. Edwards coupon settlement appeal

Milberg and several other law firms collected $21 million in quick-pay fees for a Missouri state-court class action settlement that provided face value of $39 million to the class, most of which was in $8.22 coupons. The Center for Class Action Fairness appealed the rubber-stamp approval, and, on Friday, filed a reply brief in the case. Oral argument is set for May 4 in St. Louis.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gittin v. KCI USA and Calloway v. CashNetUSA class action settlements

In these two California class action settlements over debt-collection practices, one strongly suspects the attorneys are trying to rip off their clients: notwithstanding the clear requirement of Rule 23(h) and In re Mercury Interactive Securities Lit., notice is going to the class without any disclosure of the requested attorneys' fees. But in Calloway v. Cash America Net of California LLC, No. 09-CV-4858, 2011 WL 1467356 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 12, 2011), the Court ruled that the fact that the attorneys' fees were being paid separately from a common fund meant that the class would not be affected by the fee award. This is economic nonsense: the fact that a denial of a fee request will revert to the defendant instead of the plaintiff is reason to give a settlement more rather than less scrutiny. And, indeed, the settlements in these cases pay a grand total of $212,500 to class members (compared to $6,000 for the two class representatives), a tiny fraction of the statutory damages available. So how can a court say that attorneys who settle for pennies on the dollar for their clients but reserve the right for a full fee award by insisting an admission from the defendant that the plaintiffs are "prevailing parties" aren't potentially depriving the class? Imagine a hypothetical settlement where every class member gets a penny but the attorneys ask for a multiplied lodestar and get clear sailing: by Judge Seeborg's reasoning, class members have no complaint because the fees aren't coming from the class's pockets. But class members do have a complaint when attorneys settle class actions with self-serving agreements that benefit the attorneys at the expense of the class: that prevailing-party clause surely comes at a cost to class recovery.

If there's a member of one of these two classes who would like to timely object to this potential rip-off, the Center would be happy to represent them pro bono to vindicate the protections of Rule 23(h) in all class settlements. The second case is Gittin v. KCI USA, Inc., No. C-09-5843 RS (N.D. Cal.).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cobell v. Salazar

Today the Center for Class Action Fairness filed an objection to the $3.4 billion taxpayer-funded Cobell Indian trust settlement on behalf of Sisseton-Wahpeton Ovate tribe member and class member Kimberly Craven.

Congress recently held hearings in response to the class attorneys' fee request of $223 million, which was over twice the $99.9 million they promised Congress they would limit their request to. [BLT]

The fee request includes one $925/hour attorney who claims to have billed over 28,000 hours in seven years, including a 28.5-hour day. The class representatives have also requested an unprecedented $13 million payment for themselves, raising conflict-of-interest questions that could preclude settlement approval.

Ms. Craven's objection, among other issues, challenges the "upside-down" allocation methodology, where class members who have suffered the most mismanagement of their trust accounts will receive less money than equally situated class members whose trust accounts were administered appropriately.

The settlement and objection present interesting legal issues of whether Congress can constitutionally abrogate class action certification requirements and whether a mandatory class action for injunctive relief can involuntarily waive class members' rights to relief already won in court in exchange for one-size-fits-all cash payments.

The case is Cobell v. Salazar, No. 1:96-cv-1285 (TFH) (D.D.C.).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 18 press release


WASHINGTON, DC - Today the Center for Class Action Fairness LLC announced multiple victories in class action objections it filed in five class action settlements that will result in class members receiving over $5 million more than what their class attorneys were willing to negotiate.
  • In a securities class action over options backdating by Apple executives, the Center's objection to the diversion of $2.5 million of shareholder money to unrelated third parties affiliated with the lead class counsel resulted in a modification of the settlement to ensure that class members would be given first dibs on that money. In March, the parties confirmed that class members had fully claimed the additional $2.5 million, meaning that the class would receive over $16.5 million instead of $14 million. The Center's motion for an incentive payment to the objector and a share of the $2 million of attorneys' fees requested by class counsel is pending in the district court. The case is In re Apple Inc. Securities Litigation, No. C-06-5208-JF (N.D. Cal.).
  • The Center successfully objected to a settlement of a consumer fraud class action against that would have paid $117 thousand in cash and coupons to class members, but $1.05 million to the class attorneys. As a result, the parties renegotiated the settlement last month to make it easier for class members to make claims and ensure that $2.5 million in cash will be paid to the class. Preliminary review of the modified settlement is pending in the district court. The case is In re Consolidated Litigation, No. 09-cv-0045-RAJ (W.D. Wash.).
  • The Center successfully objected to a diversion of $500,000 cy pres to unrelated third parties in a class action settlement with Toyota over antitrust allegations when the district court ordered this month that that money instead be distributed to the class. The Center's objection to an excessive attorney-fee request from the common fund is pending, which could result in additional millions of dollars being distributed to class members. The case is In re New Motor Vehicles Canadian Export Antitrust Litigation, No. MDL 03-1532 (D. Me.).
  • The Center objected to a settlement that would have distributed $1.5 million in nearly worthless coupons to millions of class members, but paid the attorneys $2.9 million. In In re HP Inkjet Printer Litigation, 2011 WL 1158635 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 29, 2011), the district court agreed with the Center that class counsel's economic expert had wildly exaggerated the value of the proposed injunctive relief, and reduced the award to the class attorneys to $2.1 million. The Center is pleased with the favorable language in the opinion, but is deciding whether to appeal to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to adopt a bright-line rule that it is inappropriate for attorneys to receive more than their putative class clients.
  • In a case alleging that Costco Fuel and other gasoline retailers committed consumer fraud when they failed to disclose to consumers the law of physics that gasoline, like other liquids, expands with temperature, the parties announced a modified settlement that would provide $0 to the class while the class attorneys made a $10 million fee request. The Center renewed its objection to the settlement, presenting testimony from an economic expert, Dr. David Henderson, that class counsel's economic expert had inappropriately overvalued the worthless injunctive relief provided by the settlement. The Center further argued that it was inappropriate for the parties to expand the class without giving new notice to the new class members who had not previously had an opportunity to object. This month, the district court agreed with the last proposition, and ordered the parties to propose new notice and schedule a new fairness hearing. The case is In re Motor Fuel Temperature Sales Practices Litig., No. 07-MD-1840 (D. Kan.).
The Center for Class Action Fairness, founded in 2009, is a not-for-profit program that provides pro bono representation to consumers and shareholders aggrieved by class action attorneys who negotiate settlements that benefit themselves at the expense of their putative clients. 

Press coverage of the Center's work is available at

The Center's lead attorney, Theodore H. Frank, is available for comment on these cases and other issues relating to class actions, lawsuit abuse, and the civil justice system.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Babies "R" Us baby products antitrust class action settlement: McDonough v. Toys "R" Us

A class action against Babies "R" Us and manufacturers of upscale baby products—BabyBjorns, Britax car seats, Kids Line and Peg Perego products, Maclaren strollers, Medela breast pumps—over allegedly anticompetitive vertical price restraints has resulted in a $35.24 million settlement after the district court certified a class of consumers who purchased particular products from Toys "R" Us or Babies "R" Us since 1999 (and, occasionally, shorter time windows).

But the attorneys reserve themselves the right to ask for one third of that amount plus "expenses" plus fees for administering the settlement; the notice provides no upward bound for that amount, so for all we know class counsel (including Spector Roseman and Hagens Berman) will be asking for a majority of the fund. And notice and administration expenses come from the settlement fund, so the attorneys are seeking a commission on the notice. There is a cy pres provision entitling moneys to be used for third-party charities that the class counsel and defendants like; the notice provides no information who those third-party charities are. Because the class counsel is also seeking a third of those moneys, they have no incentive to ensure the money goes to their clients rather than to the charities that they themselves have selected. The settlement itself has a "clear sailing" agreement (¶ 26) prohibiting the defendants from challenging the fee request, so unless there are objectors, the court will be faced with an ex parte request for this skimming of millions of dollars that should be going to the class. There's also a quickpay provision: the attorneys' fees are paid immediately, but there's no obligation for the settlement fund to ever disburse to the class members. But who has the incentive to hire an expensive attorney to object?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Objectors and fee requests

We recently had two victories in two cases in front of the same judge; the question then becomes whether to submit a fee request. There's good precedent for us asking for fees in both cases on the theory that the objection "improved the process," but we take the position that class attorneys should only recover fees rationally related to the size of the class benefit achieved, so, to remain cleaner than Caesar's wife, we only ask for fees when we actually achieve a pecuniary benefit for the class, and our fee request is always on a percentage basis of the benefit. (Moreover, we only accept fees that are court-ordered, and we do not "settle" our objections unless the settlement results in a fix of the issues we objected to, i.e., we don't make quid quo pro extortionate objections for settlement money.)

A lodestar calculation is a bad idea for objections, because it encourages technical objections that don't benefit the class, and encourages wasteful litigation over fishing-expedition discovery. It's too easy to manipulate lodestar: we see this often in the class action context, where lots of low-paid temp attorneys request and review millions of pointless documents and then get "billed" at over $300/hour. Nor is it a good use of court resources to scrutinize the hourly bills for waste and duplication (which is bound to happen given the number of cases unnecessarily involving multiple law firms). The right way, and most efficient way, to align incentives is, in my view, a reasonable percentage of the recovery.

So, in one case, our only accomplishment was to reduce the exorbitant fee request; we didn't ask for fees for ourselves because the class didn't see a penny of that reduction (though a for-profit objector did request fees, as was their right). In the other case, the parties responded to our objection by modifying the settlement to partially address our concerns, and, as a result, the class received an additional $2.5 million in recovery that would have otherwise instead gone to unrelated third parties (including two schools affiliated with lead class counsel).

A year ago I said we wouldn't seek more than 4.4% in a fee request, but that was when we consisted of one attorney and one part-time volunteer; I was indifferent if we were short on cash flow in any given month, because I live a frugal life and could support myself out of my own savings and occasional poker-playing Las Vegas trips if I had to (as I did for several months). Now that I have other attorneys doing work for CCAF who do depend on CCAF for an embarrassingly below-market income, and who would suffer financially if we ever ran out of money; and now that I find CCAF having to turn down legitimate cases because of lack of resources, I'm hurting my cause by being so noble-minded. And because we only ask for fees to be deducted from class counsel's fee request, the only beneficiary of that noble-mindedness are the trial lawyers who were happy to shortchange their putative clients to begin with.

In the case where we won $2.5 million, the plaintiffs' attorneys made lots of frivolous arguments and filings that raised our costs and time-commitment substantially, and created risk that we wouldn't get any fees at all. We would have been willing to stipulate for a joint application for 3.5% of what we had won, but the plaintiffs' attorneys, embarrassed by our success, insisted on scorched-earth litigation tactics instead (including the standard offensive ad hominem name-calling), so, given the increased risk we were facing, and the increased hassle of having to collaterally litigate attorneys' fees instead of other class action settlements, we saw no reason not to request the full extent of what the law permits—a proportionate share of attorneys' fees, reflecting our contribution to the class recovery. 15% of the class recovery was directly attributable to our objection: why shouldn't we get 15% of the total amount of attorneys' fees? In this case, it works out to an 11.9% contingent-fee request, still well under the 25% benchmark for settlements of this size or the 35%+expenses we see some class attorneys abusively request.

Nevertheless, we operate largely on the basis of the generosity of our donors. If you gave us money between May 30 and today because you thought we were only going to ask for 4.4% of attorneys' fees, and do not believe you have gotten fair charitable value from your donation or are otherwise offended by our fee request, let me know, and we can discuss a refund or a modification of our request.

Friday, April 15, 2011

EA Sports Litigation (Pecover v. Electronic Arts Inc.)

Class members getting a notice for this case have been writing me. Dudes: I made my name in the Grand Theft Auto class action, of course I bought Madden and am a class member here.

This is a class action certification, rather than a settlement, so there isn't an easy way for me to get involved at this stage. At the moment, the problem is one of antitrust law, rather than class action law: as the defendant, Electronic Arts already has every incentive to litigate for a reasonable interpretation of antitrust law (and, more particularly, law geeks, the Aspen Skiing or bottleneck doctrine) without me butting in. Given my limited resources and heavy caseload (five cases have filings due in the next seven days!), I prefer to save my powder for cases—like class action settlements—where none of the parties before the court have the proper incentive to ensure the right questions get before the court unless I speak up. I would like to see more courts consider Rule 23(a)(4) in antitrust cases, since many class actions involve legal theories that would make the putative clients/consumers worse off, and a class certification is effectively a merits decision that a class member would prefer to endorse the class attorney's theory of the case. And some day in some case where the conflict is clearer and the defendant hasn't alienated me with poor customer service and buggy products, I'll make that argument. But given that courts have never considered this question before, I want the first time I make the argument to be a better test case than this one.

Rest assured, however, that I'm monitoring the case, and will not hesitate to get involved if class counsel tries to pull a fast one on their clients. (I'm naively hoping that, if I'm doing my job right, my vocal presence in the class will deter class counsel from negotiating a settlement I would object to in the first place.) If you're asking me what you should do, I can't give you individual legal advice if we don't have an attorney-client relationship, but I would note that there is no reason to ever opt out of a class action unless you plan to be suing the defendant yourself. If you're still in the class when it settles, you can always object later if the lawyers turn out to be settling the case for their benefit rather than yours.

The case number is 08-cv-2820-CW (N.D. Cal.).

Monday, April 11, 2011

Court reduces fees after CCAF objection to HP settlement

In January, we discussed a Center for Class Action Fairness objection to a coupon settlement involving HP inkjet printers. That settlement turned out to be even worse than the pathetic one advertised: $5 million in coupons were offered, but the multi-million member class only bothered to file claims for $1.5 million worth of the coupons, with the rest reverting to HP. And of course, a claim for a coupon is not an actual redemption of the coupon: my $2 coupon will likely go unused, since there's nothing HP sells on its website that isn't more than two dollars more expensive than what I can get it for elsewhere.

The attorneys asked for $2.9 million in fees and expenses, justifying it with a quack economic expert report valuing some token injunctive relief as being worth tens of millions of dollars. In a March 29 opinion, Judge Fogel rejected that valuation, held that the settlement was worth only $1.5 million to the class, and reduced the award of fees and expenses to $2.1 million.

Some of the language in the opinion is very good: all too often, courts divorce the fee inquiry from the relief actually won. As Russell Jackson points out, this court said, "To allow an award of attorneys' fees to outstrip the benefit to consumers in such cases would undermine the importance of focusing the efforts of class action counsel on issues that most affect consumers."

So why did the attorneys get $2.1 million? Because of the economic fiction of "fees" and "expenses," which are calculated differently. See, "expenses" cover things like travel, experts, and copying costs. But "fees," that covers things like rent and other overhead, attorney salaries, and paralegals. Attorneys will allocate a dollar received into one bucket or the other, and for some reason, courts will scrutinize the buckets differently, though at the end of the day, the attorneys get a single check for money that they can spend any way they want: the rent and the airlines are going to get paid either way. So the court held that the $2.9 million requested, consisting of $2.3 million in fees and $0.6 million in expenses, was unreasonable with respect to the fees, and reasonable with respect to the expenses—even though the fee request also includes money that goes to expenses, just a different category of expenses. So the attorneys got all of their "expense" request, and just had the "fee" request reduced—but still ended up with more than the class.

That's just business as usual, but there were a couple of other troubling things about the decision. The Class Action Fairness Act requires coupons to be valued by their redemption rate, not by the claim rate. Many of these coupons (such as the one I am scheduled to receive) are not going to be used; one institutional party received tens of thousands of unusable coupons because the terms of the settlement require a claimant to use only one coupon per order, and it would be infeasible for the company to split up its bulk orders to tens of thousands of individual orders.

Second, the court opinion says that there were only three objections, but this is false: there were hundreds of objections, but, because of a confusing notice, 99% of the objectors (including the institution discussed earlier) sent their objections to the claims administrator, the parties never passed along those objections to the court, and the court disregarded my complaint about the procedure in its opinion. Ironic for a consumer fraud case that the plaintiffs' attorneys successfully took advantage of a misleading notice they provided.

Should CCAF appeal this decision? An attorney commenting at Jackson's site suggests that the plaintiffs' attorneys will appeal, and if they do, we'll certainly cross-appeal. At some point CCAF will ask the appellate courts to create a bright-line rule forbidding attorneys from recovering more than their clients. Is this the case to do it?

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools Day and the New York Times

I recently treated myself to the new iPad, which arrived this week, and was looking forward to reading the NY Times this morning with that pretty iPad app, only to learn that everything is behind a paywall. The Times has been good to me over the years, but they keep getting fooled by the likes of my former client Eric Turkewitz every April 1, as his 2010 prank demonstrates. The paywall hasn't changed anything: it's totally unbelievable, but it happened again in 2011 and Popehat has the details of the hilarious prank.

Alas, I won't be able to track how the blogosphere reacts, because I'm speaking at the University of Cincinnati today: check out the webcast.