Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why is Jaafar & Mahdi Law Group trying to squelch criticism of a bad class action settlement?

A class action accusing local McDonald's in Dearborn County of falsely advertising its chicken as "halal" was settled. A class member, Majed Moughni, an attorney, wrote a Facebook post complaining, inter alia:
McDonald's was going to pay $700,000 for selling "Haram" chicken sandwiches and labeling it as "Halal". The current lawyer on the case wants the the [sic] majority of the money to go to a medical center ($275,000) and a museum ($150,000), that lawyer Kassem Daklallah, wants to pocket $230,000 and the plaintiff, Ahmed Ahmed will keep $20,000. We think the money should go to you, the people who were lied to and bought and ate "Haram" chicken sandwiches, not a medical center or a museum who were not injured. ...
This seems a reasonable criticism: after all, the class is relatively small (observant Muslims who ate at the particular McDonald's restaurant), so distributing $425,000 to claimants is feasible. And, as Baby Products and the American Law Institute confirm, cy pres should be the last resort (rather than opening gambit) in a settlement. If Daklallah, his law firm, McDonald's, or their attorneys have preexisting relationships with the cy pres recipients, that would be even worse, because then the cy pres would be illusory relief. A $20,000 proposed payment to the class representative in a $0 settlement is further evidence of self-dealing.

At plaintiff's request, the Michigan state court enjoined Moughni, and forced a change to the Facebook page to put forward Ahmed's preferred view of the case. This is a scary First Amendment violation, and that the court signed off on it makes one wonder whether the court can fairly adjudicate objections to the settlement. Public Citizen is on the right side in this one, and, along with the ACLU, is litigating in favor of the objector's rights. [Public Citizen; Dan Fisher @ Forbes; Detroit Free Press]

(Of course, there are certainly strong arguments against using the consumer fraud laws to mediate a religious dispute. If the lawsuit reflects a disagreement over what constitutes "halal," courts shouldn't be adjudicating the religious question. If the lawsuit reflects an objectively false claim that a particular organization certified the food as "halal," then that's a legitimate complaint. But even if the possibly fatal flaw in the lawsuit means the settlement is necessarily small, that is no excuse for the attorneys, class representative, and unrelated third parties to capture the entirety of the value of the settlement.)

Public Citizen and the ACLU are taking no position on the fairness of the settlement, which makes sense for the strategic purpose of focusing on the First Amendment issues. Since we're not involved in the case, and will not be representing any clients in the Michigan proceedings, I hope that even the attorneys who negotiated this awful settlement will concede I have the right to speak about what I think is a breach of fiduciary duty to their clients.

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