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Posts Tagged ‘class action’

HarrisMartin’s Data Breach Litigation Conference: The Coming of Age is scheduled for next Wednesday, March 25, 2015, at the Westin San Diego.  I’ll be speaking on a panel titled Creative Approaches to Settling Data Breach Cases with Ben Barnow of Barnow and Associates, P.C., Chicago.  So, the news this week was very timely that Target has reached a settlement in the consumer class actions arising out of its massive payment card breach.  Because a few clients and colleagues on both sides of the bar have asked for my opinion about the settlement, I thought I’d share a few thoughts here.

Settlements in data breach cases have been fairly rare up to this point, as many data breach cases have met their doom at the pleadings stage due to the inability of plaintiffs to show injury-in-fact sufficient to give them standing.  Payment Card cases have been an exception because there are real financial losses to consumers that can flow naturally from a hacking incident.  Importantly, these losses generally do not include the amount of any fraudulent card transactions because federal law limits consumer liability to $50 and the major card brands go further and impose $0 liability requirements on issuing banks.  However, other incidental losses, such as replacement card fees, interest, finance charges by other companies due to missed payments, to name a few, can result from a payment card breach.  For this reason, claims in several payment card class actions, including Target (Target Order on Motion to Dismiss) have survived motions to dismiss, leading many defendants to settle these cases.  Payment card class actions against Heartland Payment Systems, TJ Maxx, Michaels Stores, and others were all resolved by class-wide settlements.

The Target Settlement has been praised and derided by the mainstream and legal trade media with a host of characterizations ranging from “huge” to “affordable” to “tiny.”  In fact, Target’s settlement is not particularly groundbreaking beyond the media attention that it has garnered.  Instead, it shares many of the features of the payment card settlements that came before it, and it is not significantly different in terms of its cost or in terms of the benefits it would provide to consumers, if finally approved.

Here is a summary of some of the key features of the settlement:

Overall Costs to Target

Claims Fund.  Target is to pay $10M to create a fund to pay consumers who claim certain out-of-pocket losses and time spent in connection with those losses (discussed in more detail below).  The fund is non-reversionary, meaning unclaimed funds don’t go back to the defendant.  Instead, the agreement contemplates that the court will decide who unclaimed funds are to be distributed.  (For a discussion of how courts can deal with unclaimed funds, see this February 2010 CAB post.)

Attorneys’ Fees.  The plaintiffs will request court approval of up to $6.75M in fees.  Target may object to the initial request, but it may not appeal any decision by the trial court to award $6.75M or less.  Target must pay the fees awarded in addition to the $10M fund.

Settlement Expenses.  Target must pay for all settlement administrative expenses in addition to claims fund and fees.  This includes the expenses to provide both published and direct notice of the settlement to affected customers and the costs to administer claims and make payments to claimants if the settlement is finally approved.  For a class size as large as Target’s these costs can easily measure in the millions of dollars.

Total Payment by Target.  So, my guess it that the total payout by Target is likely to be closer to $19M, assuming the full amount of fees are approved.

Settlement Benefits to Consumers 

One of the attachments to the Settlement Agreement is a Distribution Plan that generally outlines the benefits available to claimants.  The Distribution Plan doesn’t itemize every conceivable loss that might qualify for compensation, but it attaches sample claim forms that give more insight into the specific benefits that are contemplated.  Most of the categories of reimbursable losses are similar to those provided for in other payment card settlements.  Here’s a summary, with some comments on each category:

  • Payment for unreimbursed, out-of-pocket expenses, with a $10,000 cap per claim – Note that due to the zero consumer liability rules on fraud losses, combined with the fact that payment card information cannot be used to commit other forms of identity theft, it is extremely unlikely that any individual person will have a claim for an amount near the cap.  If it were otherwise, then the fund would only be sufficient to pay 1000 claims.  Other payment card settlements have included individual caps for the most typical types of expenses, which rarely exceed $200 or so, with a separate fund available for extraordinary claims.  The Target settlement omits this smaller cap, perhaps because experience has shown that it is generally unnecessary to control unreasonable or fraudulent claims.
  • Payment for 2 hours of time at $10/hour associated with each type of actual loss claimed – Payments for time are an interesting feature of payment card settlements.  Because of the zero consumer liability for fraud loss imposed by the card brands, mere lost time and aggravation make up the vast majority of consumer impact in a payment card breach.  However, time and inconvenience are generally not considered injuries for which damages can be recovered, so by agreeing to pay for lost time, the defendant is agreeing to pay for something that the plaintiffs probably couldn’t recover if the case went to trial.  Nonetheless, there is nothing preventing defendants from offering these benefits in a class action settlement setting, and it has become common for defendants to offer payments for lost time.  Because claims for time are susceptible to fraud and abuse and are difficult to document, the amounts available tend to be limited to 1-3 hours.  Based on the sample claim form, the Target settlement seems to allow claims for time spent correcting fraudulent charges, but it doesn’t appear to allow claims for lost time resulting from card replacement (for example, having to change the number on automatic or recurring payments), which is something that affects far more consumers than fraud itself in the aftermath of a payment card breach.  Other payment card settlements have allowed claims for lost time for either fraud or for dealing with replacement card issues.
  • Two different types of claim forms – The settlement contemplates the ability to elect either a documented or undocumented claim.  Documented claims get priority in payment.  From a defendant’s perspective, undocumented claims are problematic, because they are susceptible to fraud and abuse.  From a consumer’s perspective, having to document claims is an added aggravation, on top of the aggravation  of having had to deal with the impact of the breach in the first place.  This structure offers a compromise that permits undocumented claims, but ensures that those claims that are documented will be paid first.

As a practical matter, given the size of the fund, it is likely that there will be plenty of money to pay all documented claims and all plausible undocumented claims.  In fact, in view of past settlements, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the amount of all legitimate claims will get even close to the $10 million available in the fund.  In the Heartland Payment Systems settlement, for example, arising out of an incident that impacted 130 million card holder accounts, the number of claims for reimbursement amounted to a grand total of $1925.  (See Judge Rosenthal’s Order in Heartland Payment Systems).  This miniscule claims amount was due undoubtedly to a lack of public familiarity with Heartland (a payment processor) as a brand and with the incident itself, two things that are certainly not true of Target, and claims rates in other settlements have certainly been higher despite having much smaller numbers of potential class members.  However, various media outlets have quoted a RAND Corporation researcher as estimating that less than $1 million of the $10 million fund will be claimed (see, for example, this article by Jason Abbruzzese at Mashable).

If he’s right, expect a fight ahead on what should happen with the $9M in unclaimed funds which, according to the agreement, “shall be distributed by the Settlement Administrator as directed by the Court.”  Cy pres anyone?

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BakerHostetler’s 2014 Year-End Review of Class Actions (and what to expect in 2015) was published on February 2, and is available for download at the firm’s website.  This annual summary is a joint effort of numerous attorneys throughout the firm, but for the second year in a row, the 2014 edition was ably edited by Dustin Dow in the firm’s Cleveland Office.

As the title suggests, the 59-page document provides a comprehensive update on the key decisions and trends in a variety of subject matter areas, including consumer protection, insurance, banking, data privacy, antitrust, securities, and labor and employment, as well the latest procedural developments impacting class action practice, both throughout the United States and abroad.

It’s free, so don’t miss it!

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In keeping with the time-honored tradition of end-of-the-year top 10 lists, I’ve assembled my annual list of the top 10 most significant class action developments below.  Whether these are actually the top 10 most significant decisions over the past year may be subject to reasonable debate, so please feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section.

1. Certiorari denied in “moldy washer” cases - In my view, the single biggest development impacting class action practice over the past year was the Court’s decision not to take on the question of “issue certification” presented in the Sears and Whirlpool “moldy washer” cases.  This non-decision opens the door for significant litigation over whether isolated issues should be certified for class treatment even where significant individual litigation would be necessary following resolution of the class wide issues.

2. Judge Posner’s class action settlement decisions – Judge Posner wins the award for the jurist having the single biggest impact on class action practice in 2014.  In addition to the Supreme Court declining to take on review of his decision in one of the “moldy washer” cases, Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Judge Posner authored two significant (and harshly worded) decisions discussing the standards for evaluating the fairness of class action settlements, including Eubank v. Pella Corp., Nos. 13-2091, -2133, 2136, -2162, 2202 (7th Cir., June 2, 2014), and Redman v. RadioShack Corp., case number 14‐1470, 14‐1471 and 14‐1658 (7th Cir., Sept. 19, 2014).  These decisions are emblematic of a more general trend in the courts of subjecting class action settlements, especially coupon settlements, to ever-greater scrutiny.

3. Basic framework remains largely unchanged after Halliburton II – One of only three Supreme Court decisions of significance on class action issues this past year, the Court largely maintained the status quo in declining to overrule the framework for evaluating “fraud on the market” theory of reliance in securities class actions.

4. Whirlpool trial ends with victory for the defendant – Not long after the Supreme Court declined review, the first of the “issue” class cases went to trial against Whirlpool.  The trial ended in a defense verdict, although as I wrote in October, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing for defendants in the long-term.

5. Court clarifies removal pleading standards in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens – In one of the Roberts Court’s most helpful class-action-related decisions, at least from a practical standpoint, the majority removed barriers to corporate defendants’ ability to remove cases under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), clarifying that jurisdictional facts need only be pled, not supported by evidence, in the notice of removal.

6. California Supreme Court issues significant decision on the use of statistical evidence to support class certification – An individual state court decision has to be pretty significant to make my annual top 10 list, but I think Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association fits the bill.  The decision is one of the most comprehensive to date in addressing the potential pitfalls of reliance on statistics as a proxy for common, class wide proof.

7. Supreme Court holds in AU Optronics that consumer actions brought by state attorneys general are not “mass actions” subject to the Class Action Fairness Act – It’s probably a misnomer to call AU Optronics a “class action” case, since the issue presented was whether actions brought by state AGs on behalf of consumers were “mass actions.”  But because the case involved interpretation of CAFA, it makes this year’s list.

8. International class and collective action litigation continues to expand – Class, collective, and multi-party actions continue to expand outside of the United States and Canada.  Examples included France joining the list of Civil Law jurisdictions in Europe to enact a “class action” law, and a group action in Austria, joined by more than 25,000 litigants, challenging Facebook privacy policies.

9. Data breach class actions proliferate – High profile data breaches and hacking incidents made news, and resulted in class actions, in 2014.  From a rash of payment card breaches impacting customers of large retailers like Target and Home Depot to the more recent Sony hacking incident, data breach class action litigation shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

10. Supreme Court grants, then dismisses, certiorari in Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi, v. IndyMac MBS, avoiding a high court ruling on the question of whether statute of repose can be tolled for absent class members under the American Pipe tolling doctrine.  In what has become a trend of the past year, this is yet another missed opportunity for the Supreme Court to address a class action issues of significance.

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Whirlpool Corporation made headlines yesterday when a Ohio federal court jury issued a verdict finding that the manufacturer’s washers did not have a defect that caused them to develop mold.  The verdict comes in the first of the “moldy washer” cases to reach a trial, following the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in 2013 that the case should be certified as a class action despite the inability to resolve the question of damages on a class wide basis.  Along with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Nos. 11-8029, 12-8030 (7th Cir., Aug. 22, 2013), the Sixth Circuit’s decision in  In re Whirlpool Corp. Front‐Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, No. 10-4188 (6th Cir. July 18, 2013) have come to epitomize the concept of “issue certification,” where a class is certified for the purpose of resolving some, but not all, of the issues in the a case.  Both the Sixth and Seventh Circuits held that classes should be certified to decide the question whether the washers had a defect, despite strong objection from the defendants, who presented evidence showing that a vast majority of washing machine purchasers had never complained about any mold problems.  Last year, the Supreme Court declined certiorari review in both cases.

The Whirlpool jury’s decision that the washers were not, in fact, defective is seemingly a huge win for the defense bar, but the verdict also provides fodder for courts to justify granting class certification on isolated issues in other cases where it is clear that individual damages trials would be necessary.  As Judge Posner rationalized in reaffirming the original decision in Butler following remand by the Supreme Court to reconsider in light of the Court’s Comcast decision:

Sears argued that most members of the plaintiff class had not experienced any mold problem. But if so, we pointed out, that was an argument not for refusing to certify the class but for certifying it and then entering a judgment that would largely exonerate Sears—a course it should welcome, as all class members who did not opt out of the class action would be bound by the judgment.

Butler, slip op. at 4.  Certainly, that is the scenario that has played out for Whirlpool, at least as to a class of Ohio purchasers (with more trials of other state-wide class claims to come).

But at what cost?  Before the litigation sees any final resolution, Whirlpool will have paid its legion of outside attorneys to defend it in MDL proceedings, motions to dismiss, class certification discovery,  class certification proceedings, two trips to the Seventh Circuit, two trips to the Supreme Court, trial preparation, trial, post-trial motions, and inevitably more appeals, all to achieve “exoneration” in the face of allegations that a small number of their customers experienced mold in their washing machines.  The plaintiffs’ attorneys will have spent a similar amount of time and efforts on their side of all of these proceedings.  And, with the plaintiffs’ attorneys vowing to press ahead with more statewide class trials, the parties are still no closer to having any clear process for resolving the dispute on a global basis.  It doesn’t take a law and economics expert to spot the inefficiencies in this process.

Although the Whirlpool verdict arguably illustrates Judge Posner’s point that the defendant could very well win on the class issue and bind the entire class, that is small consolation for other defendants facing the prospect of expensive class trial proceedings for the purpose of giving a shot at redress to a tiny fraction of its customers who may claim some small injury from a product defect, data breach, misleading label, or any other general business practice.  As much as it serves to “largely exonerate” Whirlpool, the jury’s rejection of the claimed defect calls into question the wisdom of allowing the product defect issue go forward on a class wide basis in the first place rather than requiring the individual claimants to press forward with their claims individually.

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Anyone still checking this site will have noticed a complete lack of new content lately, which is mostly the result of pure laziness on my part but partially due to the demands of several other writing projects I’ve been working on.  I’m pleased to announce that one of these articles it out, and the folks at Practical Law the Journal have graciously given permission for me to post a reprint here.  Click the following link to view the article, entitled Key Issues in Data Breach Litigation, which is featured in the October 2014 issue.  Please be sure to visit the Practical Law website to learn how to subscribe to more great content on timely legal topics.

Also, speaking of data privacy litigation, I’ll be part of a panel presenting on the topic at the ABA Institute on Class Actions next week in Chicago.  It’s not too late to register.

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The ABA-sponsored annual National Institute on Class Actions is the premier CLE conference focusing on class action trends.  This year’s event will be held on October 23 and 24 in Chicago.  I will be participating on a panel discussing trends in privacy class actions, and there are a variety of other excellent panel presentations scheduled, including a program on business development for both plaintiff’s and defense attorneys.  This year’s Showcase Program is a Town Hall Meeting with the Rule 23 Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, so if you would like to have some input into the future of Rule 23, you’d best be in attendance!   For those of you who are new to class actions, Dan Karon and Drew McGuinness are reprising their second-to-none Class Actions 101 program.

For more information and to sign up for this excellent program, please click the link below.

http://shop.americanbar.org/eBus/Default.aspx?TabID=1444&productId=211246

 

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After becoming one of the hottest trends during the latter part of the last decade, developments in international class action law have waned a bit over the past couple of years, but a new case may be changing that trend.  An Austrian law student, Max Schrems, made news earlier this week (see examples here and here) when he announced a “class action” against Facebook Ireland, the subsidiary that offers the popular social networking service outside of North America.  Schrems has filed a lawsuit in Austria seeking to pursue, on behalf of himself and other non-North American claimants, a variety of legal claims relating to Facebook’s use of consumer data as well as alleged illegal tracking and surveillance activity.  As reported yesterday by Natasha Lomas at Tech Crunch, more than 25,000 individuals have “joined” the lawsuit so far, by signing up at a website set up for that purpose and assigning their claims to Schrems.

This is by no means the first data privacy lawsuit ever filed against Facebook, and it is difficult to say at this point whether the legal claims have any prospect of success.  However, the case is intriguing from a procedural point of view because it is a suit seeking collective redress on behalf of thousands of non-North American consumers in a jurisdiction that is not known as a hotbed of class action litigation.  Many features of the case serve to illustrate differences between US-style class actions and “class actions” as they are developing in other parts of the world.  I’ve highlighted a few of them below.

Opt In Versus Opt Out

Outside common law jurisdictions like the United States, Canada, Israel, and Australia, collective action procedures generally follow an opt-in model, where each individual litigant has to take affirmative steps to participate in the lawsuit. This is a major distinction with the Rule 23 model followed in the United States, where a certified class binds all class members unless they expressly opt out of the case, and it creates a major limitation to the leverage created by grouping claims together.

Class Action through Private Contract and Novel Application of Existing Procedures

Many civil law countries lack an express mechanism for grouping large numbers of similar claims together into a single case except in very limited circumstances.  Even when specific collective action procedures exist, they can often be pursued only by a consumer association or government regulator rather than by private litigants.  Private litigants have filled the gap by entering into private agreements in which they group together on their own by assigning their individual claims contractually to a single plaintiff who will pursue the claims as a group.  Aggregation of claims by assignment has become a popular practical vehicle for pursuing group litigation, especially in continental Europe.

In Austria, a July 12, 2005 decision by the Austrian Supreme Court set out a two factor test for deciding whether assigned claims can proceed in a single case.  loosely translated, the standard requires that there be some central or significant question common to all claims, and that the factual and legal issues arising out of the individual claims be homogenous in nature as they relate to the common questions.  The Commercial Court of Vienna has applied this standard in several cases to make an initial determination of whether to “admit” the action, or in other words allow the assigned claims to proceed in a single case.  This initial evaluation does bear a resemblance to the class certification procedure applied under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, applicable to class actions in the U.S. courts.

For a more detailed description of the “Austrian-style class action” procedure, see Christian Klausegger‘s chapter on the subject in the World Class Actions book that I have shamelessly promoted on this blog since its publication in 2012.

Litigation Funding

In Austria, as in many other parts of the world, contingent fees are prohibited.  At the same time, however, court fees are often assessed based on the total amount in dispute, so the more money in dispute, the higher the fees are that have to be paid to the court, in addition to the hourly fees to be paid to counsel. These factors combined significantly limit the incentive to pursue collective litigation in these jurisdictions. They have also led litigants to have to look for alternative ways of funding litigation, the most prevalent of which is private litigation funding by a for-profit institution that is not itself a law firm.  The litigation funder finances the litigation, including payment of court fees and hourly attorney fees, in exchange for a contractual right to earn a profit if the litigation is successful.

Litigation funding is also available in the United States, but it has been slower to develop, primarily because contingent fees and agreements to advance litigation costs do not typically violate rules of ethics or public policy. In fact, the opposite is true: rules prohibiting fee-sharing with non-lawyers can make private litigation funding a tricky proposition in the United States.  As a result, private law firms have the financial means of funding litigation (either on their own or by associating with other firms) and are driven to pursue litigation without the need for financing through the promise of a percentage of the recovery if the case is successful.

The Impact of Morrison and Kiobel

The United States Supreme Court has issued two key recent decisions limiting foreign litigants’ access to the US Courts as a forum for pursuing class actions.  Limitations on access to the class action procedures available in the US courts may lead foreign litigants to experiment more frequently with alternatives  in foreign jurisdictions.  Whether the Facebook class action in Austria is part of a trend in this direction remains to be seen.

What Drives Claims for Collective Redress?

In the United States, the promise of a large contingent fee can incentivize an entrepreneurial lawyer with a creative legal theory to pursue class action litigation even in the absence of widespread public awareness of a perceived wrong.  The procedural and financial barriers to pursuing claims for collective redress largely prevent this phenomenon from occurring outside the United States, Canada, and a few other jurisdictions.  Instead, “class actions” can be pursued as a practical matter only when there is enough public outrage or concern over a particular event or business practice that large numbers of individuals are willing to take the time to participate (or when there is a sufficient number of institutional plaintiffs with the financial resources and incentive to pursue the suit, such as in certain securities fraud and competition/antitrust cases).  This means that both mainstream media and–somewhat ironically in the case of Facebook–social media have a necessary role in the success or failure of collective litigation abroad.

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