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Posts Tagged ‘consumer 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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Editor’s Note: The following guest post was authored by Sara Collins, contributor to the consumer finance website, NerdWallet.  The views expressed in Sara’s article are her own.  Although those of us who tend to represent defendants in consumer class actions may not agree with all of Sara’s views on the benefits of class actions, we can certainly learn something from reading a consumer advocate’s views on the subject.  The article also provides an easy-to-follow primer on how class actions work.  Many thanks to Sara for her contribution. 

Class Actions – Do They Actually Help Consumers? 

By Sara Collins

Consumers in the United States are sometimes victims of bad business behavior. These behaviors cover a huge range of bad acts, particularly in the field of securities. Class actions allow consumers to band together and fight against bad business. As such, they have a number of benefits for consumers and are quite helpful in evening the corporation versus consumer playing field.

What are Consumer Class Actions?

A consumer class action is simply a lawsuit which takes place in a federal or state court. The case is brought by one or a small handful of individuals, acting as representatives for a larger group of consumers, known as the class. Typically the case is seeking damages on behalf of the named individuals in addition to the entire class.

Why is a Consumer Class Action Necessary?

Traditionally, class actions are used to combine small-dollar claims for a large number of people. One small claim is generally too small for a cost-effective suit. Consumer class actions offer a helpful alternative, justifying the litigation expenses and immensely improving the consumer’s odds of success, particularly when it comes to larger corporations.

How do Consumer Class Actions Work?

When a class action is first brought, the court initially decides whether it is a proper class action. This is a process known as class certification. The parties then work towards a trial, though settlement negotiations can take place at any point.  If the parties decide to settle the case, the court must approve the settlement and then order notice given to class action members.

Do Class Actions Work?

They definitely do. Billions of dollars are given back to the public every year which come from consumer class actions. In most cases, the money is given directly to the victims of the suit, rather than going into the hands of the government, lawyers or other non-consumers.

What Long-Term Effects do Consumer Class Actions Cause?

Class actions help to make bad business practices unprofitable. Class actions aggregate the power of isolated consumers, allowing class actions to compete against corporate behemoths. It levels the playing field, forcing businesses to operate in honest and trustworthy ways.  Markets in other countries where class actions are not allowed often suffer from corporate abuses like stock manipulation, insider trading and other problems.

Do Lawyers Benefit Excessively From Consumer Class Actions?

One argument used by businesses to protest the prevalence of consumer class actions is to claim that the lawyers benefit excessively from the cases. In fact, attorney fees in class action cases average just between 20 and 30 percent of the amount recovered. In stark comparison, personal injury lawyers typically reap 35 to 50 percent of their case winnings. Clearly businesses are using false arguments in an attempt to eliminate class actions and thus damages sought against them.

What is the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005?

The Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) was enacted by Congress in order to curb abuse of class action suits in state courts. Evidence showed that many class actions were being filed which benefited the counsel, rather than the consumers. Additionally, many cases were filed in courts which showed prejudice against business defendants, a problematic issue.

CAFA was enacted to extend federal jurisdiction to these state courts in order to diminish such abuses. CAFA has had a mild success and while most benefits are for businesses, some benefits are extended to consumers. Primarily, the legislation limits the monetary benefits for the attorneys. This ensures that money won in settlements goes to the members of the class, rather than the plaintiff counsel.

Consumer class actions are needed to ensure the financial safety of consumers, particularly in the realm of securities. Class actions allow consumers to band together, combining resources in order to sue a corporation as a singular entity. In turn, all consumers reap the benefits of the settlement, helping to prevent future bad behavior from the corporation in question. Class actions undoubtedly have a positive effect on the world of consumers and it is vital they stay legal for the foreseeable future.

Sara Collins is a writer for NerdWallet, a personal finance site dedicated to helping consumers learn about new ways to save money.

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An article posted by my colleagues Judy Selby and Zack Rosenberg in the BakerHostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog raises some important issues for any company that could find itself the target of a class action lawsuit.  With the proliferation of data privacy and other consumer class actions, that’s just about any company these days.  The article, titled Courts Are Liberally Construing Litigation Insurance Coverage for Class Action Defenses and So Should Defendants, addresses the important issue of liability insurance covering class action lawsuits.  

I’m often surprised in speaking with in-house attorneys and risk management personnel that they are unaware of the extent to which their current insurance coverage might protect them if they were ever sued in a class action, and that they have not considered certain types of specialty lines insurance, such as cyber risk insurance, that might protect them from potentially catastrophic liability and defense costs arising out of a class action.  This is an especially important consideration for companies in industries that aren’t frequently targeted in class actions, because those companies may not think about the benefits of insurance protection until it’s too late.

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Two readers sent me tips yesterday on important decisions from the Second and Third Circuit Courts of Appeals that will be of interest to class action practitioners:

First, John G. Papianou of the Philadelphia firm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, LLP forwarded a copy of the Third Circuit’s decision in Long v. Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., Inc., No. 11-1554 (3d Cir., Jan. 24, 2012).  The Third Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision (summarized in this February 14, 2011 CAB Post) holding that 1) the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) prohibits a merchant from printing a consumer’s expiration month (as opposed to the entire expiration date) on a credit card receipt but that 2) the standard for a willful violation of FAСTA is one of objective reasonableness, meaning that if a merchant acted in conformance with a reasonable, albeit erroneous, interpretation of the statute, it cannot be held liable for a willful violation, regardless of its subjective knowledge or intent.

Second, New York securities class action lawyer Noah L. Shube forwarded a copy of the Second Circuit’s highly anticipated decision in In Re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, No. 06-1871 (2d Cir., Feb. 1, 2012).  In that case, the Second Circuit reaffirmed its conclusion invalidating a class arbitration waiver on federal statutory grounds.  The case had been vacated and remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider in light of its recent decision in  AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  Yesterday’s decision follows a previous ruling finding the clause unenforceable, which had previously been vacated, remanded for reconsideration in light of the Court’s decision in Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010), only to be reaffirmed by the Second Circuit in a March 8, 2011 ruling (discussed in this March 9, 2011 CAB entry).  In yesterday’s decision, the Second Circuit relied on the federal law of arbitrability, a concept not squarely addressed in either of the Supreme Court’s recent class arbitration decisions, in holding the class arbitration waiver unenforceable.

The Baker Hostetler class action team is putting together a more detailed alert discussing yesterday’s decision in In re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, and I’ll post a link to that alert as soon as it is available.

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It has only been a few months since the Supreme Court issued its decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, holding that state laws holding class arbitration waivers unenforceable as against public policy are preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), and the Court is already considering a new case involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements in consumer contracts.  

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Compucredit Corp. v. Greenwood, No. 10-948, in which the issue is whether a federal law’s grant to consumers of a right to sue can be waived through an arbitration agreement.  A copy of the oral argument transcript is now available at the Court’s website.  Most of the questions were directed at issues of statutory construction under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1679 et seq., and in particular whether Congress intended that the right to sue in court be non-waivable.  The Ninth Circuit’s decision below, the limited scope of the question presented for review, and the questions posed at oral argument would all suggest that the Court is unlikely in its ultimate opinion to address some of deeper questions remaining after Conception, such as whether and under what circumstances a consumer arbitration agreement can be held unconscionable under federal law.  Then again, as aptly illustrated in Justice Scalia’s opinion in Concepcion decision, the possibility that the decision will go beyond the limited statutory questions presented and address deeper public policy issues can never be ruled out.

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Class action news has slowed a bit over the Summer months, at least compared to the non-stop action we witnessed this Spring.  But one area that has seen continued development in the past few months has been the area of class arbitration waivers, where several lower court decisions have been issued in the wake of AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.  A view of the decisions shows that class actions are far from dead, despite the dire predictions of many experts following the decision.  As my partner, John Lewis, noted in a recent interview with the AmLaw Daily, “While many people thought Concepcion was the end of the line, now we’re seeing the reaction to Conception with district courts distinguishing it on various grounds.”  Here is a quick summary of several key decisions that have interpreted or applied Concepcion:

Chen-Oster v. Goldman Sachs, Inc. (link courtesy of Justia.com) – U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York – July 7, 2011 – applying the federal common law of arbitrability in rejecting the argument that Concepcion required enforcement of class arbitration waiver in a gender discrimination pattern and practice case, holding that enforcement of the arbitration clause at issue would interfere with the enforcement of a federal substantive right.

Brown v. Ralphs Grocery Company (link courtesy of Impact Litigation Journal, which also has a  summary of the decision here) – California Court of Appeal – July 12, 2011 – holding that representative actions for state labor code violations under California’s Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) were not preempted by the FAA because Concepcion did not address preemption in cases involving PAGA’s statutory procedure and because the procedure did not involve many of the attributes of class action procedure that the Supreme Court had held were inconsistent with the purposes of arbitration.

Kanbar v. O’Melveny & Myers (link also courtesy of the AmLaw Daily) – U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California – July 21, 2011 –  holding in an employment discrimination case that notwithstanding Concepcion, an arbitration provision was unconscionable under California state law and that state law was not preempted under the FAA, but nonetheless compelling arbitration on the grounds that the plaintiff had waived her right to object to enforceability of the arbitration clause.

Cruz v. Cingular Wireless LLC – Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals – August 11, 2011 – holding that Concepcion compelled the conclusion that arbitration clause was enforceable in a case involving the same exact arbitration clause that was at issue in Concepcion (the clause in AT&T’s mobile phone contract).

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In response yesterday’s entry discussing Daniel Fisher’s article on the potential impacts of Concepcion, I got one of the best comments that I’ve ever received on this site.  It comes from Portland complex injury and consumer class action attorney David Sugerman, who blogs at www.davidsugerman.com.  Of course, I disagree with just about every word of it, but with imagery like a bunch of corporate fat cats “fixing to celebrate the opening of the all-you-can-eat trough of greed,” I could not help but re-post it here:

I’m amused. As I said to defense counsel at a large multi-national firm, I guessed that midway through the second glass of champagne, the defense bar realized it had a real problem. He is apparently looking for a new job or to transition into other areas of practice.

Your one concrete example–retail sales–is, as you know, a less viable class because of problems of ascertainment, notice, locating the class, providing notice and obtaining and distributing relief. And not all retail sales cases survive. You likely recall the Gateway case some years ago with the forced mandatory arbitration clause in the paperwork in the box that was deemed accepted upon registration?

I love the concerted talking points in the defense bar that these cases are not done. Those of us who represent consumers know better.

We also know the torrent about to be unleashed when consumers can no longer take concerted action to stop nickel and diming on high-volume, small amount claims. AT&T, Comcast, banks, utilities, credit card companies are fixing to celebrate the opening of the all-you-can-eat trough of greed.

The argument that Congressional or Executive action *might* change things proves too much. Absent such action, consumer class cases are pretty much done. The argument also illustrates the crass overreaching in SCOTUS’ opinion, with views on federalism and statutory construction that are as breathtaking as the Citizens United case.

This is really not a problem for me because I handle a wide range of consumer and plaintiff problems. But my colleagues in high-priced defense firms who defend consumer class actions for a living are likely to have problems.

So no, if I were a high end defense attorney, I wouldn’t take much comfort in Forbes view or the talking points. It’s going to get bleak out there.

Lest you doubt my dire predictions, let’s set a wager for 12 months from the decision on how many consumer class actions have been filed, how many layoffs in the defense industry, or some other agreed-upon metric that we can revisit next year.

Ok, David, friendly banter on.

First, I must say that I don’t know a single defense lawyer who owns a private jet, but I know several plaintiffs’ lawyers who do, so all this talk about “high-priced” defense firms rings a little hollow to me.

Second, defense lawyers will have jobs for as long as there are plaintiffs’ lawyers around to file lawsuits, and somehow I don’t see the plaintiffs’ bar throwing in the towel this easily.  What you may see is simply a shift in the kinds of class actions that get filed in the future, or the industries that are targeted.  I say “targeted” because in my experience trends in consumer class actions are more often driven by the creativity of the entrepreneurial trial bar than by any epidemic of corporate greed.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t well-publicized scandals involving an epidemic of corporate greed (See Enron), but they tend to generate securities or ERISA class actions, not consumer class actions.

Finally, I’ll wager you, although not for money.  Only for pride.  (I’m not made of money after all, I’m just a defense lawyer).  I’ll bet that not only don’t we see a decrease, but we’ll actually see an increase in consumer class actions over the next year.  Sort of like the rash of class actions filed just before CAFA took effect.  I’m not sure at this moment how we’ll measure this, but I’d imagine that there’s a consulting firm out there (no doubt worried about the effect Concepcion is going to have on its own bottom line) planning just the kind of research we need.

So, if you’re a consulting firm looking for a project, we’ve got a job for you (pro bono, of course)…

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