Posts Tagged ‘statutory damages’

The October 2015 United States Supreme Court Term is already well underway, and there are several cases on the docket that could have a significant impact on class action practice.  Here is a summary of the three cases this term that I think could have the biggest impact on class action practice going forward:

Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, No. 14-857

The Campbell-Ewald case addresses the tactic known as “picking-off” named plaintiffs in class actions, and deals with the question whether an offer of judgment that would provide a named plaintiff complete relief is sufficient to moot the plaintiffs’ claim, even if it is not accepted.  The case follows the Court’s 2013 decision in Genesis Healthcare v. Symczyk, where the majority opinion assumed, without deciding, that an offer of judgment had mooted the named plaintiffs’ claim in an FLSA collective action, based on a finding that the issue had been waived below.

Oral argument in Campbell-Ewald was held in October.  Justices Alito, Scalia, and Chief Justice Roberts all displayed open hostility to the plaintiffs’ position that she should be allowed to litigate the case even after the defendant had offered everything she hoped to achieve for herself in the case.  Despite these views, however, it remains to be seen whether a majority of the court will ultimately hold that any unaccepted offer of settlement is sufficient to actually moot the plaintiffs’ claim under Article III, or whether the decision will fall short of reaching that sweeping question.  Some of the questions posed by likely swing voter, Justice Kennedy, suggest that he agrees with his conservative colleagues that a litigant who has been offered full relief should not be permitted to proceed with the case, but other questions reflected a reluctance to treat an unaccepted offer the same as a judgment.  This suggests that the Court’s ultimate decision could turn on a more technical procedural analysis rather than the broader and more abstract question of whether a controversy can ever exist following an offer of full relief, but of course the questions posed during oral argument do not always signal the Court’s ultimate analysis.

When the Supreme Court originally granted cert in Campbell-Ewald, there appeared to be a split in the circuits on this question, but since then, the circuits have become aligned with the view that an unaccepted offer in a proposed class action does not moot the named plaintiffs’ claims.  A contrary ruling by the Supreme Court would revive a powerful tool that defendants could wield to effectively preempt many types of consumer class actions, especially those seeking statutory damages for small individual amounts.

Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339

Spokeo has been hailed as a case with the potential to end “no-injury” class actions.  Ostensibly at issue is whether Congress has the power to enact legislation that gives a private plaintiff the right to seek statutory damages despite the lack of any concrete injury.  A decision could therefore potentially have a significant impact on class actions brought under a variety of federal statutes that provide a private right of action to recover statutory damages upon proof of a violation, one that goes beyond the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the statute at issue in Spokeo.

However, during today’s oral argument, much of the questioning focused on whether the named plaintiff had, in fact, suffered an injury by alleging that false information had been published on his credit report, and the extent to which Congress actually intended to limit the private right of action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to persons who could show an actual injury.  It seems likely that the outcome of the case will turn on the majority’s view of those two factors.

Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146

Tyson Foods offers the Court an opportunity to further elaborate on the concept of “trial by formula”, discussed in Justice Scalia’s 2011 opinion in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, as well as the standards governing expert testimony at the class certification phase, which the Court touched upon but did not  ultimately address directly in both Wal-Mart and again in the 2013 decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.  It also raises the question whether it is ever proper to certify a damages class that includes individual plaintiffs that undisputedly lack any injury or damages.

Specifically, the Court granted certiorari on the following two questions:

I. Whether differences among individual class members may be ignored and a class action certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified under the Fair Labor Standards Act, where liability and damages will be determined with statistical techniques that presume all class members are identical to the average observed in a sample; and

II. Whether a class action may be certified or maintained under Rule 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified or maintained under the Fair Labor Standards Act, when the class contains hundreds of members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages.

Oral argument in Tyson Foods is set for next Monday, November 10.

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This is the fifth of what will be six posts summarizing my notes of the six presentations at the ABA’s 16th Annual Class Actions Institute held last month in Chicago.  For more on this excellent conference, see my October 31, November 5, November 6, and November 18 CAB posts.

Session 4 was one of the highlights of the conference for me, as it covered a hot area of class action litigation that has recently become a focus of my own practice and likely a focus for many readers of this blog: privacy class actions.  It was titled “My Kind of Case, Pri-va-cy Claims,” The Hottest New Trend in Class-Action Litigation.  Fred Burnside moderated another excellent panel, which consisted of his partner Stephen M. Rummage, who offered a defense view, Jay Edelson, who offered the plaintiff’s view, and the Honorable James F. Holderman, who offered insights from the bench.

Privacy cases can roughly be broken down into two categories: 1) cases involving alleged negligence, such was when consumer data is stolen or compromised through hacking or theft, and 2) intentional breaches of privacy, such as through the sale of private information for marketing purposes.  The panel covered both types of cases.

Data Breach Cases Arising Out of Alleged Negligence

Much of the early jurisprudence in this area has related to the question of whether a breach of privacy without any financial loss is a cognizable injury sufficient to confer standing on a plaintiff.  In general, many of the federal district courts that have dismissed data breach class actions due to a failure to allege or prove injury have done on Article III standing grounds.  However, there are signs that this tide could be turning.  A specific example is the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Resnick v. AvMed, Inc., No. 11-13694 (11th Cir. Sept. 5, 2012), in which the court overturned the dismissal of a data breach complaint on the grounds that allegations of actual identity theft resulting from information on a stolen computer was sufficient injury to confer standing. 

The Resnick decision also illustrates a developing theory of relief in data breach cases, which is the theory that a failure to protect customer data amounts to unjust enrichment or breach of an implied contract.  One of the theories in Resnick was that a portion of the health insurance premiums that the plaintiff had paid to the defendant was in exchange for the defendant’s promise to safeguard the plaintiff’s private information and that the defendant would be unjustly enriched by being allowed to keep the full value of the premiums due to its alleged failure to protect the data from theft.  The Eleventh Circuit held, without discussion, that these allegations were sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss a claim for breach of implied contract or unjust enrichment under Florida law, although it upheld the dismissal of claims for negligence per se and for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

In contrast to Resnick is a recent federal district court decision dismissing claims arising out of a Sony Gaming Networks breach (link courtesy of Law360).  The case was largely dismissed under FRCP 12(b)(6) due to the plaintiffs’ inability to allege an injury resulting from the breach.  One key difference between the two cases seems to be the inability of the plaintiffs in the Sony case to allege any identity theft resulting from the breach.  The probability of a dismissal for lack of injury or standing in a data breach class action does appear to be higher where there is no evidence of identity theft or other use of any compromised information.  Similarly, allegations of across-the-class-damages, such as those brought under a breach of contract theory, have fared better than allegations of individualized damages, such as identity theft.   

Intentional Privacy Breach and Statutory Damages Cases

An area creating a unique set of problems is privacy class actions seeking statutory damages, such as class actions seeking damages under the Video Protection Privacy Act, or VPPA.  Several high-profile cases have been filed against Netflix, Best Buy, and others under this statute, which provides for $2,500 per violation in statutory damages. 

The problem for all parties in these types of cases is that the statutory damages, when aggregated over hundreds, thousands, or even millions of consumers, can become crippling to the defendant, making a settlement at even close to the maximum aggregate value of the claims a practical impossibility. 

This creates a problem in settlement approval: how is a court supposed to judge what settlement  amount is reasonable in a case where the damages sought would be crippling if the plaintiff were to win at trial?

The case of Murray v. GMAC Mortgage Corporation, 434 F.3d 948 (7th Cir. 2006) provides a good illustration of this dilemma.  The case involved a potentially crushing recovery of statutory damages under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  The trial court had declined to approve a settlement that would have resulted in a $3,000 award for the named plaintiff, or three times the maximum statutory damages award, and potentially leaving less than $1 for each of the remaining class members, or less than 1% of the minimum statutory award.  The Seventh Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision, but it punted on the question of what would be a reasonable settlement given the “ruinously high” statutory damages at stake in the case.  The Murray case does seem to stand for the proposition that you can’t just pluck a number out of the air in setting a settlement amount.

A more recent example was the proposed settlement in Fraley v. Facebook, No. No. C 11-1726 RS (N.D. Cal).  An initial settlement proposal that provided for a $10 million cy presaward and no cash payments to class members was rejected in August.  See this link to Order Denying Motion for Preliminary Approval courtesy of consumerwatchdog.org.  In that order, Judge Seeborg made the following observation about the quandary presented in the case:

The issue this presents appears to be a novel one: Can a cy pres-only settlement be justified on the basis that the class size is simply too large for direct monetary relief? Or, notwithstanding the strong policy favoring settlements, are some class actions simply too big to settle? 

Under a revised proposed settlement, each claimant would be entitled to receive up to $10, but if the total claims plus the attorneys’ fee award exceeds the entire $20 million amount available under the settlement, the claims will be reduced pro rata.  If there are so many claims that the per claim amount became less than $5, then the Judge will have discretion to decide to award the funds to a charity as a cy pres award.  Another unique facet of the revised settlement is that Facebook is allowed to challenge the attorneys’ fee amount requested by plaintiffs’ counsel.

The panelists discussed Edelson’s struggle in attempting to bring class actions under the California “Shine the Light” law, which requires companies to disclose to whom they are selling customers’ information.  Edelson said he has lost almost all of those cases, but he is hopeful of a turnaround in the appellate courts.  This let to a broader point about the development of privacy class actions.  New theories have traditionally been unsuccessful at the trial court level, but oftentimes patience and perseverance has paid off for the plaintiffs’ bar.

One common type of privacy-related statutory damages class action is class actions under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which prohibits unsolicited faxes and automated telephone calls.  Edelson noted that cases under the TCPA are settling for between  $150-400 per unsolicited fax/call.  The statutory damages amount is $500 per unsolicited fax or call, and $1,500 for willful violations.  A trend in TCPA cases, especially in the Ninth Circuit, has been TCPA class actions based on unsolicited text messages.

In general, intentional privacy cases tend to be good certification cases, and the real battles tend to be on the merits.  However, even in statutory damages cases, there can still be defenses to class certification.  Ascertainability of the class can often be an issue.  For example, the question of whether a given class member consented to certain types of direct marketing or the release of private information to third parties can often be an individualized question that prevents class certification. 

A common question that arises in statutory damages cases is whether the named plaintiff must prove some sort of injury to herself and/or members of the putative class in order to recover statutory damages.  In some situations, courts have held that no proof of injury is required at all for the recovery of statutory damages.  There are generally two standing questions 1) is there constitutional standing to sue; and 2) is there statutory standing under the statute on which the claims are based.  One justification that plaintiffs offer for why statutory damages would be awarded without proof of injury is that is provides a means of disgorging ill-gotten gains from the defendant.

Parting Thoughts

The panel offered some good advice for practitioners, including the following kernels of wisdom: 1) Understand that privacy cases strike a particular nerve with both consumers and courts; people don’t like the idea that their private information is being used for an improper purpose(this is an area where plaintiffs’ lawyers often don’t have much difficulty convincing plaintiffs to participate in the legal process); 2) Counsel your clients upfront on privacy issues to avoid the situation where a class action becomes an issue.  2) Keep track of what Jay Edelson is doing to make sure you are up on the latest trends. 

In closing, the panel offered thoughts on the problem of statutory damages being aggregated into excessive damages amounts that a defendant is unlikely to pay in settlement and a court is unlikely to ever award.  If nobody thinks that a plaintiff should get $1 billion for a mere technical statutory violation, then why not change the law to reflect what the plaintiff really be able to recover?  One of the problems in this area is that the techology moves much faster than the legislative process.  Congress is always passing legislation to deal with an old problem.

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