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Archive for the ‘Class Action Settlements’ Category

Reuters contributor Alison Frankel authored an insightful column published August 20, 2012 entitled Foretelling the End of Money-for-Nothing Class Actions, that touches on issues similar to those raised by Brian Wolfman in two recent articles summarized in this August 15 CAB post.  In her column, Frankel comments on a recent trend, particularly in data privacy class actions, where large fee awards are requested in settlements for which no meaningful relief is provided to class members.  Oftentimes, the fee awards are justified by the value of prospective injunctive relief or by the fact of a large cash payment to charity in the form of a cy pres award, but not by any direct benefits to the class members themselves.

Frankel predicts that we have seen the “high point” in what she terms “money-for-nothing” class action settlements, pointing to a growing skepticism among judges who are asked to approve them.  While it remains to be seen if this prediction will come true, Frankel’s article, like Wolfman’s articles, should at least give pause to class action attorneys who are willing to sell out a class for personal gain: you may be getting away with this now, but at some point the courts will begin to look beyond the desire to clear their dockets and begin to question the societal value of these settlements.

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Editor’s Note: I don’t often use this blog as a platform to brag about my firm, but I thought a recent success by my partner, Bob Abrams, and his cross-office antitrust team in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, was noteworthy.  Abrams’ group came over to Baker Hostetler last year from Howrey, and they have been a fantastic addition to our class action practice, adding depth and expertise in the antitrust area.  Congratulations to the team on achieving a great result.

Baker Hostetler represents a certified class of dairy farmers located in 14 Southeastern States against Dairy Farmers of America, Dean Foods and a number of other defendants in an action alleging violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.  The lawsuit alleges that Defendants and alleged Co-Conspirators violated federal antitrust laws and as a result prices paid to dairy farmers were lower than they otherwise would have been.

After recently approving antitrust class settlements with Dean Foods and two other defendants worth $145 million and significant structural relief, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee granted in its entirety Baker Hostetler’s motion for fees and expenses, noting “the quality of the work done by class counsel has been exceptional, not only with respect to the pleadings filed but also the oral advocacy during oral argument on various motions.” 

In commenting on the wide-scale complex litigation led by Baker Hostetler partner Bob Abrams and his team, the Court noted:

Class counsel, who have extensive experience in complex class action litigation, have efficiently and competently managed their enormous task and have vigorously and effectively, prosecuted the case on behalf of the class. They have also been opposed by equally experienced and highly competent counsel for defendants and have achieved an excellent result for their clients.

Baker Hostetler continues to litigate against non-settling defendant Dairy Farmers of America and others, and trial in the matter is set for November 6, 2012.

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Editor’s Note: The following is a post that I contributed to the Baker Hostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog.  Please be sure to visit the firm’s blog for more great class-action related content!

What to do with unclaimed settlement funds is a common problem facing class action litigants.  There are at least four methods of distributing unclaimed settlement funds:  (1) reversion of unclaimed funds back to the defendant; (2) payment to those claimants who did make claims on a pro rata basis; (3) letting the funds escheat to the state; and (4) a cy pres award to a charitable organization.  All of these methods have been the subject of criticism, but the practical reality is that something has to be done with funds from a class action settlement that are not claimed by class members.

Recently, the First Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that outlines the circumstances under which a court may approve a cy pres distribution of unclaimed settlement funds.  In In re: Lupron Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, Case Nos. 10-2494, 11-1329 (1st Cir., Apr. 24, 2012), the parties had agreed to a provision that gave the trial court discretion on the distribution of any unclaimed funds from a settlement of claims alleging overcharging for the medication Lupron.  The Court had ordered that $11.4 million in unclaimed funds be distributed to a non-profit cancer center for the purpose of treating diseases for which Lupron was commonly prescribed.  Although the First Circuit expressed “unease with federal judges being put in the role of distributing cy pres funds at their discretion,” it found that the trial court had not abused its discretion.

In reaching this decision, the First Circuit adopted the “reasonable approximation” test for evaluating whether a district court’s cy pres award constitutes an abuse of discretion.  Under the “reasonable approximation” test, which had previously been applied by the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits, the Court looks to whether the cy pres distribution is to a recipient that reasonably approximates the interests being pursued by the members of the class.  The Court listed a number of non-exclusive factors to be considered in making this determination:

(1)        the purposes underlying statutes claimed to have been violated;

(2)        the nature of the injury to the class members;

(3)        the characteristics and interests of the class members;

(4)        the geographic scope of the class;

(5)        the reasons why the settlement funds have gone unclaimed; and

(6)        the closeness of the fit between the class and the cy pres recipient.

The opinion more generally has an interesting discussion of some of the policy arguments for and against each potential alternative method of disposing of unclaimed funds.  Relying on the American Law Institute’s Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation, the First Circuit rejected the presumption suggested by the concurrence in Klier v. Elf Atochem North America, Inc., 658 F.3d 468 (5th Cir. 2011), that any residual funds in a class action settlement should be returned to the defendant.  The Court also cited the ALI Principles in rejecting escheat to the state as the preferred option of disposing of unclaimed settlement funds.  The opinion lists a variety of policy reasons why unclaimed funds should not be given pro-rata to the claimants who do participate, including that this method creates a windfall and leads to perverse incentives to prevent participation in a settlement by absent class members.

Like the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Klier last year, the First Circuit’s decision in In re: Lupron Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation illustrates the need for parties to be specific in the settlement agreement about the means of distributing unclaimed settlement funds.  Failure to take care in specifying how unclaimed funds are to be distributed can lead to additional unwanted and expensive litigation with objectors, and can force the court to make a public policy-driven decision that may be inconsistent with the desires of both parties to the settlement.

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A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a Cornerstone Research report concluding that securities class action settlements were at a 10-year low.  Yesterday, securities litigators Daniel Tyukody and Gerald Silk posted an article in the New York Times DealBook blog entitled Understanding the Dip in Class-Action Securities Settlements with some insights explaining the downturn.  Among the explanations are lower starting inventory, the added size and complexity of credit crisis-related lawsuits, increased legislative and judicial scrutiny over securities class actions, and a decline of financial restatements by companies.  The article is a must read for anyone interested in understanding US securities class action trends.

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David Lat posted an article on the legal industry blog Above the Law yesterday that caught my eye.  Lat’s post, entitled Benchslap of the Day: Second Circuit Rebukes Rakoffdiscusses the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ per curium decision granting a stay pending the appeal of the lower court’s refusal to approve the settlement in SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-5227-cv (2d Cir., Mar. 15, 2012).  Although the case is an SEC enforcement action and not a class action, I would argue that the following sentiment from the Second Circuit’s opinion applies with equal force in the class action context:

It is commonplace for settlements to include no binding admission of liability. A settlement is by definition a compromise. We know of no precedent that supports the proposition that a settlement will not be found to be fair, adequate, reasonable, or in the public interest unless liability has been conceded or proved and is embodied in the judgment. We doubt whether it lies within a court’s proper discretion to reject a settlement on the basis that liability has not been conclusively determined.

There is a corollary to this statement, which holds that a settlement does not have to fully compensate alleged victims in order to be fair and reasonable.  Too often, I hear statements by the media, members of the public, and even lawyers and judges, that are critical of a class action settlement because it does not fully compensate the members of a class or because it does not force a defendant to fully pay for the alleged harm.  As the Second Circuit panel’s opinion reminds us, a settlement is a compromise.  Except perhaps in the rare case where liability has already been proven, it is not unfair or unreasonable that a class action settlement does not provide full relief for the alleged victims of some as-yet unproven wrong.  You can bet that I will be citing this decision the next time I face that sort of argument in a class action settlement.

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The Record staff writer Harvy Lipman authored this article today discussing the New Jersey Attorney General’s warning to consumers about a scam involving a fake class action notice.  The official-looking notice directs recipients to send personal information in order to obtain settlement benefits in a fictitious securities case brought by a fictitious government official.

I have to wonder whether the emergence of fake class action notice scams will provide fodder for class action settlement objectors who argue about the effectiveness of a real class action settlement notice program.  This is all the more reason to do something that I preach about regularly on CAB: always consider retaining a qualified notice expert as part of a class action settlement.

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Alison Frankel, whose On the Case blog is featured in the Thomson Reuters News and Insight section, posted this interesting article today discussing a novel alternative to the class action as a device to resolve mass disputes.  The procedural device in question is Article 77 of the New York State Code, which allows a trustee to seek court approval of decisions relating to a trust.  Frankel’s article today offers an update on proceedings brought under Article 77 seeking approval of an agreement between institutional investors and the trustee of hundreds of residential mortgage-securitization trusts, which had created in order to allow banks to raise funds in order to offer residential mortgages to consumers.  If approved, the settlement would resolve the claims of not only the institutional investors who reached the settlement with the trustee, but also potential claims of other investors in the trusts.  Thus, Article 77 essentially provides a means of creating a global settlement of all investor’s claims, without allowing the opportunity to opt out, which would have been available if the agreement had been presented as a proposed class action settlement. 

Frankel has done an excellent job of summarizing the issues in the case as well as today’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that the federal courts lack jurisdiction over the case under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) as a result of the securities exception in 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(9)(C) and 1453(d)(3), so I won’t re-summarize the article here but simply commend it to your reading.  The case is BlackRock Fin. Mgmt. Inc. v. The Segregated Account of Ambac Assur. Corp., 11-5309-cv(L), (2d Cir., Feb. 27, 2012).

Although the use of Article 77 to create a binding settlement that does not require an opportunity to opt out may be a novel strategy, the case highlights an often-overlooked option that may be available in any class action litigation involving a trust, benefits plan, or other fund with a custodian or trustee.  This would include certain banking and securities cases or class actions filed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) against a party other than the trustee.  Rather than having to negotiate with class action lawyers, it may be possible in these contexts to come to a global resolution of a dispute by negotiating with the trustee and then seeking court approval of that agreement.  Even if a class action is pending, resolution of the dispute with the trustee may provide grounds to defeat class certification on superiority grounds, since a settlement with a party having a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the fund can be an adequate and significantly more efficient means of resolving any dispute.

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