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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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The Baker Hostetler class action practice team issued a new Executive Alert today authored by Columbus Partner Mark Johnson entitled Fifth Circuit Restricts Cy Pres Doctrine in Class Action Settlements.  The alert discusses the Fifth Circuit’s recent decision in Klier v. Elf Atochem North America, Inc., restricting the use of the cy pres doctrine to distribute unclaimed class action settlement funds in the absence of express terms in the settlement agreement.

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Having been focused on several other speaking and writing projects recently (in addition to my day job), it’s taken longer than I had hoped to comment on several recent class-action-related decisions by the federal circuit courts of appeals.  Here’s a brief summary of three recent decisions of note:

Washington State v. Chimei Innolux Corp., No. 11-16862 (9th Cir. Oct. 3, 2011) – joining the Fourth Circuit in holding that a parens patriae action brought by state attorneys general or other state officials for the benefit of the state’s citizens is not a “class action” for the purposes of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).

Klier v. Elf Atochem N. Am., Inc., No. 10-20305 (5th Cir., Sept 27, 2011) – holding in the absence of an express provision in the settlement agreement to the contrary that unclaimed funds should be distributed pro rata to class members who participated in the settlement as opposed to being given to charity as a cy pres distribution.  Take note of the concurrence by Judge Edith H. Jones, which makes a strong argument that in the absence of any agreement to the contrary or express waiver of the right to recover unclaimed funds, the equities favor returning those funds to the defendant rather than paying them to the class or distributing them to charity.

Esurance Ins. Co. v. Keeling, No. 11-8018 (7th Cir., Sept. 26, 2011) – holding that when punitive damages are at issue, the correct standard is whether it would be “legally impossible” for the plaintiff to recover an amount of punitive damages that, when combined with the amount of compensatory damages sought, would exceed the $5 million amount in controversy threshold under CAFA, but concluding that it was not legally impossible under Illinois law, even though it was unlikely, that $4.4 million in punitive damages could be awarded in a case where the compensatory damages were slightly more than $600,000.

A great resource for more timely commentary and analysis on recent class action decision in the federal courts of appeals is Alison Frankel’s blog On the Case.

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