Luckey v. Superior Court says no to temporary judges for class settlement approval

In Luckey v. Superior Court (July 22, 2014), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three), the Court considered a writ following the denial of a stipulation to utilize a temporary judge to handle a class settlement approval.  Plaintiff filed a putative class action alleging violation of FACTA arising from printing “more than the last 5 digits of the card number or the expiration date” on an electronically printed receipt provided to the cardholder at the point of the transaction. (15 U.S.C. § 1681c(g).) The operative complaint alleged causes of action for violation of FACTA, negligence, and declaratory relief.  Plaintiff defined the putative class as “All individuals who purchased merchandise using a personal credit card or personal debit card at any retail store operated by Defendant within the United States during the Class Period2 who: [¶] Subclass A: Were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected more than the last five digits of the card; and/or [¶] Subclass B: Were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected the card's expiration date....” Plaintiff sought, on behalf of the class, damages of between $100 and $1000 for each receipt which violated FACTA (with separate damages for each violation), punitive damages, and reasonable attorney fees. Plaintiff also sought an order declaring that Cotton On's credit and debit card receipt practices violate FACTA and an order enjoining Cotton On from continuing to do so.  No responsive pleading was filed. The only other documents filed in this case consisted of stipulations for continuance of the initial status conference, and the stipulation for appointment of a temporary judge which is at issue in this writ proceeding. Plaintiff represented that, from the time the complaint was filed, the parties engaged in “informal discovery and exchanged information” in preparation for a mediation.

The mediation was held before a retired superior court judge. A class action settlement was reached at the mediation, and memorialized in a written settlement agreement. It is a class settlement, defining the settlement class as “all individuals who purchased merchandise using a personal credit card or personal debit card at any retail store operated by Cotton On within the United States since May 9, 2008, who were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected more than the last five digits of the card and/or were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected the card's expiration date.” It excludes persons who validly opt out of the class.

Under the terms of the settlement, the class was to receive compensation in the form of “Merchandise Credits,” which was really a $5 credit on any transaction at or exceeding $25 at one of Cotton On's retail stores, during one pre-selected week. Notice was to be provided to the class by means of e-mail notice to be provided “to all [Cotton On]'s customers in the United States for whom [Cotton On] possesses a valid e-mail address.” Notice would also be given on Cotton On's website and near each of its retail stores' cash registers.

Cotton On agreed to fund the settlement in the amount of $1,000,000. Of that amount, the parties agreed that Luckey's counsel could seek an award of attorney's fees and costs in an amount of $302,000. The parties also agreed that Luckey himself could receive a payment of $5,000 as class representative, and that $135,000 would be allocated to the administrative costs of the settlement.

In sum the settlement provided as for: (1) $5,000 paid to Luckey (whereas each class member would receive, at most, a merchandise credit for one one-thousandth of that amount); (2) $302,000 paid to Luckey's counsel (for work which, to that point, consisted of filing a complaint and amended complaint, and preparing for and attending a one-day mediation); and (3) a one-week $5 off $25 sale, of which Cotton On would send notice to its e-mail customer list.

Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the parties stipulated for appointment of a temporary judge to hear the matter “until final determination thereof.” Specifically, the parties intended to submit to the temporary judge the issues related to preliminary and final approval of the class action settlement. The same retired judge who had served as the mediator in this matter was identified by the parties as the proposed temporary judge. The temporary judge would be privately compensated by the parties.

The stipulation was presented to the Supervising Judge of the Civil Division, as required by the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Local Rules, rule 2.24(a)(1). On June 2, 2014, the court issued a minute order declining to approve the stipulation. The court's analysis explained that, although plaintiff’s counsel could stipulate to the appointment of the temporary judge on behalf of the plaintiff, the “submitted papers do not demonstrate that the named plaintiffs or the attorneys are authorized to speak for all class members.” Without the stipulation of all putative class members, the case could not be transferred to a temporary judge.  The plaintiff filed a petition for a writ to compel appointment of the temporary judge. The Court of Appeal issued an Order to Show cause.

In responding to the Court of Appeal, the plaintiff challenged the Superior Court’s standing to oppose the writ petition:

In this case, Luckey suggests that the Superior Court lacked standing to oppose his writ petition because the Superior Court “has presented no evidence that the issues presented impact the operations or procedures of the Court or that the decision will impose any financial obligations on the court's operations.” The argument is puzzling given the arguments Luckey makes in support of his petition. First, Luckey argues that he is, in fact, challenging a procedure of the court, not merely an isolated ruling. Luckey represents that the Superior Court previously “routinely issued orders appointing temporary judges to preside over class action matters,” but, “in or around November 2013,” the court “stopped” approving those stipulations and began denying them. Second, Luckey argues at length, although without evidentiary basis, that the court's financial obligations are, in fact, at issue. Luckey argues that lengthy delays are now the reality in class action litigation, and that parties should be permitted to avoid these delays by the use of temporary judges—a procedure which, according to Luckey, would “alleviate[ ] space for other litigants” at Superior Court. Indeed, Luckey represents that the Superior Court previously appointed temporary judges to serve in class action matters “in part[ ] due to congested and backlogged dockets.” As the Superior Court's procedures and financial obligations are at issue, the Superior Court has a right to appear.

Slip op., at 15-16.  The Court then examined whether the trial court erred when it denied the stipulation of the parties to use a “temporary judge” to decide the fairness of the class settlement.  The Court began by examining the complex question of whether absent putative class members are “parties” for purposes of the stipulation at issue.  The Court concluded they were not:

[W]hile Luckey and Cotton On were the only “parties litigant” at the time of the stipulation to the temporary judge, they were also the only parties who could be bound by such a stipulation.  As the conceded purpose of the stipulation was to bind all putative class members to the stipulation, and they could not be bound until they had been given notice and an opportunity to appear, the stipulation was ineffective.  The state Constitution provides that, for a stipulation to a temporary judge to be effective, that stipulation must be made by the parties litigant.  In a pre-certification class action, the parties litigant have not yet been identified; thus, no such stipulation can be effectively made.

Slip op., at 22-23.  Next, the Court concluded that the Rules of Court directed the same conclusion, because of the right of objectors to intervene:

Our consideration of the applicable rules of court leads us to the same conclusion. California Rules of Court, rule 2.835(b) governs requests to intervene in matters pending before temporary judges. It states, in pertinent part, “A motion for leave to file a complaint for intervention in a case pending before a temporary judge requested by the parties must be filed with the court and served on all parties and the temporary judge. The motion must be heard by the trial court judge to whom the case is assigned or, if the case has not been assigned, by the presiding judge or his or her designee. If intervention is allowed, the case must be returned to the trial court docket unless all parties stipulate ... to proceed before the temporary judge.” In other words, when a party seeks to intervene in a matter pending before a temporary judge, that party's right to intervene must be determined by the trial court, not the temporary judge. Furthermore, if intervention is permitted, the case must be returned to trial court unless the intervenor also agrees to the temporary judge.

Slip op., at 23-24.  Finally, the Court observed that public policy concerns weighed against the procedure advocated by the petitioner, having earlier observed: “A class member objecting to the settlement as unfair will certainly believe he or she is facing an uphill battle in convincing the temporary judge of the merits of the objection; the temporary judge clearly believed in the propriety of the settlement when acting as a mediator.  This could well raise a question of an appearance of impropriety.”