Hernandez v. Restoration Hardware, Inc. tells class action objectors to get party status or get lost

I frequently contemplate things without any real expectation that I will get an answer.  One thing I wonder about in the practice of law is whether California Courts of Appeal develop cultures as an institution (i.e., whether each Appellate District has a significant impact on its constituent members over time), or whether the tendencies are happenstance of the appointments (i.e., whether the tendencies of each Appellate District -- and Division therein -- is just the sum of random events like the preferences of the appointing administration and the timing of open seats). An application of this pondering occurred to me mere moments ago, when I read Hernandez v. Restoration Hardware, Inc. (March 14, 2016), in which the Fourth Appellate District, Division One, held that named party status is required to appeal a class action judgment. Jinkies!

In Hernandez v. Restoration Hardware, a bench trial resulted in a class recovery of up to $36,412,350.  The class representatives requested fees of $9,103,087.50 (25 percent of the total maximum fund). Francesca Muller, a class members, requested that the court order notice of the fee motion be sent to all class members.  The court denied the request, awarded the fees, and entered judgment.  Muller filed a notice of appeal. Class representative Hernandez substantively opposed the appeal but argued that Muller lacked standing to appeal at all. The Court of Appeal addressed the threshold issue of whether Muller had standing to appeal.

Recognizing that only an aggrieved party has standing to appeal, the Court began by recognizing the distinction between names class representatives and absent class members:

Indeed, "[t]he structure of the class action does not allow absent class members to become active parties, since 'to the extent the absent class members are compelled to participate in the trial of the lawsuit, the effectiveness of the class action device is destroyed.' "  (Ibid., fn. omitted.)  Although unnamed class members may be deemed "parties" for the limited purposes of discovery (Southern California Edison Co. v. Superior Court (1972) 7 Cal.3d 832, 840), unnamed class members are not otherwise considered "parties" to the litigation.  (Cf. National Solar Equipment Owners' Assn. v. Grumman Corp. (1991) 235 Cal.App.3d 1273, 1282 ["unnamed class members do not 'stand on the same footing as named parties' "].)

Slip op., at 9.  The Court then began its analysis by considering Eggert v. Pac. States S. & L. Co., 20 Cal. 2d 199 (1942), which considered the same issues presented here.  Concluding that Eggert was factually almost identical, theCourt concluded that Eggert required dismissal of the action:

Eggert appears to be on "all fours" with the present action: both involved a class action; both involved a matter litigated to judgment; both involved a challenge to the postjudgment attorney fee award to the counsel for the named plaintiff; both involved appellants who were members of the class, but not named parties, and who had appeared through counsel to object to the attorney fee award; and both involved members who took no steps to be added as named plaintiffs.  Accordingly, under Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court (1962) 57 Cal.2d 450, we must adhere to Eggert and dismiss the appeal.

Slip op., at 11.  The Court then commented on several decisions from Courts of Appeal that permitted appeals by non-party class members:

Muller also cites several cases in which California appellate courts stated a class member who was not a party to the action obtains appellate standing to challenge the judgment merely by interposing an objection to the judgment below.  However, neither of the cases cited by Muller, Consumer Cause, Inc. v. Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Markets, Inc. (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 387 and Wershba v. Apple Computer, Inc. (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 224, made any effort to reconcile their conclusions with Eggert, and instead rooted their conclusions in the analysis contained in Trotsky v. Los Angeles Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. (1975) 48 Cal.App.3d 134 (Trotsky).  (See Wershba, at pp. 235-236 [citing only Trotsky on issue of standing]; Consumer Cause, at pp. 395-396 [citing Trotsky and Wershba on issue of standing].)  Accordingly, we examine Trotsky.

Slip op., at 12.  That examination of Trotsky was not flattering, and the Court quickly concluded that Trotsky had failed to consider the "party" element of section 902:

Trotsky focused primarily on whether an objector to a settlement was "aggrieved" within the meaning of Code of Civil Procedure section 902, concluding objectors were aggrieved because " '[i]t is possible that, within a class, a group of small claimants might be unfavorably treated by the terms of a proposed settlement. For them, the option to join is in reality no option at all,' " and reasoning that because those claimants might be forced to choose between "equally unpalatable alternatives"—of accepting either nothing or an unfair settlement—those parties were sufficiently aggrieved for purposes of the right to appeal.  (Trotsky, supra, 48 Cal.App.3d at pp. 139-140.)  However, Trotsky did not examine the distinct "party" element of Code of Civil Procedure section 902, nor make any effort to reconcile its conclusion with Eggert's holding that unnamed class members whose only appearance was to object to the attorneys' fees had no standing to appeal because they were not "parties" and did not avail themselves of the "ample opportunity . . . to become parties of record . . . ."  (Eggert, supra, 20 Cal.2d at p. 201.)  Because Eggert teaches the "party" requirement of Code of Civil Procedure section 902 is not met merely because the "aggrieved" requirement of section 902 might also be satisfied as to a nonparty class member, we conclude Trotsky's analysis of standing is flawed and that Trotsky and its progeny (which includes both Consumer Cause, Inc. v. Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Markets, Inc., supra, 127 Cal.App.4th 387 and Wershba v. Apple Computer, Inc., supra, 91 Cal.App.4th 224) should not be followed.

Slip op., at 13-14.  Well now.  That's....interesting.  The Court went on to point out that federal courts handle this differently, but California courts aren't federal courts, and there is no requirement that California follow the federal approach.  You have to at least respect the cut of this Court's jib to state that they are bound to follow a factually similar 1942 decision and reject much more recent decisions for failing to address the California Supreme Court's Eggert decision. That said, of the many things I ponder, one is whether this case case more than 90 days of shelf life.

Percentage of the fund is still an approved method of awarding fees in California class actions

Funny timing on this one.  In Episode 14 of the Class Re-Action podcast, our discussion turned at one point to fee awards in class actions.  We briefly mentioned Laffitte v. Robert Half International, Inc. (November 21, 2014), but didn't dive under the hood.  But now that I've had a chance to read it, I see that a postscript to the podcast is in order.  In Laffitte, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) considered an appeal by an objector to a class action settlement.  One issue the Court touched on was the propriety of using a percentage of the fund to award fees (with a lodestar crosscheck), rather than the currently trendy approach of using lodestar with a percentage crosscheck.  Here's a rundown of the Court's opinion.

The plaintiff settled a class action lawsuit against a group of defendants related to Robert Half International Inc. for $19 million.  The trial court granted the parties’ ex parte application for an order amending the settlement agreement, class notice, and claim form. Among other things, the amended settlement agreement said that Robert Half would pay a gross settlement amount of $19,000,000. Subject to court approval, the settlement agreement listed the following payments would be made from the gross settlement amount: class counsel attorneys’ fees of not more than $6,333,333.33 (one third of the gross settlement amount) and costs not to exceed counsel’s actual costs, class representative payments not to exceed $80,000, settlement administrator fees not to exceed $79,000, civil penalties owed to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and applicable payroll taxes on the employees’ recovery.

In support of their motion for attorneys’ fees, class counsel submitted declarations from the attorneys in each of the three law firms serving as class counsel. The attorneys did not submit detailed time records. The declarations stated that class counsel worked a total of 4,263.5 hours on the case (and anticipated working 200 hours on the appeal) and, using the hourly rate for each attorney, calculated that the total lodestar amount was $2,968,620 ($3,118,620 including the appeal). Class counsel requested a lodestar multiplier of between 2.03 to 2.13 for a total requested attorneys’ fee award of $6,333,333.33.

David Brennan, a member of the class, objected to the settlement and the amount awarded in attorney’s fees. The trial court overruled his objections and approved the settlement, which included an award of attorneys’ fees to class counsel of one-third of the settlement, or approximately $6.3 million. Brennan appealed from the order approving the settlement and entering final judgment, challenging both the class action settlement notice regarding the award of attorneys’ fees and the amount of attorneys’ fees awarded. Laffitte asked that the Court affirm the trial court’s order. The Robert Half defendants had no strong position on the appropriate amount of fees, but asked that the Court affirm the order “in order to bring this lawsuit to closure.”

The Court began its discussion of the challenge to attorney’s fees by observing that the Notice stated the maximum amount of fees that would be sought by class counsel:

The class notice describing the preliminarily-approved settlement included the proposed attorneys’ fees award for class counsel, a schedule for final approval, and the procedure for making objections. The notice stated: “Class Counsel, consisting of Law Offices of Kevin T. Barnes, Law Office of Joseph Antonelli, and Appell | Hilaire | Benardo LLP, will seek approval from the Court for the payment in an amount not more than $6,333,333.33 for their attorneys’ fees in connection with their work in the Actions, and an amount not more than $200,000 in reimbursement of their actual litigation expenses that were advanced in connection with the Actions. Class Counsel’s attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses as approved by the Court will be paid out of the Gross Settlement Amount.”

Slip op., at 10.  The Court then considered and rejected the argument that the motion for an award of fees should be available to the class members before the deadline to object expires, as Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 requires, as interpreted by the Ninth Circuit decision, In re Mercury Interactive Corp. Securities Litigation, 618 F.3d 988 (9th Cir. 2010):  “Rule 23 does not control in California. ‘As a general rule, California courts are not bound by the federal rules of procedure but may look to them and to the federal cases interpreting them for guidance or where California precedent is lacking. [Citations.] California courts have never adopted Rule 23 as “a procedural strait jacket. To the contrary, trial courts [are] urged to exercise pragmatism and flexibility in dealing with class actions.” [Citations.]’ ”  Slip op., at 11-12.  Instead, the Court said that California had adequate rules for notice:

California precedent and authority governing court approval of class action settlements and attorneys’ fees applications, however, are not lacking. Rule 3.769 of the California Rules of Court states the procedure for including an attorneys’ fees provision in a class action settlement agreement and for giving notice of the final approval hearing on the proposed settlement. Under rule 3.769(b) of the California Rules of Court, “[a]ny agreement, express or implied, that has been entered into with respect to the payment of attorney’s fees or the submission of an application for the approval of attorney’s fees must be set forth in full in any application for approval of the dismissal or settlement of an action that has been certified as a class action.”

Slip op., at 12.  The Court concluded that the notice given complied with Rule 3.769:

The notice given to the class members complied with California Rules of Court rule 3.769 by apprising them of the agreement concerning attorneys’ fees. The notice told the class members that class counsel could receive up to $6.3 million in attorneys’ fees. The notice also advised the class members of the procedures for objecting to the proposed settlement and appearing at the settlement hearing, where they could present their objections to any aspect of the settlement, including the amount of attorneys’ fees to be awarded to class counsel.

Slip op., at 13.  Positive number one from this opinion: no need to copy the approach of In re Mercury Interactive.

Next, the Court looked at the reasonableness of the fee award, noting discussion first the lodestar method of calculation:

In Lealao v. Beneficial California, Inc., supra, 82 Cal.App.4th 19 the court stated that “[t]he primacy of the lodestar method in California was established in 1977 in Serrano [v. Priest (1977)] 20 Cal.3d 25. . . . [O]ur Supreme Court declared: ‘“The starting point of every fee award . . . must be a calculation of the attorney’s services in terms of the time he has expended on the case.”’” (Id. at p. 26.) The court added that “[i]n so-called fee shifting cases, in which the responsibility to pay attorney fees is statutorily or otherwise transferred from the prevailing plaintiff or class to the defendant, the primary method for establishing the amount of ‘reasonable’ attorney fees is the lodestar method. The lodestar (or touchstone) is produced by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by counsel by a reasonable hourly rate. Once the court has fixed the lodestar, it may increase or decrease that amount by applying a positive or negative ‘multiplier’ to take into account a variety of other factors, including the quality of the representation, the novelty and complexity of the issues, the results obtained, and the contingent risk presented. [Citation.]”

Slip op., at 16-17.   The Court then noted that percentage of the fund remains a viable method of awarding fees in common fund cases:

Subsequent judicial opinions have made it clear that a percentage fee award in a common fund case “may still be done.” For example, in Chavez v. Netflix, Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 43 the court stated that “the Lealao court did not purport to mandate the use of one particular formula in class action cases. The method the trial court used here and that [was] discussed in Lealao are merely different ways of using the same data—the amount of the proposed award and the monetized value of the class benefits—to accomplish the same purpose: to cross-check the fee award against an estimate of what the market would pay for comparable litigation services rendered pursuant to a fee agreement. [Citation.]” (Id. at p. 65.) Therefore, “fees based on a percentage of the benefits are in fact appropriate in large class actions when the benefit per class member is relatively low . . . .” (Id. at p. 63.)

Slip op., at 18.  In this matter, the Court held proper the trial court’s use of a percentage of the fund method with a lodestar crosscheck:

The trial court did not use the percentage of fund method exclusively to determine whether the amount of attorneys’ fees requested was reasonable and appropriate. The trial court also performed a lodestar calculation to cross-check the reasonableness of the percentage of fund award. This was entirely proper. “[A]lthough attorney fees awarded under the common fund doctrine are based on a ‘percentage-of-the-benefit’ analysis, while those under a fee-shifting statute are determined using the lodestar method, ‘[t]he ultimate goal . . . is the award of a “reasonable” fee to compensate counsel for their efforts, irrespective of the method of calculation.’ [Citations.]” (Apple Computer, Inc. v. Superior Court (2005) 126 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1270.) It therefore is appropriate for the trial court to cross-check an award of attorneys’ fees calculated by one method against an award calculated by the other method in order to confirm whether the award is reasonable.

Slip op., at 19-20.  Positive number two from this opinion: focusing on the percentage of the fund is still appropriate (courts claiming otherwise are misrepresenting the authority out there, though it probably doesn't matter, since what this really points out is that any rational method for evaluating the fee against the benefit conferred).  The Court added to the beneficial discussion by holding that detailed time records are not required:

Brennan argues that, in connection with the court’s lodestar calculations, class counsel did not submit detailed attorney time records. Such detailed time records, however, are not required. “It is well established that ‘California courts do not require detailed time records, and trial courts have discretion to award fees based on declarations of counsel describing the work they have done and the court’s own view of the number of hours reasonably spent.

Slip op., at 20.  That's right - more confirmation that there is no requirement to maintain detailed time records.  Positive number three.  The Court then soundly rejected the objector’s challenge to the application of a multiplier to compare the percentage of the fund award to the lodestar.  Finally, the Court concluded that the “clear sailing” provision in the settlement agreement was not improper in general:

“While it is true that the propriety of ‘clear sailing’ attorney fee agreements has been debated in scholarly circles [citations], commentators have also noted that class action ‘settlement agreement[s] typically include[] a “clear sailing” clause . . . .’ [Citation.] In fact, commentators have agreed that such an agreement is proper. ‘[A]n agreement by the defendant to pay such sum of reasonable fees as may be awarded by the court, and agreeing also not to object to a fee award up to a certain sum, is probably still a proper and ethical practice. This practice serves to facilitate settlements and avoids a conflict, and yet it gives the defendant a predictable measure of exposure of total monetary liability for the judgment and fees in a case. To the extent it facilitates completion of settlements, this practice should not be discouraged.’ [Citation.]” (Consumer Privacy Cases, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 553, fn. omitted; see Cellphone Termination Fee Cases (2009) 180 Cal.App.4th 1110, 1120 [“[c]lass action settlements frequently contain a ‘clear sailing’ agreement, whereby the defendant agrees not to object to an attorney fee award up to a certain amount”].)

Slip op. at 24-25.  The Court then concluded that there was no reason to find the “clear sailing” provision suspect in this matter.  The trial court was affirmed and costs were awarded to the plaintiff and defendants, indicating the Court’s view of the lack of merit in the appeal.

An objector has no standing to challenge a class action fee award where he has no financial interest in the award and fails to show harm as a result of the award

In Glasser v. Volkswagon of American, Inc. (9th Cir. May 17, 2011), the Ninth Circuit considered objector-appellant David Murray's contention that the district court erred when it awarded attorneys’ fees and costs to plaintiff-appellee Jacob Glasser.  Glasser challenged the inadequacy of disclosures by Volkswagon about the limited availability of "smart keys" for certain Audi and Volkswagon vehicles.  Soon after the case was filed, the parties initiated settlement discussions.  As part of those discussions, Glasser evidently learned that replacement key technology was available through independent dealers and agreed that Volkswagon had not fixed the price of replacement keys.  Volkswagon agreed to make additional disclosures about "smart keys," but no monetary benefit was obtained for the class.

The trial court approved a settlement in which the class was notified of the agreement to make new disclosures and Volkswagon's agreement to either pay an agreed-upon amount of attorney's fees or let the trial court decide fees if the parties did not reach agreement on that issue.  Murry filed an objection to the settlement.  The district court awarded plaintiff attorney's fees in the amount of $417,663.75, costs and expenses in the amount of $16,614.40, and an incentive award to Glasser in the amount of $2,500.

The Court began with a discussion of Article III standing.  The Court observed that fees paid from common funds confer standing on objectors because the fees reduce the fund:

When attorneys’ fees are paid out of a common fund, from which both the class recovery and the fee award are paid, a class member who participates in the settlement generally has standing to challenge the fee award because any reduction in the fee award results in an increase to the class recovery.

Slip op., at 6356.  But the Court then concluded that Murray failed to satisfy his obligation to establish Article III standing:

Murray does not contend that Plaintiff’s counsel colluded with VW to orchestrate an excessively high fee award in exchange for an unfair settlement for the class. Had he alleged as much, he may have been able to meet the requirements of Article III standing under a “constructive common fund theory.” See Lobatz, 222 F.3d at 1147. However, Murray has expressly disclaimed recovery under a “constructive common fund” theory. Instead, he argues Plaintiff’s claims were entirely meritless from the beginning of the lawsuit. Further, he claims only that an excess fee award will cause VW to pass along the cost to its shareholders and customers, and that he may somehow benefit as a consumer from any savings that may result from the denial or reduction of the award.

Slip op., at 6537.  The appeal was then dismissed for lack of standing.  Oops.  I suppose an assertion of a "constructive common fund" theory will become the new standard refrain for objectors, particularly in consumer class actions.

Kullar v. Foot Locker generating more precedent, this time on a disqualification issue

So, I'm back after a vacation, and just in time.  Luckily, nothing at all happened while I was gone.  Today, however, we receive a new nugget of precedent from one of those cases that keeps on giving.  In Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc. (January 18, 2011), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Three) reviewed a denial of a motion to disqualify counsel representing the objectors to a proposed class action settlement in Kullar.  If this doesn't ring a bell for you, let me recap.  Kullar (the 2008 opinion: Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc., 168 Cal. App. 4th 116 (2008)) reversed an order granting approval to a proposed class action settlement after concluding that the information provided to the trial court was insufficient to permit the court to conclude that the settlement was fair, adequate and reasonable.

How does this lead to a motion to disqualify?  Glad you asked.  The Court sums up as well as I could the procedural maneuvering leading to the motion to disqualify:

Prior to the trial court's approval of the settlement in the Kullar action (Kullar v. Footlocker, No. CGC-05-447044 (Kullar)), Echeverria, represented by the same attorneys, had filed a partially overlapping putative class action against Foot Locker and others in the Alameda County Superior Court (Echeverria v. Footlocker, No. RG07317036 (Echeverria I)). Because of the pendency of the settlement in the Kullar action, the Alameda court entered an order staying Echeverria I, which remained in effect through the pendency of the Kullar appeal. On April 15, 2009, one month after issuance of the remittitur in Kullar, Echeverria and the two other objectors represented by Q&W filed an action in the San Francisco Superior Court, where Kullar was pending, asserting the same claims as were alleged in the stayed Alameda action (Echeverria v. Footlocker, No. CGC-09-487345 (Echeverria II)). Based on the pendency of identical claims in Echeverria I, the San Francisco court on July 29, 2009, stayed proceedings in Echeverria II. In subsequent proceedings in Kullar, the court considered the additional showing made to establish the fairness of the proposed settlement, the three objectors' renewed objections to settlement approval, and on October 22, 2009, the court again granted final approval of the class settlement. Echeverria dismissed the Alameda action and on November 17, 2009, the San Francisco court lifted the stay in Echeverria II.

Slip op., at 2-3.  The Court then describes the motion to disqualify filed by Foot Locker, which argued that representation of objectors on the one hand and potential class members on the other created a conflict.  The trial court rejected that argument as did the Court of Appeal.  I don't find the outcome surprising.  But the opinion does offer some interesting comments, where the Court briefly discusses the obligations of counsel to putative class members prior to certification:

Initially, since no class has yet been certified in Echeverria II (and no class was ever certified in Echeverria I), no attorney-client relationship has yet arisen between Q&W and the members of the putative class. (Atari, Inc. v. Superior Court (1985) 166 Cal.App.3d 867, 873 [“We cannot accept the suggestion that a potential (but as yet unapproached) class member should be deemed 'a party . . . represented by counsel' even before the class is certified; we respectfully disagree to this extent with the federal courts which apparently would accept it.”]; Sharp v. Next Entertainment, Inc. (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 410, 433, citing comment 25 to rule 1.7 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct [“When a lawyer represents or seeks to represent a class of plaintiffs or defendants in a class-action lawsuit, unnamed members of the class are ordinarily not considered to be clients of the lawyer for purposes of applying paragraph (a)(1) of this Rule [that restricts representation when there are concurrent conflicts of interest] . . .”]; In re McKesson HBOC, Inc. Securities Litigation (N.D.Cal. 2000) 126 F.Supp.2d 1239, 1245; Cal. Compendium on Prof. Responsibility, L.A. County Bar Assn. Formal Opn. No. 481 (March 20, 1995).)  

Foot Locker cites cases that clearly are inapposite to establish that an attorney may incur fiduciary obligations to an individual even though an attorney-client relationship has not arisen. Most involve situations where there were preliminary consultations between the individual and the attorney looking to the retention of the attorney but the potential client did not hire the attorney. (People ex rel. Dept. of Corporations v. Speedee Oil Change Systems, Inc. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 1135; Beery v. State Bar (1987) 43 Cal.3d 802.) Closer to the mark is the court's statement in In re GMC Pick-up Truck Fuel Tank Prod. Liab. Litig. (3rd Cir. 1995) 55 F.3d 768, 801: “Beyond their ethical obligations to their clients, class attorneys, purporting to represent a class, also owe the entire class a fiduciary duty once the class complaint is filed.” This statement—which, it should be noted, recognizes that putative class members are not clients of the attorney—was made in the context of considering the propriety of certifying a settlement class, with little application to the present situation. Moreover, assuming that Q&W assumed some fiduciary obligations to members of the putative class they seek to represent, no authority has been cited suggesting that those obligations preclude the attorneys from urging that a proposed settlement in related litigation is not in the best interests of the class. (Compare Schick v. Berg (2004) U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6842, *19 (S.D.N.Y. 2004, affd. (2d Cir. 2005) 430 F.3d 112 [attorney owed putative class member a duty not to prejudice putative class member's rights in the action in which class certification was sought, but duty did not extend to refraining from advising a third party to sue putative class member].)

Slip op., at 5-6.  After reading these remarks, I now believe that it is unclear in California whether the majority approach follows or diverges from the federal cases suggesting a fiduciary obligation extends to putative class members prior to certification.  It seems likely, however, that regardless of the answer as to where California is on the issue, the obligations to the unknown putative class members do not rise to the same level as that of the obligations to a represented client.  The ability to harmonize this question is complicated by authority indicating that class counsel can replace a proposed class representative for the good of the class, which, in one way of looking at it, suggests that the interests of the putative class can rise high enough to squeeze the initial client to the sidelines.