Ted Frank sure loves all class actions...

I just haven't found an instance yet where he actually commended the outcome of one.  But I'm looking.  Still looking...

I was going to link to a very recent example of his affection for a particular class action settlement by directing reader to a post on the blog he edits for publisher Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute.  However, his post is, arguably, defamatory and/or slander per se.  If I link to it, I could, theoretically, be construed as a republisher.  So, my apologies; I can't supply authority to support my sarcasm.

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.

Order from In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wage and Hour Litigation highlights need to support incentive award requests with detailed facts when the requested award is substantial

Untited States District Court Judge Saundra B. Armstrong (Northern District of California) granted in part and denied in part the unopposed motion of plaintiffs for an award of incentive payments and attorney's fees.  In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wage and Hour Litigation, 2011 WL 31266 (N.D.Cal. Jan. 05, 2011).  Counsel requested 33.3% of the maximum settlement amount of $86 million.  The Court agreed that a departure from the 25% benchmark in the Ninth Circuit was appropriate but not to that degree.  The Court awarded a fee equal to 27% of the maximum settlement amount.

On the requested enhancement awards, the Court said:

Upon review of the record in this case, the Court finds that Plaintiffs are entitled to a reasonable incentive payment. However, the Court finds the requested award of $25,000 per named Plaintiff to be excessive, in view of the nature of their assistance in this case.  First, the Court notes that the named Plaintiffs have not indicated in their declarations the total number of hours they spent on this litigation. Rather, they generally explain that they were deposed, responded to written discovery, and assisted and met with counsel. Second, in arguing that $25,000 is an appropriate award, Plaintiffs cite to cases that are clearly distinguishable. For instance, in Brotherton v. Cleveland, 141 F.Supp.2d 907 (S.D.Ohio 2001), the court awarded $50,000 to a single named plaintiff, finding that “she has spent approximately 800 hours working on this litigation.” Id. at 914. By contrast, here, there is no evidence that the named Plaintiffs' involvement reached anywhere near this level.

Slip op., at 4.  The Court awarded $5,000 to each plaintiff.

Munoz v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (Greenwell, objector) provides much-needed words of restraint concerning Kullar

Since Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc., 168 Cal. App. 4th 116 (2008) (Kullar) and Clark v. American Residential Services LLC, 175 Cal. App. 4th 785 (2009) (Clark) were decided, trial courts and settling parties in class actions have been looking over their shoulder at every settlement, concerned about the amount of information necessary to meet the Kullar/Clark standard for adequate settlement review.  For example, the Los Angeles Superior Court appears to be utilizing some form of checklist derived, in part, from Kullar to analyze proposed class action settlements.  Fortunately, in Munoz v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (ord. pub. July 2, 2010) (Greenwell, objector), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight) explains that much of the angst over Kullar/Clark is overblown because their requirements have been overstated and/or misconstrued.

Plaintiffs in Munoz filed a class action lawsuit against BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (BCI), alleging unpaid overtime wages, missed meal and rest period wages, and other Labor Code violations and unfair business practices. The proposed class consisted of production supervisors and merchandising supervisors who were allegedly misclassified as exempt.  After mediation, the parties agreed to settle the matter for $1.1 million. Notice of the proposed settlement elicited one objection. Two of the 188 class members opted out.  The average net payment to each class member would be about $4,300. The trial court found the settlement fair and reasonable. The objector, Greenwell, appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in approving the settlement, principally because the parties did not provide the court with the information necessary to make a finding that the settlement was reasonable and fair.

The Court of Appeal summarized the obligation of a trial court evaluating a class action settlement:

Some cases state that a presumption of fairness exists “where: (1) the settlement is reached through arm's-length bargaining; (2) investigation and discovery are sufficient to allow counsel and the court to act intelligently; (3) counsel is experienced in similar litigation; and (4) the percentage of objectors is small.” (Dunk, supra, 48 Cal.App.4th at p. 1802.) Kullar emphasizes that this is only an initial presumption; a trial court's approval of a class action settlement will be vacated if the court “is not provided with basic information about the nature and magnitude of the claims in question and the basis for concluding that the consideration being paid for the release of those claims represents a reasonable compromise.” (Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at pp. 130, 133.) In short, the trial court may not determine the adequacy of a class action settlement “without independently satisfying itself that the consideration being received for the release of the class members' claims is reasonable in light of the strengths and weaknesses of the claims and the risks of the particular litigation.” (Id. at p. 129.)

Slip op., at 10.  However, after explaining that the objector complained "that the record before the trial court contained no evidence of 'the potential value of the claims,'" the Court went on to explain that Kullar is misunderstood:

Greenwell misunderstands Kullar, apparently interpreting it to require the record in all cases to contain evidence in the form of an explicit statement of the maximum amount the plaintiff class could recover if it prevailed on all its claims--a number which appears nowhere in the record of this case. But Kullar does not, as Greenwell claims, require any such explicit statement of value; it requires a record which allows “an understanding of the amount that is in controversy and the realistic range of outcomes of the litigation.”

Slip op., at 11.  Continuing, the Court noted, "Indeed, the standard list of factors a trial court should consider in determining whether a settlement is fair and reasonable does not expressly include specification of the maximum amount of recoverable damages (see Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at p. 128), and Kullar is clear that the most important factor '"'is the strength of the case for plaintiffs on the merits, balanced against the amount offered in settlement.'"' (Id. at p. 130.)"  Slip op., at 11, n. 6.

The Court itemized the information available to the trial court in the case before it:

The information before the court included the size of the class (188) and the payroll data on all class members during the class period (including total amounts of salaries paid during the class period). It also included declarations from 30 class members (15 percent of the class) indicating the number of hours worked per week and per day (and the significant differences in those numbers): e.g., 70 hours per week, 48 hours per week, 60 hours per week, 42-44 hours per week, 55 hours per week, “no more than 50 hours per week,” 45 hours per week in winter and 50-60 hours per week at other times of the year, eight to nine hours per day, 45 hours per week, and so on. These declarations also showed significant variations....

Slip op., at 11.  In other words, the trial court had more than enough information to evaluate the "strength of the case" and compare that to the amount offered in settlement.

As an additional measure of assistance, the Court highlighted the facts from Kullar and Clark that undermined those settlements:

As a final observation on this topic, we note that the evidentiary records in Kullar and Clark, upon which Greenwell relies so heavily, are significantly different from this case. In Kullar (which did not involve the misclassification of exempt employees), there was no discovery at all on meal period claims that were added in an amended complaint and were the focal point of the objections to the settlement. (Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at pp. 121-122.) While Kullar class counsel argued that the relevant information had been exchanged informally and during mediation (id. at p. 126), nothing was presented to the court--no discovery, no declarations, no time records, no payroll data, nothing (id. at pp. 128-129, 132)--to allow the court to evaluate the claim. And in Clark, the problem was that the trial court was not given sufficient information on a core legal issue affecting the strength of the plaintiffs' case on the merits, and therefore could not assess the reasonableness of the settlement terms. (Clark, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 798.) The record in this case contains neither of the flaws that doomed the Kullar and Clark settlements.

Slip op, at 13.

Munoz v. BCI clearly holds that there is no obligation on parties seeking approval of a class action settlement to state a specific sum that would represent the maximum possible recovery if the class prevailed on all theories.  Rather, the Court must have information that permits it to evaluate the strength of the claims compared to the amount offered in settlement.  This showing ought to be satisfied by a discussion of the specific risk factors associated with the various theories, along with data about such things as the size of the class.  In other words, if a trial court can roughly approximate the magnitude of the claims and the likelihood of recovery, it can fashion the necessary metric.

In addressing other arguments, the Court rejected a challenge to the $5,000 incentive awards approved by the trial court.

Ninth Circuit holds that a class representative can voluntarily settle individual claims but retain a personal stake sufficient to appeal the denial of class certification

In the last few years, California Courts of Appeal have examined the question of whether an putative class representative can voluntarily settle individual claims while "agreeing" with the defendant that the plaintiff would retain a right to appeal the denial of class certification.  That examination hasn't gone well for plaintiffs:  "The parties' intent cannot compel this court to issue an advisory opinion on issues in which, after the settlement, Larner no longer retains any individual, personal stake."  Larner v. Los Angeles Doctors Hospital Associates, LP, 168 Cal. App. 4th 1291, 1298 (2008).  However, the Larner Court suggested that, had Larner "reserved any right to shift attorney fees to other class members," she might have retained an interest in the litigation sufficient to support her right to appeal.  Larner, at 1304.

After Larner, the trend continued, and with increasing momentum against plaintiffs.  Watkins v. Wachovia Corp., 172 Cal. App. 4th 1576 (2009) actually criticized Larner: "We believe that it is illogical to import the law governing 'pick off' cases into the context of a voluntary settlement."  Watkins, at 1591.  Watkins bluntly declared, "There are no public policy interests implicated by a settlement voluntarily accepted."  Watkins, at 1591.

The Ninth Circuit had occasion to examine this same issue.  In Narouz v. Charter Communications (9th Cir. Jan. 15, 2010), the Court examined "whether the settlement and voluntary dismissal by a class representative of his personal claims in a putative class action lawsuit renders moot his appeal of the denial of class certification."  Slip op., at 1172.  Identifying the issue as one open in the Ninth Circuit, the Court began its analysis with an examination of decisions arising in the context of "involuntary" claim expiration:

The Supreme Court held in Geraghty that when a class representative’s claims expire involuntarily, that representative “retains a ‘personal stake’ in obtaining class certification sufficient” to maintain jurisdiction to appeal a denial of class certification. Id. at 404. The Court reasoned that the class representative maintained at least an interest in spreading litigation costs and shifting fees and expenses to the other litigants with similar claims. Id. at 403; see also Deposit Guar. Nat’l Bank, Jackson Miss. v. Roper, 445 U.S. 326, 334 n.6 (1980).

Slip op., at 1175.  Much like the Larner Court, the Ninth Circuit held:

We hold that when a class representative voluntarily settles his or her individual claims, but specifically retains a personal stake as identified by Geraghty and Roper, he or she retains jurisdiction to appeal the denial of class certification. In so holding, we join several other circuits. See Richards v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 453 F.3d 525 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Potter v. Norwest Mortgage, Inc., 329 F.3d 608 (8th Cir. 2003); Toms v. Allied Bond & Collection Agency, Inc., 179 F.3d 103 (4th Cir. 1999); Love v. Turlington, 733 F.2d 1562 (11th Cir. 1984).

Slip op. at 1175.  The Court then emphasized that "a class representative cannot release any and all interests he or she may have had in class representation through a private settlement agreement" and still assert the existence of a "personal stake" in the litigation.  Slip op. at 1175.

The Court then briefly criticized the District Court's failure to create a proper record for review when it refused to certify the proposed class for settlement purposes:  "It is clear here that the district court erred in denying class certification without providing any findings or providing any analysis of the Rule 23 factors."  Slip op., at 1179.  The Court succinctly said, "Meaningful appellate review is impossible."  Slip op., at 1179.

There was also a spirited exchange between District Judge Korman (Senior United States District Judge for the Eastern District of New York, sitting by designation), who concurred in the decision, and Circuit Judge Rymer, who dissented.

California Supreme Court activity for the week of October 26, 2009

The California Supreme Court held its (usually) weekly conference on October 28, 2009.  Notable results include:

  • A Petition for Review was denied in Messenger Courier Association of the Americas, et al. v. California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.  See this blog's prior post on this matter here.
  • A Petition for Review was denied in Ali v. U.S.A. Cab.  The interesting texture to this denial is that (1) I argued the appeal so I didn't cover this decision on this blog, and (2) aspects of Ali's construction of the Borello opinion are contrary to language in Messenger Courier, but both originate in the Fourth Appellate District, Division One.
  • A Depublication Request was denied in Clark v. American Residential Services LLC, et al.  See this blog's prior post on this matter here.