“Mr. Frank [former Overlawyered blogger Ted Frank] argued his own case on Wednesday, a rarity in the Supreme Court, and he exhibited comprehensive knowledge of the law and an only occasionally halting style.” [Adam Liptak, New York Times] The transcript of oral argument, in which several Justices expressed doubt that the lower court had adequately pinned down standing issues, is here. More on Frank v. Gaos and the cy pres issues it raises: Richard Wolf/USA Today, Daniel Fisher, Jim Copland, SCOTUSBlog, Federalist Society SCOTUSBrief video; earlier here, etc.
Congratulations to Ted Frank, profiled Oct. 15 by Adam Liptak at the New York Times for arguing his own case (Frank v. Gaos, on class action settlements) before the U.S. Supreme Court. The article does not mention one of Ted’s most salient public roles, namely co-blogging for years as my most inspired recruit at Overlawyered and at Point of Law.
Frank v. Gaos is a challenge to the cy pres elements of a privacy class action against Google [Federalist Society podcast with Ted, NLJ via CEI]. Ilya Shapiro at Cato (which has filed an amicus brief) describes some of the factual background:
Attorneys’ fees of $2.125 million were awarded out of the settlement fund, amounting to 25 percent of the fund and more than double the amount estimated based on class counsel’s actual hours worked.
But no class members other than the named plaintiffs received any money! Instead, the remainder of the settlement fund was awarded to six organizations that “promote public awareness and education, and/or…support research, development, and initiatives, related to protecting privacy on the Internet.” Three of the recipients were alma maters of class counsel.
This diversion of settlement money from the victims to causes chosen by the lawyers is referred to as cy pres. “Cy pres” means “as near as possible,” and courts have typically used the cy pres doctrine to reform the terms of a charitable trust when the stated objective of the trust is impractical or unworkable. The use of cy pres in class action settlements—particularly those that enable the defendant to control the funds—is an emerging trend that violates the due process and free speech rights of class members.
James Beck at Drug and Device Law writes that the settlement in question “features just about everything we don’t like about cy pres.” Quoting:
- Excessive counsel fees – class counsel stands to walk away with fully 38% of the settlement as fees. 869 F.3d at 747.
- Lack of classwide recovery – the court declared the entire settlement “non-distributable” because, even without opposition, neither the class members nor their damages could be determined. Id. at 742.
- Excessive cy pres – nothing is more excessive than 100% ? six uninjured charities took 100% of what class counsel left behind, and the 129 million supposedly injured class members took nothing. Id. at 743.
- Rampant conflict of interest? Three of the charities were law schools – and they all had ties to counsel in the case.
Litigation industry self-perpetuation – cy pres recipients were expected solicit more lawsuits by “educat[ing]” the public and “publiciz[ing]” privacy issues. Id. at 746-47.
Oral argument before the Court will be held Oct. 31.
- Due diligence? Prosecutors say $32 million staged slip-fall ring drew on services of litigation finance firm [Matthew Goldstein and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, New York Times]
- Federalist Society podcast previews Frank v. Gaos, Ted Frank’s case on cy pres in a Google settlement;
- Will public get to look at details of $75 million class action fee that has been subject to criticism? [John O’Brien, Legal NewsLine and Max Brantley, Arkansas Times on State Street Bank and Trust settlement] Update: special master said to find attorney misconduct and recommend substantial fee refund [Chris Villani, Law360 (sub)]
- “Recent developments have let the air out of slack-fill lawsuits” [Meghana Shah, Brittany Cambre and Amber Unwala, New York Law Journal, earlier on slack fill] Theater-box candy suit: “Don’t squash our Junior Mints” [Chicago Tribune editorial]
- Tales of the Food Court: California class-action climate encourages flimsy claims against beer and bean purveyors [Greg Herbers, WLF]
- Supreme Court of Canada: commercial garage not liable for injury suffered by teen while stealing car from lot [Rankin (Rankin’s Garage & Sales) v. J.J.]
The Supreme Court has agreed to review Frank v. Gaos, a case in which Ted Frank is objecting to a Google class action settlement. [Barbara Leonard, Courthouse News; Kieren McCarthy, The Register (U.K.)] From the latter piece:
Of the $8.5m that Google has agreed to pay out, not a single cent will go to the actual users whose privacy was violated. It will instead go to the lawyers that brought the case on behalf of those users ($2.125m, no less) and a group of seven organizations that the lawyers, along with Google executives, decided should become “cy pres” recipients.
Those recipients have been controversial from the moment they were named: three of them are law schools, and just so happen to be the same law schools that the lead lawyers went to; and the remaining four are organizations that Google has repeatedly given money to, in large part because they share the same values and goals as Google itself….
His position is quite clear: the use of cy pres – pronounced, fittingly, “sigh, pray” – should be a last resort, and if used, there should be no conflict of interests or even the appearance of a conflict, for those involved in drawing up the list for who gets the money.
Dubious use of cy pres has been a regular topic here at Overlawyered, even before the years when Ted blogged here:
“When you add up all the legal fees and costs, the lawyers would come out of the settlement with more money than the class members they represented. The payout to all the lawyers involved would be about $63 million.” More details on the Anthem data breach case discussed earlier here, and Ted Frank’s role in calling it into question [Bob Dorigo Jones]
Also, for those with access, Ted has written a piece for the Wall Street Journal on the need to rein in abuse of the cy pres doctrine in disbursing lawsuit proceeds, with a suitable vehicle on the horizon:
A bipartisan coalition of 16 state attorneys general is also urging the Supreme Court to hear Frank v. Gaos. They agree that the Ninth Circuit has created a standard that will make it far too easy for attorneys to siphon millions of dollars of consumers’ money into their own slush funds. Chief Justice John Roberts has previously expressed concern about cy pres abuses. We hope the Supreme Court will protect consumers who take part in class actions from being preyed upon by their attorneys.
- Poster case for cy pres abuse: Cato files amicus brief in Google referral header privacy class action settlement [Ilya Shapiro, earlier]
- “California Court Decision Offers Hope for Procedural Brake on Lawyer-Driven Class Actions” [Glenn Lammi, WLF on Noel v. Thrifty Payless]
- New book details Tampa attorney Brian Donovan’s frustrations with multi-district litigation (MDL) in Transocean spill case [Amanda Robert, Legal NewsLine]
- West Virginia: “House moves to limit Attorney General’s use of settlement funds” [Brad McElhinny, WV Metro News]
- “2017 Civil Justice Update” [Mark Behrens and Sarah Goggans, Federalist Society white paper]
- “Here’s why you’ll be paying more for car insurance if you live in Baton Rouge, New Orleans” [Dan Fagan, The Advocate]
It’s a cy pres special: members of the injured class will get no part of an $8.5 million settlement Google negotiated with plaintiff’s lawyers over a data privacy lapse. “Instead, the money is to be split among the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who billed their time at $1,000 an hour, and others. The others are cy pres recipients, or organizations that are not parties in the suit: Carnegie Mellon University; World Privacy Forum; the Center for Information, Society and Policy at the Chicago-Kent College of Law; Stanford Center for Internet and Society; Harvard University’s Berkman Center; and AARP Inc.” Ted Frank’s Center for Class Action Fairness is asking the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari after its objections were turned down by lower courts. [Dee Thompson, Legal NewsLine, earlier here and here (Beck: “cy pres abuse poster child”)]
Plus: Bank of America settlement will now yield cy pres windfall for five University of California law schools of $150,000 rather than $20 million. Easy come, easy go? [ABA Journal]
- “The entire panoply of extreme cy pres abuse is present”: Google privacy class action [James Beck; Ted Frank petition for rehearing]
- Settlement administrator greatly overestimated claims in TCPA suit against Rita’s Italian Ide, judge orders reallocation of money to class [P.J. D’Annunzio, Legal Intelligencer]
- “U.S. Judges Could Learn From U.K. Court’s Rejection Of MasterCard Class Action” [Daniel Fisher]
- Revisiting a failed 1978 proposal to replace class action with hybrid public/private enforcement [David Freeman Engstrom, U. Penn. L. Rev. via CL&P]
- David Marcus (Arizona), “History of the Modern Class Action, Part II” covering 1981-1994 [forthcoming Fordham L.Rev., I turn up in footnote 360 and a couple of others; Part I is here]
- Medical monitoring class actions, once seen as wave of future. have not done well [John Sullivan, Drug & Device Law]
- “The Impropriety of Punitive Damages in Mass Torts” [James A. Henderson Jr., forthcoming Georgia Law Review/SSRN via Stephen McConnell, Reed Smith/JD Supra]
- “Will SCOTUS Ruling Affect Philadelphia Court, Where 94% Of New Plaintiffs Are From Out Of State?” [Nicholas Malfitano, Penn Record/Forbes, earlier on Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court]
- Time for asbestos trusts to do what’s right [Christine Biederman, The Hill]
- “Google’s $8.5m class-action privacy payout goes to: Lawyers’ alma maters, web giant’s pals” [Kieren McCarthy, The Register on Ninth Circuit settlement approval]
- European Court of Justice should take lesson from American courts which after relaxing rigor of causality scrutiny, and seeing baseless payouts multiply, have since been on a Daubert rebound [Theodore Dalrymple, Law and Liberty; Marilyn Moberg and Kathryn Bond, Drug and Device Law]
- Law firm gold rush for opioids-recoupment suits continues as New York counties sign up [Steve Lieberman, Journal News (Rockland County, N.Y.]
In the D.C. Circuit case of Keepseagle v. Perdue, mentioned in this space last month, Judge Janice Rogers Brown had some choice words regarding the constitutional status of class-action slush funds arising from the settlement of a suit against the federal government on behalf of Native Americans claiming discrimination against them by the Department of Agriculture:
$380,000,000 is, to use the late Senator Dirksen’s wry phrase, “real money.” That is what has been left on the table for private disbursement in this case. Perhaps one day, I will possess my colleagues’ schadenfreude toward the Executive Branch raiding hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars out of the Treasury, putting them into a slush fund disguised as a settlement, and then doling the money out to whatever constituency the Executive wants bankrolled. But, that day is not today….
The Executive Branch may wish to favor certain interests on the taxpayer’s dime. It may wish to use the Judicial Branch’s enforcement of settlement agreements to avoid asking Congress for an appropriation. But the Constitution’s design gives the People’s elected representatives a means to thwart these “overgrown prerogatives.” . . . By limiting the “judicial Power” to resolving “Cases” and “Controversies,” . . . the Constitution ensures the Judicial Branch has “no influence over . . . the purse.” . . . Expenditures toward the fulfilment of public policy are integral to policymaking itself, and policymaking is left to the legislature. . . . In short, congressional control over the People’s purse is a structural limit on both the Executive and Judicial Branches.
Alas, the analysis came in a dissent. Mark Pulliam writes up the case at Liberty and Law.