Seventh Circuit Continues Scrutiny of Class Action Settlements and Cy Pres

US-CourtOfAppeals-7thCircuit-SealThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has, for better and worse, been at the forefront of federal class action jurisprudence recently. On the “better” side of the ledger, the appeals court has closely scrutinized and rejected a number of class action settlements in 2014. Its most recent rejection, Pearson v. NBTY, also dealt a serious blow to the  use of the controversial cy pres device in such settlements.

Judge Richard Posner regularly lands on Seventh Circuit panels involving class actions, where has been highly skeptical of class action settlements. In a June 2 opinion, Eubank v. Pella, he labeled the class action settlement “inequitable” and “even scandalous.” In another Posner-authored opinion, Redmand v. RadioShack, the Seventh Circuit on September 19 reversed a lower court’s approval of a coupon settlement. The court was especially troubled that the settling parties attempted to consider sums not available to the class members, such as “administrative costs,” when calculating the attorneys’ fees. As Reed Smith Counsel James Back and Rebecca Weil argued last month in a WLF Working Paper, such reasoning could be applied similarly to cy pres awards, the value of which settling parties seek to include when calculating fees.

The settling parties in Pearson v. NBTY, a consumer class action involving marketing claims for glucosamine pills, attempted to include a $1.13 million cy pres donation to the Orthopedic Research and Education Foundation when calculating attorneys’ fees. The trial judge refused to consider that amount as a “benefit” to the class when totaling the value of the settlement to be $20.2 million. The judge awarded the plaintiffs’ lawyers $1.93 million in fees.

The Center for Class Action Fairness objected to the settlement and on November 19, the Seventh Circuit, led by none other than Judge Posner, reversed the lower court. Judge Posner agreed with little of what the lower court determined, but he found the trial judge’s refusal to consider the cy pres amount in calculating the class benefit correct “for the obvious reason that the recipient of that award was not a member of the class.”

Separately, the court found that the cy pres award was itself improper. Judge Posner stated that while the recipient “seems perfectly reputable,” beneficiaries of cy pres are “entitled to receive money intended to compensate victims of consumer fraud only if it’s infeasible to provide that compensation to the victims—which has not been demonstrated” (our emphasis). Prior to reaching that conclusion, the opinion criticized the parties for seemingly “structur[ing] the claims process with an eye towards discouraging the filings of claims.” Less than one-quarter of one percent of the 4.72 million consumers notified sought the menial refund offered in NBTY. Judge Posner remarked that the claims process could have been simplified or “Rexall could have mailed $3 checks to all 4.72 million postcard recipients.”

The opinion contains several other positive statements and conclusions that district court judges and other circuit courts should find compelling, such as Judge Posner’s suggestion that “It might make sense for the district judge in a large class action suit like this to appoint an independent auditor, on the authority of Fed. R. Evid. 706, to estimate the reasonableness of class counsel’s billing rate.” But the double-blow to the cy pres device—that courts cannot consider it when calculating the settlement’s class benefit, and that the parties must prove that it is infeasible to provide the funds earmarked for the charity to the class members themselves—will likely be ruling’s most lasting achievement.

In the aforementioned WLF Working Paper, the authors asked, “Is the end near for a legal remedy with no basis in law?” With Judge Posner’s NBTY opinion exposing several more chinks in the doctrine’s already weakened armor, perhaps it is.

But we think it’s also important to take Judge Posner’s reasoning that cy pres is inappropriate in cases where money can’t feasibly be rewarded to plaintiffs to its logical endpoint: If plaintiffs cannot feasibly be located, why should a case be certified as a class action in the first place?

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

Concurrence in Federal Circuit’s “Ultramercial” Ruling Sends Pointed Message to Patent Litigants

Kaminski_Jeffri_LRFeatured Expert Contributor – Intellectual Property (Patents)

Jeffri A. Kaminski, Venable LLP

The recent Federal Circuit decision in Ultramercial v. Wild Tangent continues the trend of courts invalidating software and business method patents made vulnerable by the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International. The Ultramercial decision also continues the wave of “patent reform” in the courts, at the Patent Office, and in Congress. Software and business method patent owners and applicants should be concerned by these recent developments, and alleged infringers should be encouraged. The concurring opinion by Judge Mayer describes how an early determination of patent eligibility during litigation may help stem “[t]he scourge of meritless infringement claims [that] has continued unabated for decades.”

The Federal Circuit invalidated Ultramercial’s patent as being directed to an abstract idea, which is not patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The asserted patent, U.S. Patent No. 7,346,545 (“the ’545 Patent”), is optimistically titled, “Method and system for payment of intellectual property royalties by interposed sponsor on behalf of consumer over a telecommunications network.” The main patent claim includes eleven specific steps for displaying an advertisement in exchange for access to copyrighted media. However, the appellate court determined that the patent “describes only the abstract idea of showing an advertisement before delivering free content” and is therefore invalid.

In spite of the eleven steps enumerated in the method claim, the court held that merely adding additional routine steps to an abstract idea “does not transform an otherwise abstract idea into patent-eligible subject matter.” Furthermore, although the claims of the ’545 Patent were tied to a general purpose computer, “adding a computer to otherwise conventional steps does not make an invention patent-eligible” either. Continue reading

Copyright and Patent Holders Advance Separate Market-Based, Self-Help Initiatives

copyrightIntellectual property (IP) rights and innovation are inextricably intertwined. It’s not surprising, then, that in the spirit of innovation, some IP owners have taken proactive steps to advance and defend their own property rights. They understand that reliance on current or future government action is no panacea. In separate developments this past week, some of the world’s most successful copyright holders adopted a creative approach to bolster those rights, while leaders of three different patent “self-help” entities explained their unique strategies at a Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) briefing.

Copyrights and WhereToWatch. Pirated online file peddlers and their apologists routinely argue that they are meeting consumers’ unfulfilled demand for affordable access to digital music, movies, and TV shows. As we noted in a WLF Legal Pulse post last month, however, “Huge music libraries can be accessed for free or low cost at outlets such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, and iTunes. Online options for TV and movie content continue to multiply. Copyright-infringing consumers can no longer claim that they seek pirated content because it isn’t digitally available for a reasonable price.” A September 23, 2014 report by KPMG provides empirical supports that argument. It found, for instance, that 96% of the top 20 movies for the years 2000 to 2010 were available through legal online distributors. Also, 96% of television’s top 100 shows in 2012 were available. Continue reading

After “Smelly Washer” Trial Win, Challenges Await Whirlpool in Related Cases

WhirlpoolWhirlpool Corp. had major reason to celebrate last week; a federal jury rejected class-action claims that “Duet” front-load washing machines sold in Ohio between 2001 and 2009 were defective because of their alleged tendency to develop a moldy smell. This “smelly washer” case has drawn significant media attention in recent years after it twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether the case should be certified as a class action. The High Court in 2013 vacated a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision certifying a class of more than 100,000 Ohio consumers; but after the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed its decision on remand, the Supreme Court denied review this past February—thus setting the stage for the three-week trial that just ended last Thursday. But if history is any guide, plaintiffs’ lawyers will not willingly accept that the verdict binds all the absent class members (only two class members actually participated in the trial).

Indeed, the ongoing challenge Whirlpool faces underscores why plaintiff classes should rarely, if ever, be certified in consumer product defect cases. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 states that suits seeking monetary damages are not appropriate for class action treatment unless common issues of fact and law “predominate” over individual issues of fact and law. As the Washington Legal Foundation explained in the brief it filed when this case was before the Supreme Court, individual issues (e.g., whether an individual plaintiff’s product was defective and whether that defect caused injury) will almost always overwhelm common issues of fact in the typical consumer product suit. Moreover, Rule 23 requires that the named plaintiffs demonstrate that they can adequately represent the interests of absent class members; if representation is inadequate (e.g., if their interests diverge from those of absent class members), due process case law dictates that absent class members are not bound by any judgment adverse to the class. Thus, the defendant in a certified consumer-product class action often faces a heads-you-win-tails-I lose dilemma: if a company goes to trial and loses to the class, it faces a massive liability award, but if it prevails at trial, absent class members are likely to resist any res judicata claim. Continue reading

High Court Should Not “DIG” Dart Cherokee Basin Case

supreme courtDart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, which raises right-of-removal issues under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), is among the more important civil justice cases being heard by the Supreme Court this term. Legal commentators are virtually unanimous in concluding that the trial court adopted an overly restrictive standard governing removal of cases from state to federal court. Yet, as Columbia Law Professor Ronald Mann noted in a recent column for ScotusBlog, questioning during the October 7 oral argument revealed that the Court may be reluctant to decide the case at all. Every question posed to counsel for Petitioner focused on “vehicle” issues, not on the merits of his CAFA arguments. Several justices even suggested that the case might be dismissed as improvidently granted—which would be a terrible mistake.

On closer examination, the procedural posture issues that troubled the Court at oral argument turn out to be insubstantial; they should not dissuade the Court from addressing the Question Presented by the petition. Moreover, as explained in Washington Legal Foundation’s amicus brief, it is critical that the Court retain jurisdiction in this case to unwind the judicially created doctrine that motivated the mistake below in the first place. Dart Cherokee provides the Court an ideal opportunity to end the rule of construction whereby federal courts continue to narrowly construe federal removal statutes against the party seeking removal, contrary to Supreme Court precedent and despite the utter lack of any textual basis for doing so. Continue reading

White House Boosts Fictional “Food Addiction” Concept to School Kids

BSFriesAs we’ve discussed numerous times here, some nutrition nanny activists, regulators, and plaintiffs’ lawyers have embraced and promoted the concept that food can be “addictive.” The term grabs people’s attention, conjuring up disturbing mental images of helplessness and withdrawal. It’s no wonder, then, that the notion of “food addiction” is often invoked in the context of greater government regulation, taxes, and advertising restrictions designed to redirect our dietary choices.

On September 26, the concept received its highest profile reference yet, from First Lady Michelle Obama, during an interview broadcast to millions of students on the in-school “Channel One News.” When asked about the criticism the federal government’s new school lunch rules have faced, the First Lady responded:

It’s natural. Change is hard. And the thing about highly processed, sugary, salty foods is that you get addicted to it. I don’t want to just settle because it’s hard. I don’t want to give up because it’s expensive. I don’t want that to be the excuse.

The interview appears to have been very carefully scripted, so her mention of “addiction” was hardly spontaneous or casual, nor was her referencing it in the context of “highly processed, sugary, salty foods.” Federal government regulation is taking direct aim at those demonized products and their ingredients.

For instance, the Department of Agriculture has proposed banning the sale of certain foods in public schools that don’t meet “Smart Snacks” guidelines, as well as banning advertising of those products in schools. Also, as part of its update of the Nutrition Facts label affixed to all packaged foods, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing a new “added sugars” item. FDA is pursuing this mandate even though the agency acknowledges that no chemical difference exists between naturally occurring and added sugars in food. The “added sugars” mandate would also expose federal regulators to constitutional challenges under the First and Fourth Amendments, as leading food regulation attorneys Richard Frank and Bruce Silverglade argue in a September 26 WLF Legal Backgrounder.

The First Lady’s reference to “food addiction” was ill-advised, especially considering the age and maturity level of her captive audience on Channel One News. The concept of addiction has been significantly dumbed down and politicized over the past few decades to the point where it has almost lost any objective meaning. Reputable scientists have questioned not only the methodology behind “food addiction” studies, but also the researchers’ motivation.

The “Let’s Move” effort led by the First Lady advances the indisputably worthy goal of a healthier America, but that goal cannot be met by fomenting faulty food addiction concerns. Such a concept creates a serious moral hazard—people struggling to lose weight may throw up their hands because they believe addiction to (insert high-calorie product) has taken hold. Talk of addiction, and the choice-restrictive public policies it fuels, also diverts attention and resources from actual solutions to obesity in America.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

Missouri Supreme Court Invalidates State’s Legislative Cap on Punitive Damages

Behrens_MGuest Commentary

by Mark A. Behrens, Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P.*

On September 9, the Supreme Court of Missouri struck down the state’s legislative limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be imposed on defendants. Under the cap, punitive damages could not exceed the greater of $500,000 or five times the net amount of the judgment. Lewellen v. Franklin arose from an unremarkable fraudulent misrepresentation and unlawful merchandising suit. In finding that the statutory damages cap violated Lewellen’s right to a jury trial, the Court followed a 2012 decision invalidating the state’s cap on non-economic damages in medical liability cases, Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers.

This holding is an extreme outlier.  Virtually every other state court that has considered the constitutionality of punitive damages caps has held that such laws do not violate the jury trial right because the jury’s fact-finding function is preserved.  The jury continues to resolve disputed facts with respect to liability and assessment of legally available remedies.  Once the jury has decided these issues, the constitutional mandate is met—or at least is virtually every other state in the country.  Nationally, both state and federal courts consistently have upheld the constitutionality of punitive damages caps. Continue reading