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

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