Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Class Action
Steigerwald v. Commissioner of Social Security
Class Counsel discovered the Social Security Administration's (SSA’s) systemic failure to perform “Subtraction Recalculations” and recovered over $106 million in past-due disability benefits. After performing the Subtraction Recalculations for all the claimants, the SSA argued that the district court did not have authority under the Social Security Act’s judicial-review provision, 42 U.S.C. 405(g), to order the Subtraction Recalculations and that Class Counsel cannot recover attorney fees under section 406(b) for representation of the claimants.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the award of $15.9 million in attorney fees to Class Counsel. SSA “may not hide behind” the statutory provisions merely because it erred at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the benefits-award process. The district court appropriately exercised judicial review under section 405(g), properly ordered the SSA to perform the Subtraction Recalculations, and properly awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees. The SSA failed to award claimants additional past-due benefits to which they were entitled. Counsel successfully sought judicial assistance to obtain those benefits. Congress did not create a statute that allows attorneys to recover fees when the SSA initially fails to award benefits, only to foreclose fee recovery when the SSA later unlawfully withholds additional benefits. View "Steigerwald v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law
Gelis v. BMW of North America LLC
A class action claimed that BMW knowingly manufactured and sold vehicles equipped with defective engines and included 20 causes of action, including alleged breach of warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, 15 U.S.C. 2301 (a federal fee-shifting statute), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, violations of state consumer fraud and deceptive trade practice statutes, and unjust enrichment. The parties reached a settlement to reimburse class members for expenses incurred and provide them with extended warranties. The district court concluded the settlement was worth at least $27 million. BMW stipulated that it would not object to Settlement Class Counsel’s application for an award of attorneys’ fees of up to $1,500,000 in the aggregate. The parties agreed that Counsel could apply for an award of attorneys’ fees not to exceed $3,700,000 in the aggregate. Class counsel sought $3.7 million.Applying the lodestar approach (multiplication of the hours counsel reasonably billed by a reasonable hourly rate) the district court adopted Class Counsel’s requested lodestar amount of $1,934,000, then applied a requested multiplier of 1.9 to reach a total fee award of $3.7 million. The Third Circuit vacated. The lodestar was based on an insufficient record. The charts provided by Counsel do not establish whether certain hours are duplicative or whether the total hours billed were reasonable for the work performed. View "Gelis v. BMW of North America LLC" on Justia Law
Kellogg, et al. v. Watts Guerra, et al.
This appeal stemmed from mass litigation between thousands of corn producers and an agricultural company (Syngenta). On one track, corn producers filed individual suits against Syngenta; on the second, other corn producers sued through class actions. The appellants were some of the corn producers who took the first track, filing individual actions. (the “Kellogg farmers.”) The Kellogg farmers alleged that their former attorneys had failed to disclose the benefits of participating as class members, resulting in excessive legal fees and exclusion from class proceedings. These allegations led the Kellogg farmers to sue the attorneys who had provided representation or otherwise assisted in these cases. The suit against the attorneys included claims of common-law fraud, violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Practices Act (RICO) and Minnesota’s consumer-protection statutes, and breach of fiduciary duty. While this suit was pending in district court, Syngenta settled the class actions and thousands of individual suits, including those brought by the Kellogg farmers. The settlement led to the creation of two pools of payment by Syngenta: one pool for a newly created class consisting of all claimants, the other pool for those claimants’ attorneys. For this settlement, the district court allowed the Kellogg farmers to participate in the new class and to recover on an equal basis with all other claimants. The settlement eliminated any economic injury to the Kellogg farmers, so the district court dismissed the RICO and common-law fraud claims. The court not only dismissed these claims but also assessed monetary sanctions against the Kellogg farmers. The farmers appealed certain district court decisions, but finding that there was no reversible error or that it lacked jurisdiction to review certain decisions, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. View "Kellogg, et al. v. Watts Guerra, et al." on Justia Law
Bowerman v. Field Asset Services, Inc.
FAS is in the business of pre-foreclosure property preservation for the residential mortgage industry. Bowerman contracted with FAS as a vendor. Bowerman alleged that FAS willfully misclassified him and members of a putative class as independent contractors, rather than employees, resulting in failure to pay overtime compensation and to indemnify them for their business expenses.The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s certification of a class of 156 individuals who personally performed work for FAS, reversed partial summary judgment in favor of the class, vacated an interim award of more than five million dollars in attorneys’ fees, and remanded. The class members failed to demonstrate that FAS’s liability was subject to common proof or that “damages are capable of measurement on a classwide basis,” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). The district court erred in finding no triable issue of material fact as to the employment relationship. There were genuine disputes of material fact: whether the vendors were free from FAS’s control, and whether they were engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business. The facts supported the conclusion that the vendors performed services for FAS in the usual course of FAS’s business. There was also a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the class members ever incurred reimbursable expenses or worked overtime. On remand, the district court may consider a “joint employment” issue for class members who own or operate distinct legal entities. View "Bowerman v. Field Asset Services, Inc." on Justia Law
Haggart v. United States
The Claims Court certified a class of landowners who owned property along a railroad corridor that was converted to a recreational trail under the National Trails System Act. Denise and Gordon Woodley, who jointly owned property along the railroad, were members of the class seeking just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. The Woodleys challenged a proposed settlement and fee award and won a remand that entitled them to access to certain documents used in the calculations of class member compensation and attorneys’ fees.After approval of a settlement agreement that required payment of compensation to the class under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act, 42 U.S.C. 4654(c), the Woodleys successfully sought attorney’s fees for work performed by counsel they jointly hired. Denise separately sought attorney’s fees for work performed by her attorney-spouse, Gordon, explaining that he was one of her lawyers throughout the proceeding; she also sought to recoup certain expenses. The Claims Court denied the motion, reasoning that pro se litigants cannot recover attorney’s fees and expenses and that Gordon, as a co-plaintiff and joint owner of the property at issue, was pro se and not compensable. The Federal Circuit affirmed in part. Denise is not entitled to attorney’s fees for the legal work performed by her attorney-spouse. The court remanded for a determination of the proper reimbursement, if any, of her claimed expenses. View "Haggart v. United States" on Justia Law
Petri v. Stericycle, Inc.
Following a False Claims Act lawsuit against Stericycle, customers were leaving and the price of Stericycle’s common stock dropped. On behalf of the company’s investors, Florida pension funds filed a securities fraud class action against Stericycle, its executives, board members, and the underwriters of its public offering, alleging that the defendants had inflated the stock price by making materially misleading statements about Stericycle’s fraudulent billing practices. The parties agreed to settle for $45 million. Lead counsel moved for a fee award of 25 percent of the settlement, plus costs. Petri, a class member, objected to the fee award, arguing that the amount was unreasonably high given the low risk of the litigation and the early stage at which the case settled. Petri moved to lift the stay the court had entered while the settlement agreement was pending so that he could seek discovery regarding class counsel’s billing methods, the fee allocation among firms, and counsel’s political and financial relationship with a lead plaintiff, a public pension fund.The district court approved the settlement and the proposed attorney fee and denied Petri’s discovery motion. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The district court did not give sufficient weight to evidence of ex-ante fee agreements, all the work that class counsel inherited from earlier litigation against Stericycle, and the early stage at which the settlement was reached. The court upheld the denial of the objector’s request for discovery into possible pay-to-play arrangements. View "Petri v. Stericycle, Inc." on Justia Law
Fessler v. Porcelana Corona de Mexico, S.A. de C.V.
The Fifth Circuit vacated the district court's award of fees to class counsel in a class action settlement involving consumers who purchased defective toilet tanks against defendants. The court agreed with Porcelana that the district court erred in calculating the lodestar and refusing to decrease it. In this case, the district court abused its discretion by failing to make any factual findings regarding the nature of the class's unsuccessful claims and an unsupported assertion is insufficient to permit the district court to bypass the proper lodestar calculation and only consider the unsuccessful claims under the eighth Johnson factor. Nor is this a case where the record supports such a conclusion in the absence of an explicit finding by the district court. Even assuming the district court had adequately supported its conclusion that unsuccessful claims were intertwined with those that proved successful, the court stated that the district court still failed to properly analyze the award in relation to the results obtained. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Fessler v. Porcelana Corona de Mexico, S.A. de C.V." on Justia Law
McKinney-Drobnis v. Massage Envy Franchising, LLC
A putative nationwide class of current and former members sued MEF, a membership-based spa-services company, alleging that MEF increased fees in violation of the membership agreement. The parties settled. In exchange for the release of all claims against MEF, class members could submit claims for “vouchers” for MEF products and services. The district court approved the settlement as “fair, reasonable, and adequate” under FRCP 23(e).The Ninth Circuit vacated. If a class action settlement is considered a “coupon” under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) additional restrictions apply to the settlement approval process. The court did not defer to the district court’s determination that the MEF vouchers were not coupons but applied a three-factor test, examining whether settlement benefits require class members “to hand over more of their own money before they can take advantage of” those benefits, whether the credit was valid only for “select products or services,” and how much flexibility the credit provided. The district court also failed to adequately investigate some of the potentially problematic aspects of the relationship between attorneys’ fees and the benefits to the class, which impacted the fairness of the entire settlement, not just attorneys’ fees. The district court did not apply the appropriate enhanced scrutiny; it failed to adequately address the three warning signs of implicit collusion. View "McKinney-Drobnis v. Massage Envy Franchising, LLC" on Justia Law
Allison v. Tinder, Inc.
The dating app Tinder offered reduced pricing for those under 29. Kim, in her thirties, paid more for her monthly subscription than those in their twenties. Kim filed suit, citing California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and its unfair competition statute. The parties reached a settlement, before class certification, that applied to a putative class, including all California-based Tinder users who were at least 29 years old when they subscribed. Tinder agreed to eliminate age-based pricing in California for new subscribers. Class members with Tinder accounts would automatically receive 50 “Super Likes” for which Tinder would ordinarily have charged $50. Class members who submitted a valid claim form would also receive their choice of $25 in cash, 25 Super Likes, or a one-month free subscription.Class members, whose attorneys represent the lead plaintiff in a competing age discrimination class action against Tinder in California state court, objected to the proposed settlement. The district court certified the class, granted final approval of the proposed settlement, and awarded Kim a $5,000 incentive payment and awarded $1.2 million in attorneys’ fees. The Ninth Circuit reversed. While the district court correctly recited the fairness factors under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e)(2), it materially underrated the strength of the plaintiff’s claims, substantially overstated the settlement’s worth, and failed to take the required hard look at indicia of collusion, including a request for attorneys’ fees that dwarfed the anticipated monetary payout to the class. View "Allison v. Tinder, Inc." on Justia Law
Medical & Chiropractic Clinic, Inc. v. Oppenheim
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were sued in at least five class action complaints, each one alleging that the Buccaneers sent telefax advertisements in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). In one class action, lawyers from the AW Firm, who had previously filed suit on behalf of a different plaintiff, added another class action representative, M&C. Shortly after an unsuccessful mediation was conducted, defendant, an attorney at the AW Firm who was principally involved in the mediation, left the firm to join the Bock Firm. The Bock Firm then filed a separate class action against the Buccaneers, which resulted in a proposed settlement.M&C then filed suit against the Bock Firm in state court, alleging that they had breached fiduciary duties owed to it as a named class representative. M&C and its counsel claimed that defendant gave attorneys at the Bock Firm confidential information about settlement negotiations in the AW Firm's class action, which assisted the Bock Firm in settling their class action quickly and to the detriment of the class. The district court granted summary judgment for defendant and the Bock Firm.The Eleventh Circuit held that the duties owed to a class representative do not differ from the duties owed to a class. The court also clarified the duties owed by class counsel in class actions generally and in the context of this case specifically. In this case, the court determined that in filing this action M&C and a principal at the AW Firm launched an impermissible collateral attack on the Bock Firm's attempt to certify and settle a class action. The court explained that their assertions should have been made only before the court that was exercising jurisdiction over the Rule 23 putative class action — the court in which the request to certify a settlement class and approve the settlement was made. The court found no error in the district court's determination that M&C failed to establish that it was damaged by any alleged breach of a fiduciary duty owed to it by defendant. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant and the Bock Firm. View "Medical & Chiropractic Clinic, Inc. v. Oppenheim" on Justia Law