United States: Cy Pres Abuse Poster Child

Last Updated: September 12 2017
Article by James Beck

We've never liked the "cy pres" concept in the context of class actions. We opposed it (not terribly successfully) when the ALI was considering it. We believe that taking money supposedly representing "damages" owed to class members and giving it to strangers is inherently substantive and thus not allowed by Fed. R. Civ. P. 23. We also have yet to see any substantive source of court authority to do that. To us, a cy pres settlement is an indicator of a lawsuit that should never have been brought, as it is an admission that even without any opposition the plaintiff is unable to prove damages or causation. Cy pres is merely a dodge to make settlements look larger so that class counsel fees can likewise be inflated.

We have also noted the complete dearth of United States Supreme Court precedent supporting the use of cy pres in class actions, and further that the concurring opinion in the certiorari denial in Marek v. Lane, 134 S.Ct. 8 (2013), indicated interest on (at least) the part of Chief Justice Roberts in examining the validity of this doctrine.

We think that the split Ninth Circuit decision in In re Google Referrer Header Privacy Litigation, ___ F.3d ___, 2017 WL 3601250 (9th Cir. Aug. 22, 2017) ("GRHPL"), might just be the appropriate vehicle for seeking the Supreme Court review suggested in Marek. Here's why.

GRHPL had nothing to do with drugs or medical devices, but everything to do with cy pres abuse. It was a privacy action that challenged the defendant's storage and use of the search history of persons who had voluntarily used its free web searching algorithms. Substantively this is, of course, complete garbage, since the quid pro quo of Google (and virtually every one of its chief competitors) making these search websites available for free is its ability to monetize the consumer preference data thereby created.

Would you rather pay to search the Internet?

We didn't think so.

Enough on the merits. GRHPL was a privacy class action. Those are never tried. They are either dismissed or they settle. This one settled, early, "before formal class certification." Id. at *3 The total settlement amount was $8.5 million – in return for a "release of the claims of the approximately 129 million people" who had used the defendant's search capabilities over a period of almost eight years. 2017 WL 3601250, at *2. The only other "benefit" for the class, if one could call it that, was the defendant "provide information on its website disclosing how users' search terms are shared with third parties." Id. As far as what the defendant actually did, the alleged violation that supposedly spawned the litigation, the GRHPL opinion mentioned no changes at all. "Of the $8.5 million settlement fund, approximately $3.2 million was set aside for attorneys' fees, administration costs, and incentive payments to the named plaintiffs." Id. That's right, class counsel and their hangers-on stood to receive 38% of a recovery that never came close to going to trial. See id. at *3 (referring to settlement "at this early stage of litigation").

That outcome was perfectly OK with the majority in GRHPL, which rejected the "view that the settlement should have been valued at a lower amount for the purposes of calculating attorneys' fees simply because it was cy pres–only." Id. at *8. This holding is, of course, in direct conflict with Judge Posner's decision (discussed in our earlier post) that cy pres awards should be "excluded" altogether from counsel fee calculations because they "d[o] not benefit the class." Pearson v. NBTY, Inc., 772 F.3d 778, 781, 784 (7th Cir. 2014). Circuit conflicts such as this are the stuff of which Supreme Court review is made.

Having settled the litigation, what did the representative plaintiffs and class counsel do to provide recovery to the class itself? Nothing. Another thing that makes GRHPL an excellent candidate for Supreme Court review is the absence of other issues besides cy pres. In this case 100% of the settlement went to "cy pres recipients" and 0% to the purported class:

The remaining $5.3 million or so was allocated to six cy pres recipients, each of which would receive anywhere from 15 to 21% of the money, provided that they agreed "to devote the funds to promote public awareness and education, and/or to support research, development, and initiatives, related to protecting privacy on the Internet.

Id.

The entire panoply of extreme cy pres abuse is present in GRHPL. As we mentioned above, use of cy pres is an admission that even when the defendants cease to oppose the litigation, plaintiffs are unable to prove basic elements of any cause of action – causation and damages. If this case were not a class action, it would have been dismissed. Here, however, "the district court found . . . the settlement fund was non-distributable." Id. at *3. The Ninth Circuit however was perfectly willing to allow "cy pres-only settlement[s]":

because the proof of individual claims would be burdensome or distribution of damages costly. We have never imposed a categorical ban on a settlement that does not include direct payments to class members.

Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted).

We support such a "categorical ban." The inability of even unopposed plaintiffs to figure out who was injured and how much is a strong indicator that litigation is not the answer to the alleged problem. In GRHPL, "each class member was entitled to a paltry 4 cents in recovery − a de minimis amount if ever there was one." Id. at *4. As to that situation, however, the United States Supreme Court has held:

[T]he venerable maxim de minimis non curat lex ("the law cares not for trifles") is part of the established background of legal principles against which all enactments are adopted, and which all enactments (absent contrary indication) are deemed to accept.

Wisconsin Dept. of Revenue v. William Wrigley, Jr. Co., 505 U.S. 214, 231 (1992) (string citation to five earlier Supreme Court cases omitted). The kinds of cases epitomized by GRHPL should be the province of government regulators, not private attorneys pocketing almost 40% of the settlement proceeds and giving the rest of it away to their friendly third parties. We agree with the objectors, whose position was "if the settlement fund was non-distributable, then a class action cannot be the superior means of adjudicating this controversy." Id. at *4. The Ninth Circuit contrary position implicitly assumed, however, that litigation is always "superior" to non-litigation. That is judicial triumphalism of the worst sort. Lawyers and judges are not indispensable. Disputes can be resolved in other ways. There are some things that regulators are better at, and situations where would-be litigants can't show causation or damages – what ordinary litigants must prove – are one such example.

Then there were the cy pres recipients themselves – particularly the law schools, described as the "usual suspects" – given money for "promoting privacy protection on the Internet" and "educat[ing] the class about online privacy risks." Id. at *5. In other words, this all-cy pres settlement is a classic example of another form of litigation abuse, specifically the litigation industry using money supposedly belonging to "victims" (whose damages can't be proven) to perpetuate itself. Here, the cy pres awards would fund advocacy organizations (AARP and the World Privacy Forum), which turn around and file pro-plaintiff amicus briefs in other litigation (search for their names within the same paragraph as "amicus" and you'll see we're right). They also fund specialty clinics at law schools to train still more lawyers and invent more expansive liability theories, all for the purpose of pursuing still more unprovable class actions.

Beyond that, all three of the law schools just happened to have pre-existing relationships with both class counsel and the defendant. Specifically:

[Defendant] has in the past donated to at least some of the cy pres recipients, three of the cy pres recipients previously received [its] settlement funds, and three of the cy pres recipients are organizations housed at class counsel's alma maters.

Id. at *5. Such favoritism is precisely the kind of abuse that the ALI cautioned against when (over our objections) it chose to open the door to cy pres, despite the utter lack of recognized judicial power to give absent class members' money to non-litigants. "A cy pres remedy should not be ordered if the court or any party has any significant prior affiliation with the intended recipient that would raise substantial questions about whether the selection of the recipient was made on the merits." Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation §3.07, comment b (ALI 2010) (cited at 2017 WL 3601250, at *5).

Again, the majority in GRHPL sped right through the flashing yellow light. Repeated receipt of cy pres money from the same defendant was excused because better education of lawyers (to bring more lawsuits) was viewed positively. Id. at *6 ("Given that, over time, major players such as [defendant] may be involved in more than one cy pres settlement, it is not an abuse of discretion for a court to bless a strong nexus between the cy pres recipient and the interests of the class over a desire to diversify the pick via novel beneficiaries that are less relevant or less qualified"). Giving away money that supposedly belongs to the class to the law schools counsel attended was also OK because, what the hey, everybody does it:

The claim that counsel's receipt of a degree from one of these schools taints the settlement can't be entertained with a straight face. Each of these schools graduates thousands of students each year. . . . The court affirmatively analyzed the issue and was cognizant of the claim of a potential conflict. All class counsel swore that they have no affiliations with the specific research centers. Class counsel repeated that attestation at the final settlement approval hearing. . . . The district court found "no indication that counsel's allegiance to a particular alma mater factored into the selection process."

Id. at *6. And if you really believe that. . . . Well, a number of courts (including the Ninth Circuit) have pointed out "[w]hat we know as men and women we must not forget as judges." Larson v. Dumke, 900 F.2d 1363, 1369 (9th Cir. 1990); see also United States v. Blackburn, 461 F.3d 259, 264 (2d Cir. 2006); Henderson v. Frank, 155 F.3d 159, 164 (3d Cir. 1998); United States v. Jefferson, 925 F.2d 1242, 1253 n.13 (10th Cir. 1991). Not one, but all three, of the law school cy pres recipients just happened to be the alma maters of class counsel. That strains credibility past the breaking point.

We're not the only ones. In the words of the dissent in GRHPL:

Our precedent requires that district courts must be particularly vigilant not only for explicit collusion, but also for more subtle signs that class counsel have allowed pursuit of their own self-interests and that of certain class members to infect the negotiations. In our case, we have a cy pres-only settlement. That alone raises a yellow flag. Furthermore, we have a class settlement before formal class certification. That raises another yellow flag. Lastly, we have almost half of the settlement fund, several million dollars, being given to class counsel's alma maters. To me, that raises a red flag.

2017 WL 3601250, at *10.

The only members of the class who received any payment at all were – you guessed it – the named class representative. The settlement paid "$15,000 in incentive awards to the three named plaintiffs." Id. at *3. The remaining 129 million or so class members received zilch.

We think this is a case that should go to the United States Supreme Court. One problem with the Ninth Circuit is precedent. "Objectors would also have us ignore our prior endorsement of cy pres awards." GRHPL, 2017 WL 3601250, at *4. The Supreme Court doesn't have that problem. Justice Roberts is already looking for a case to consider whether cy pres should be allowed at all. We don't think it should, and further believe that courts have no substantive power to take money from litigants and hand it out to uninjured third party bystanders, charitable or otherwise. GRHPL created a circuit split (unacknowledged), and if the Court takes a look at GRHPL, it will see the full spectrum of abuse that cy pres awards allow to occur. Given that background, the chances are good that a majority of the justices be willing to inter cy pres once and for all. Bad facts can sometimes make good law, and we hope GRHPL might be one of those instances.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
James Beck
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Reed Smith
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Reed Smith
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions