Justia Class Action Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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A class action complaint alleged that Honeywell engaged in uncompetitive and illegal conduct to increase its market share of round thermostats and to use its dominant market position to overcharge customers. In 2013, the parties reached a settlement and asked the trial court to preliminarily approve it. The court initially declined to do so because it had concerns about the notice proposed to be sent to class members. Those concerns were subsequently addressed to the court’s satisfaction, and on February 4, 2014, the court preliminarily approved the settlement. The notice of settlement was subsequently published and distributed to class members. The long version was distributed and posted on a website, and the short version was published in various print publications. The trial court found that four objectors to the settlement failed to establish they had standing, but rejected one objection on timeliness grounds and rejected the other three on their merits. The court of appeal affirmed, except for the ruling on standing, finding that the court properly approved the distribution of residual settlement funds and awarded class counsel attorney fees that amounted to 37.5 percent of the settlement fund. View "Roos v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2010, Southwest Airlines stopped honoring certain in-flight drink vouchers issued to customers who had bought “Business Select” fares. Customers filed suit, seeking to represent a class of similarly situated plaintiffs. The parties reached a settlement to provide replacement drink vouchers to all class members, and injunctive relief constraining how Southwest could issue future vouchers. The parties negotiated an agreement on fees for class counsel. The court certified the class and approved the settlement’s class relief components, but awarded counsel a smaller fee than requested. Two class members objected, arguing that the settlement was unfair to the class because it was too generous to class counsel. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The “coupon settlement” provisions of the Class Action Fairness Act, 28 U.S.C. 1712, allowed the court to award attorney fees based on the lodestar method rather than the value of the redeemed coupons. While the fee aspects of the settlement include troublesome features, the settlement provides class members essentially complete relief. The financial and professional relationship between lead class counsel and one lead plaintiff created a potential conflict of interest that should have been disclosed, but another lead plaintiff had no conflict and the class received essentially complete relief, so there was no basis for decertification or rejecting the settlement. The court instead removed that plaintiff’s $15,000 incentive award and reduced the lawyer’s fee. View "Markow v. Southwest Airlines Co." on Justia Law

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After the merger of NationsBank and BankAmerica, shareholders filed class actions alleging violations of securities laws. The district court appointed Oetting as lead plaintiff and the Green law firm, as lead counsel. The litigation resulted in a $333 million settlement for the NationsBank class. The Eighth Circuit affirmed approval of the settlement over Oetting’s objection. On the recommendation of Green, the court appointed Heffler as claims administrator. A Heffler employee conspired to submit false claims, resulting in fraudulent payment of $5.87 million. The court denied Green leave to file a supplemental complaint against Heffler. Oetting filed a separate action against Heffler that is pending. After distributions, $2.4 million remained. Green moved for distribution cy pres and requested an additional award of $98,114.34 in attorney’s fees for post-settlement work. Oetting opposed both, argued that Green should disgorge fees for abandoning the class, and filed a separate class action, alleging malpractice by negligently hiring and failing to supervise Heffler and abandonment of the class. The court granted Green’s motion for a cy pres distribution and for a supplemental fee award and denied disgorgement. The Eighth Circuit reversed the cy pres award, ordering additional distribution to the class, and vacated the supplemental fee award as premature. The district court then dismissed the malpractice complaint, concluding that Oetting lacked standing. The Eighth Circuit affirmed that collateral estoppel precluded the rejected disgorgement and class-abandonment claims; pendency of an appeal did not suspend preclusive effects. View "Oetting v. Norton" on Justia Law

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After the merger of NationsBank and BankAmerica, shareholders filed class actions alleging violations of securities laws. The district court appointed Oetting as lead plaintiff and the Green law firm, as lead counsel. The litigation resulted in a $333 million settlement for the NationsBank class. The Eighth Circuit affirmed approval of the settlement over Oetting’s objection. On the recommendation of Green, the court appointed Heffler as claims administrator. A Heffler employee conspired to submit false claims, resulting in fraudulent payment of $5.87 million. The court denied Green leave to file a supplemental complaint against Heffler. Oetting filed a separate action against Heffler that is pending. After distributions, $2.4 million remained. Green moved for distribution cy pres and requested an additional award of $98,114.34 in attorney’s fees for post-settlement work. Oetting opposed both, argued that Green should disgorge fees for abandoning the class, and filed a separate class action, alleging malpractice by negligently hiring and failing to supervise Heffler and abandonment of the class. The court granted Green’s motion for a cy pres distribution and for a supplemental fee award and denied disgorgement. The Eighth Circuit reversed the cy pres award, ordering additional distribution to the class, and vacated the supplemental fee award as premature. The district court then dismissed the malpractice complaint, concluding that Oetting lacked standing. The Eighth Circuit affirmed that collateral estoppel precluded the rejected disgorgement and class-abandonment claims; pendency of an appeal did not suspend preclusive effects. View "Oetting v. Norton" on Justia Law

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Defendants manufacture vitamins and nutritional supplements, including glucosamine pills, designed to help people with joint disorders, such as osteoarthritis. Several class action suits were filed under the Class Action Fairness Act, 28 U.S.C. 1332(d)(2), claiming violations of states’ consumer protection laws by making false claims. Eight months later, class counsel negotiated a nationwide settlement that was approved with significant modifications. The settlement requires Rexall to pay $1.93 million in fees to class counsel, plus $179,676 in expenses, $1.5 million in notice and administration costs, $1.13 million to the Orthopedic Research and Education Foundation, $865,284 to the 30,245 class members who submitted claims, and $30,000 to the six named plaintiffs ($5,000 apiece) Class members, led by the Center for Class Action Fairness, objected. The Seventh Circuit reversed, characterizing the settlement as “a selfish deal between class counsel and the defendant.” While most consumers of glucosamine pills are elderly and bought the product in containers with labels that recite the misrepresentations, only one-fourth of one percent of them will receive even modest compensation; for a limited period the labels will be changed, in trivial respects. The court questioned: “for conferring these meager benefits class counsel should receive almost $2 million?” View "Pearson v. NBTY, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2005 class counsel initiated a class action against Wells Fargo on behalf of thousands of mortgage consultants who had allegedly been misclassified as exempt employees. In 2006 ILG filed a putative class action alleging similar claims on behalf of a similar class. An ILG class was initially certified, but was decertified in 2010. Eventually, ILG filed multiple lawsuits, each with 30 to 90 plaintiffs, on behalf of 600 clients, including Maxon. ILG, Wells Fargo and class counsel mediated all pending claims. In 2011, class counsel moved for preliminary approval of a proposed class and settlement; Wells Fargo agreed to pay $19 million, including attorney fees to class counsel, to settle all class claims and $6 million for the ILG claims. At the preliminary approval hearing, the court was told that ILG’s clients would opt out of the class action. Contrary to that explanation, ILG assisted its class member clients in securing the benefits of the class action settlement rather than in opting out to seek recompense from the $6 million fund. ILG claimed that that settlement was for its attorney fees, but was willing to pay $1,750 to each plaintiff for a claim arguably not resolved in the class action. Maxon objected. The trial court issued a temporary restraining order requiring ILG to deposit the funds into escrow. The appeals court affirmed. The court presiding over the class action had jurisdiction to consider the propriety of the settlement of class member claims, even for class members represented by ILG and had a duty to ensure that ILG’s fees were reasonable in light of the overall result. View "Lofton v. Wells Fargo Home Mortg." on Justia Law

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Illinois insurance regulators permitted WellPoint to acquire RightCHOICE health insurance. WellPoint caused RightCHOICE Insurance to withdraw from the Illinois market. WellPoint offered the policyholders costlier UniCare policies as substitutes. Those who chose not to pay the higher premiums had to shop for policies from different insurers, which generally declined to cover pre-existing conditions. Former RightCHOICE policyholders filed a purported class action. The district court declined to certify a class and entered judgment against plaintiffs on the merits. No one appealed. Absent certification as a class action, the judgment bound only the named plaintiffs. Their law firm found other former policyholders and sued in state court. Defendants removed the suit under 28 U.S.C. 1453 (Class Action Fairness Act); the proposed class had at least 100 members, the amount in controversy exceeded $5 million, and at least one class member had citizenship different from at least one defendant. Plaintiffs sought remand under section 1332(d)(4), which says that the court shall “decline to exercise” jurisdiction if at least two-thirds of the class’s members are citizens of the state in which the suit began and at least one defendant from which “significant relief” is sought is a citizen of the same state. The district court declined remand, declined to certify a class, and again rejected the case on the merits. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, stating that “Counsel should thank their lucky stars that the district court did not sanction them under 28 U.S.C. 1927 for filing a second suit rather than pursuing the first through appeal." View "Phillips v. Wellpoint Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2008, defendant faxed tens of thousands of unsolicited advertisements, violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227. After defendant’s insurer intervened, a second proposed class action settlement was reached. The insurer, Continental, agreed to make $6.1 million available to class members. The total is approximately equal to the number of faxes sent (110,853) times per-fax damages offered by Continental ($55.03) with an attorney fee award of 1/3 the total amount: $2,033,333.33. The district court preliminarily approved the settlement and 24,389 of the 28,879 class members were successfully notified; five requested exclusion. None objected. Only 1,820 returned a claim form, seeking damages for 7,222 unlawful fax transmissions, so that Continental would pay out only $397,426.66 of the $6.1 million, with the remainder, less attorney fees and incentive awards, to revert. Despite the relatively meager final payout to class members, plaintiffs’ attorneys continued to demand more than $2 million. The district court employed the lodestar method, rather than the percentage method, applying a risk multiplier of 1.5 to arrive at a final fee award of $1,147,698.70. After arguments on appeal, the attorneys sought to dismiss. The Seventh Circuit declined to dismiss and affirmed the reduced fee award. View "Americana Art China Co., Inc. v. Foxfire Printing & Packaging, Inc." on Justia Law

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More than 13 years ago, lawyers around the country began class actions challenging the installation of fiberoptic cable on property without landowners’ consent. The cases began to settle on a state-by-state basis, leaving the lawyers to allocate awarded and expected attorney’s fees. The lawyers informally grouped themselves based on their negotiation and litigation positions. The Susman Group participated in mediation and agreed to a fee division, but balked at signing a written agreement, ostensibly because Susman disliked its enforcement terms. The district court held that Susman is bound by the agreement despite his failure to sign. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, reasoning that, given the parties’ lengthy course of dealing, Susman’s failure to promptly object to the written agreement can objectively be construed as assent. A finding that Susman’s refusal to sign was a case of “buyer’s remorse” rather than a genuine objection to the enforcement terms in the agreement was supported by the record. View "McDaniel v. Qwest Commc'ns Corp." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed a class action suit against B&B and others, alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. 1962. The alleged scheme involved "Population Equivalents" (PEs), specified quantities of sewage that a house or other building was estimated to dump into the local sewage system. The complaint alleged that B&B had improperly taken control of the Wasco Sanitary District and used that control to divert to itself permit fees that should have gone to the district to finance an expansion of its sewage system. The district court dismissed the claim for want of RICO standing because plaintiffs could not demonstrate an injury to their business or property. On appeal, defendants challenged the district court's denial of their application for an award of attorneys' fees under Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(1) and (2). The court concluded that plaintiffs' suit, while meritless, was not frivolous. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the district court. View "Fiala, et al. v. B&B Enterprises, et al." on Justia Law