Settlement Process Speeds Along in Toyota Unintended Acceleration Litigation

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In a Joint Status Report filed on March 17, 2015, with Judge James V. Selna in the Central District of California, the parties informed the court that settlement deals continue to be made at a steady pace in In Re: Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation (“In Re: Toyota”). In Re: Toyota, No. 10-2151, Dkt. No. 4932 (C.D. Cal. March 16, 2015) (Joint Status Report, available here).

This multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) is made up of hundreds of individual suits alleging negligence and product liability based on a defect in some Toyota models which caused the vehicles to accelerate suddenly, leading to numerous accidents. Plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages for injuries and/or deaths caused by the unintended acceleration. So far, a total of 289 cases have either settled or reached an agreement to settle in principle, including: 132 of 171 cases consolidated in the MDL; 45 of 84 cases consolidated in the Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding (“JCCP”); and 112 individual cases litigated outside of the consolidated proceedings.

In the Joint Status Report, the parties attribute the efficacy of the litigation to the Intensive Settlement Process (“ISP”), which was confirmed and adopted on January 14, 2014, stating that the “ISP is continuing to make good progress.” Report at 2. Case in point, of the 39 unintended acceleration lawsuits still pending in the MDL, all but four have requested ISP, and of the 39 cases remaining in the JCCP, all but two have requested it.

These settlements come more than five years after Toyota began recalling millions of vehicles for the unintended acceleration defect and more than thirteen months after counsel for Toyota contacted the 300+ plaintiffs’ attorneys to inform them of the proposed settlement process. Since each case is being negotiated separately, the total value of the settlement will not be clear until all of the cases are resolved. In a related class action settlement that won final approval before Judge Selna in July of 2013, Toyota agreed to pay an estimated $1.1 billion to settle a claim that the unintended acceleration defect diminished the value of the class vehicles. The settlement also provided for $200 million in plaintiffs’ attorney fees and up to $27 million in expenses.

In addition to over a billion dollars in legal settlements so far, Toyota was also hit with a $1.2 billion criminal penalty by the United States Department of Justice in March of 2014. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described Toyota’s actions as “shameful” and a “blatant disregard” for the law. He went on to warn that “other car companies should not repeat Toyota’s mistake.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Press Conference at the Department of Justice (March 19, 2014).

Thus, while Toyota may be nearing the end of its civil litigation involving the unintended acceleration defect, the automotive and legal industries will feel its effects for years to come.

Ninth Circuit Affirms Final Approval of Walmart Gift Card Settlement

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The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in In re Online DVD-Rental Antitrust Litig., 12-15705 (9th Cir. Feb. 27, 2015) (“Online DVD-Rental”), which affirmed an order granting final approval of a class action settlement totaling more than $27 million in cash and gift cards for a class of over 35 million DVD rental subscribers, will likely become one of this circuit’s leading cases in support of common-fund attorneys’ fees and incentive awards (slip opinion available here).

In Online DVD-Rental, the plaintiffs alleged that Defendants Walmart and Netflix violated federal antitrust laws by entering into an anticompetitive agreement under which Netflix would stop selling DVDs and focus instead on DVD rentals, and Walmart would discontinue its own rental service and concentrate on DVD sales. In exchange for a dismissal with prejudice of all claims alleged on behalf of a class of Netflix subscribers, Walmart agreed to pay a total of $27.25 million, inclusive of attorneys’ fees and litigation costs, incentive awards to each of the nine plaintiffs, and administration costs. The balance was to be divided evenly among all class members who submitted claims for payment, with class members having the option to claim their payments either in the form of gift cards or the cash equivalent. Over 1.18 million class members submitted claims (of whom 744,202 requested gift cards), 722 opted out, and 30 objected. The district court overruled all objections, finding that “not one objection was sufficient . . . singular or in the aggregate . . . to preclude [the court] from approving [the] settlement.” Slip op. at 13.

Six objectors appealed the order granting final approval, largely on the grounds that the attorneys’ fees and incentive awards were excessive. With respect to attorneys’ fees, several of the objectors argued that the district court should have characterized the settlement as a “coupon settlement” under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (“CAFA”), which provides in relevant part that the “portion of any attorney’s fee award to class counsel that is attributable to the award of the coupons shall be based on the value to class members of the coupons that are redeemed.” Slip op. at 29-30. The objectors thus argued that the district court erred by calculating the fee award as a percentage (25%) of the overall settlement fund, including the total dollar value of the gift cards, rather than only as a percentage of the gift cards that were actually redeemed.

In rejecting this argument, the Ninth Circuit noted that several district courts have declined to classify gift card settlements as coupon settlements under CAFA. Slip op. at 33-34. Moreover, unlike coupon settlements, which require “class members to hand over more of their own money before they can take advantage of the coupon,” the Walmart gift cards could be spent on any item carried on the “website of [the] giant, low-cost retailer,” and without the need for class members to spend any of their own money, which “gives class members considerably more flexibility than [coupon settlements].” Slip op. at 32-33. The Ninth Circuit also found that the district court did not err in calculating the fee award as a percentage of the total settlement fund:

We have repeatedly held that the reasonableness of attorneys’ fees is not measured by the choice of the denominator . . . Here, the district court concluded that class counsels’ fee request, which applied the 25% benchmark percentage to the entire common fund, was reasonable. Indeed, the court explicitly explained how administrative costs in particular make it possible to distribute a settlement award in a meaningful and significant way. Similarly, notice costs allow class members to learn about a settlement and litigation expenses make the entire action possible.

Slip op. at 37-38 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

The Ninth Circuit also soundly rejected an objector’s argument, based chiefly on Staton v. Boeing Co., 327 F.3d 938 (9th Cir. 2003), that the incentive awards distributed in Online DVD-Rental were so out of proportion to the average class member recovery ($12 per claimant) as to create a conflict of interest between the representatives and the class. Slip op. at 25. In distinguishing the Staton settlement from the Walmart settlement, the Ninth Circuit held that “[i]ncentive payments to class representatives do not, by themselves, create an impermissible conflict between class members and their representatives” and “the $45,000 in incentive awards [divided equally between the 9 named plaintiffs] makes up a mere .17% of the total settlement fund of $27,250,000, which is far less than the 6% of the settlement fund in Staton that went to incentive awards.” Slip op. at 16, 26.

Tellingly, the Ninth Circuit seems to have distanced itself from some of its reasoning in Radcliffe v. Experian Info. Solutions, 715 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. Cal. 2013), where the Court noted that, “concerns over potential conflicts may be especially pressing where, as here, the proposed service fees greatly exceed the payments to absent class members . . . There is a serious question whether class representatives could be expected to fairly evaluate whether awards ranging from $26 to $750 is a fair settlement value when they would receive $5,000 incentive awards.” Radcliffe at 1165 (internal citations and quotations omitted). But presumably if, as echoed in Amchem Prods. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 617 (1997), the “policy at the very core of the class action mechanism is to overcome the problem that small recoveries do not provide the incentive for any individual to bring a solo action prosecuting his or her rights,” then surely the ratio between the incentive awards and the average class member recovery should not—in itself—raise “serious question [about] whether class representatives [can] be expected to fairly evaluate” the reasonableness of their settlements. Indeed, if class representative incentive awards are meant to incentivize the filing of class actions that might not otherwise have been brought given the relatively modest individual amounts in controversy, then comparable proportions between class member recoveries and incentive awards are to be expected and tolerated.

Authored by: 
Eduardo Santos, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

U.S. Supreme Court Declines Review, Hands Win to California Truckers

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California truck drivers enjoyed a victory recently when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a decision by the California Supreme Court which held that the state’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) is not preempted by federal transportation laws. See People ex rel. Harris v. Pac Anchor Transportation, Inc., 59 Cal. 4th 772 (Cal. 2014) (cert. denied by Pac Anchor Transp. v. Cal. ex rel. Harris, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 1326 (U.S., Feb. 23, 2015)).

Congress enacted the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (“FAAAA”) with the intent of preventing “‘. . . [s]tates from undermining federal deregulation of interstate trucking’ through a ‘patchwork’ of state regulations.” Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, 769 F.3d 637, 644 (9th Cir. Cal. 2014) (citing Am. Trucking Ass’ns v. City of Los Angeles, 660 F.3d 384, 395-96 (9th Cir. 2011)). Congress did not want states to effectively undo federal deregulation of motor carriers by enacting their own laws “‘related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier . . . with respect to the transportation of property.’” Id. at 641 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1)). The rationale was that lower fares and better service would be best achieved by maximum reliance on competitive market forces.

In September 2008, California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a lawsuit against Pac Anchor Transportation Inc., alleging that the trucking company violated the UCL by misclassifying its truck drivers as independent contractors, thereby side-stepping state labor laws meant to protect employees within the state. The suit alleged that Pac Anchor gained an unfair advantage over competitors by not paying unemployment insurance taxes, not providing workers’ compensation benefits, and failing to pay drivers at least minimum wages and reimburse them for necessary business expenses. The trial court ruled in favor of Pac Anchor, finding that classifying truck drivers as employees could increase costs for the motor carrier, and, as such, California labor and unemployment insurance laws related to Pac Anchor’s prices, routes, and services and were therefore preempted by the FAAAA.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that the UCL was a law of general application that did not relate to Pac Anchor’s prices, routes or services and thus was not preempted by the FAAAA. The California Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s ruling, noting that there was no indication in the congressional record that Congress intended to prevent states from being able to tax motor carriers, enforce labor and wage standards, or to exempt motor carriers from generally applicable insurance laws. Harris v. Pac Anchor at 786. Pac Anchor then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

On February 23, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Pac Anchor’s petition for writ of certiorari, declining to review the issue of whether California can enforce its employment laws against motor carriers by seeking injunctive relief under the UCL or whether the FAAAA preempts such action by the state.

The Supreme Court’s denial of review in Pac Anchor reinforces other rulings holding that the FAAAA does not preempt the enforcement of California labor laws. In Dilts v. Penske, the Ninth Circuit held that the FAAAA did not preempt the enforcement of California meal and rest break laws for truck drivers. Dilts at 650. In reaching this determination, the Ninth Circuit found that California’s meal and rest break laws are not “significantly related to” price rates, routes or services of the motor carrier and therefore are not the types of state laws Congress set out to preempt when enacting the FAAAA.

Thus, for the time being, motor carrier employers cannot rely on FAAAA preemption to help them circumvent California employment and insurance laws. These decisions do not mean the end of independent contractor relationships in the State of California, but they definitely put motor carrier employers on notice that if they do utilize independent contractor models, they must do so properly.

Authored by: 
Jamie Greene, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Studies Reveal That Class Actions Are Still Vital To Consumer Justice

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In 2013, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which represents some of the largest corporations in the world), published a memo purporting to be “An Empirical Analysis of Class Actions” (available here). The memo, drafted by attorneys at the corporate defense firm Mayer Brown LLP, determined that class actions do not provide a significant benefit to consumers, based on a review of class actions filed in 2009.

However, when the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) reviewed the same cases in a report released last month, they arrived at a very different conclusion (report available here). The NACA/AAJ report found that class actions remain hugely advantageous to consumers in a wide range of cases. Notable benefits to consumers included:

  • Recovery of $25 million for consumers overcharged for propane by Ferrellgas, who allegedly reduced the amount of propane in its tanks without notifying consumers or changing the labels;
  • Recovery of $219 million for investors in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme who lost their retirement savings; 
  • Relief for thousands of disabled and elderly residents of New York City Housing Authority buildings, who forced the city to repair broken elevators in a timely matter; and 
  • Award of $27.8 million for property owners who suffered damages due to the 2008 spill of coal ash sludge from a burst dike at a coal plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, has been charged with studying the impact of pre-dispute arbitration agreements in the context of consumer financial products and services, and is poised to release a report later in 2015 that is expected to show that forced arbitration clauses impact tens of millions of consumers and deny relief to consumers harmed by illegal or abusive practices in the financial services industry.

The CFPB released its preliminary results in December 2013 (available here), which found that a sampling of just eight consumer class actions settled between 2010-2012 yielded $350 million in payments to more than 13 million consumers. See CFPB Arbitration Study Preliminary Results at 104. The study also found that, despite the fact that arbitration clauses with class action waivers are standard in the financial industry, few consumers choose to arbitrate their claims (the American Arbitration Association, or AAA, which administers the vast majority of alternative dispute resolution proceedings for large companies, reported fewer than 300 cases each year between 2010 to 2012). Id. at 13. In that same time frame, the study found 29 instances where the AAA “declined to administer the arbitration because of the company’s failure to pay required fees or deposits” and refused to administer further disputes concerning those companies, denying the opportunity for relief for even those intrepid consumers who chose to go the arbitration route. Id. at 117. Of the 29 cases, 28 were consumer-filed disputes, and 23 were credit card disputes.

Thus, class actions are not only beneficial to consumers, but often are the only way to achieve justice against powerful corporations. In the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “The class action is one of the few legal remedies the small claimant has against those who command the status quo.” Eisen v. Carlisle and Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 186 (1974).

 

Editor’s Note: the CFPB Arbitration Study was released on March 10, 2015 and is available here.