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