Seventh Circuit Rejects Coupon Settlement Terms

The Seventh Circuit has rejected the award of attorneys' fees award for a settlement that would provide the class coupons as a remedy for allegedly printing credit card expiration dates on sales receipts. See Redman v. Radioshack Corp., No. 14-1470 (7th Cir., 9/19/14).

Judge Posner wrote for the panel.  The court had consolidated appeals in two class actions brought under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (“FACTA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681c(g). The Act prohibits putting "the expiration date upon any receipt provided to the cardholder at the point of the sale or transaction.”  The goal is security: a thief can of course guess at the expiration date—the date is unlikely to be more than a few years in the future and there are only 12 months in a year; so if he guesses 60 times he’s very likely to hit the jackpot. But if he guesses wrong the first few times that he places a bogus order, the card issuer typically will get suspicious and refuse to authorize his next order.  Additional reasons for requiring deletion of the expiration date include that expiration dates combined with the last four or five digits of an account number can be used to bolster the credibility of a criminal who is making pretext calls to a card holder in order to learn other personal confidential financial information.

If a violation of the statute is willful, a consumer whose receipt contains as a result of the violation data that should have been deleted, but who sustains no harm because no one stole his identity as a result of the violation, is nevertheless entitled to “statutory damages,” as distinct from compensatory or punitive damages, of between $100 and $1000. 15 U.S.C. § 1681n(a)(1)(A). (Statutory damages are in effect bounties—means of inducing private persons to enforce a
regulatory law.)  Let's put aside the court's discussion of willfulness, and focus on the class issues.

The named plaintiffs (realistically, class counsel) agreed with RadioShack on terms of settlement. The essential term was that each class member who responded positively to the notice of the proposed settlement would receive a $10 coupon that it could use at any RadioShack store. The class member could use it to buy an item costing $10 or less (but he would receive no change if the item cost less than $10), or as part payment for an item costing more. He could stack up to three coupons (if he had them) and thus obtain a $30 item, or a $30 credit against a more expensive item. He could also sell his coupon or coupons, but the coupons had to be used within six months of receipt because they would expire at the end of that period. With regard to three‐coupon stacking, the only way a member of the class could obtain more than a single coupon would be to buy one or more coupons from another class member, because the settlement allows only one coupon per
customer no matter how many of his or her RadioShack purchases involved the alleged erroneous receipts. Although the class was assumed to contain 16 million members, notice of the proposed settlement was sent to fewer than 5 million. Of those potential class members who received notice of the proposed settlement, some 83,000 —a little more than one half of one percent of the entire class, assuming the entire class really did consist of 16 million different consumers— submitted claims for the coupon in response.

The court of appeals had lots of problems with the trial court's handling of the proposed settlement, and offered a number of important observations on coupon settlements in particular.

The magistrate judge’s statement that “the fact that the vast majority of class members—over 99.99%—have not objected to the proposed settlement or opted out suggests that the class generally approves of its terms and structure” was "naive, as was her basing confidence in the fairness of the settlement on its having been based on “arms‐length negotiations by experienced counsel.” The fact that the vast majority of the recipients of notice did not submit claims hardly shows “acceptance” of the proposed settlement: rather, said Judge Posner,  it may show oversight, indifference, rejection, or transaction costs. The bother of submitting a claim, receiving and safeguarding the coupon, and remembering to have it with you when shopping may exceed the value of a $10 coupon to many class members. And “arm’s‐length negotiations” are inconsistent with the existence of a conflict of interest on the part of one of the negotiators— class counsel—that may warp the outcome of the negotiations. The magistrate judge’s further reference to “the considerable portion of class members who have filed claims” questionably treated one‐half of one percent as being a “considerable portion.”

Another controversial term of the proposed settlement was that RadioShack would pay class counsel $1 million  in attorneys’ fees, plus pay various administrative costs including the cost of notice. The agreed upon attorneys’ fees, plus the $830,000 worth of coupons at face value, plus the administrative costs, added up to about $4.1 million. Class counsel argued that since the attorneys’
fees were only about 25 percent of the total amount of the settlement, they were reasonable. The district court, agreeing, approved the settlement, precipitating this appeal by two groups of class members who objected to the settlement in the district court.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit noted that he law quite rightly requires more than a judicial rubber stamp when the lawsuit that the parties have agreed to settle is a class action. The reason is the "built‐in conflict of interest" in class action suits. The defendant typically is interested only in the bottom line: how much the settlement will cost it. And class counsel, as rational “economic man,” presumably is interested primarily in the size of the attorneys’ fees provided for in the settlement, for those are the only money that class counsel, as distinct from the members of the class, get to keep. The optimal settlement from the joint standpoint of class counsel and defendant, assuming they are self‐interested, is therefore a sum of money moderate in amount but weighted in favor of attorneys’ fees
for class counsel. The named plaintiff often is the nominee of class counsel, and in any event he is dependent on class counsel’s good will to receive the modest extra compensation ($5,000 in this case) that named plaintiffs typically receive. 

Critically the judge must assess the value of the settlement to the class and the reasonableness of the agreed‐upon attorneys’ fees for class counsel, bearing in mind that the higher the fees the less compensation will be received by the class members. When there are objecting class members, the judge’s task is eased because he or she has the benefit of an adversary process: objectors versus settlors (that is, versus class counsel and the defendant).

Here, the trial judge accepted the settlors’ contention that the defendant’s entire expenditures should be aggregated in determining the size of the settlement; it was this aggregation that reduced the award of attorneys’ fees to class counsel to a "respectable‐seeming" 25 percent. But the roughly $2.2 million in administrative costs should not have been included in calculating the division of the spoils between class counsel and class members. Those costs, said the panel, are part of the settlement but not part of the value received from the settlement by the members of the class. The costs therefore shed no light on the fairness of the division of the settlement pie between class counsel and class members. Of course, without administration and therefore administrative costs, notably the costs of notice to the class, the class would get nothing. But also without those costs class counsel would get nothing, because the class, not having learned of the proposed settlement (or in all likelihood of the existence of a class action), would have derived no benefit from class counsel’s activity.

Therefore, said the court, the ratio that is relevant to assessing the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fee that the parties agreed to is the ratio of (1) the fee to (2) the fee plus what the class members received. At most they received $830,000. That translates into a ratio of attorneys’ fees to the sum of those fees plus the face value of the coupons of 1 to 1.83, which equates to a contingent fee of 55% ($1,000,000 ÷ ($1,000,000 + $830,000)). Computed in "a responsible fashion by substituting actual for face value," the ratio would have been even higher because 83,000 $10 coupons are not worth $830,000 to the recipients. Anyone who buys an item at RadioShack that costs less than $10 will lose part of the value of the coupon because he won’t be entitled to change. Anyone who stacks three coupons to buy an item that costs $25 will lose $5. Anyone who fails to use the coupon within six months of receiving it will lose its entire value. (Six‐month coupons are not unusual, but redemption periods usually are longer. See, e.g., In re Mexico Money Transfer Litigation (Western Union & Valuta), 164 F. Supp. 2d 1002, 1010–11 (N.D. Ill. 2000) (35 months); Henry v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 1999 WL 33496080, at *10 (N.D. Ill. 1999) (nearly three years).) 

The court found it significant that no attempt was made by the magistrate judge or the parties to the proposed settlement to estimate the actual value of the nominal $830,000 worth of coupons. Couponing is an important retail marketing method, and Judge Posner postulated that it would have been possible to obtain expert testimony (including neutral expert testimony by the court’s appointing an expert, as authorized by Fed. R. Evid. 706), or responsible published materials, on consumer response to coupons. And likewise it should have been possible to estimate the value of
couponing to sellers—a marketing device that in some circumstances must be more valuable than cutting price, as otherwise no retailer would go to the expense of buying and distributing coupons.

The court re-emphasized that in determining the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fee agreed to in a proposed settlement, the central consideration is what class counsel achieved for the members of the class rather than how much effort class counsel invested in the litigation. The court noted that in so doing it was not  taking sides in a controversy over the interpretation of the coupon provisions
of the Class Action Fairness Act, which states in part that If a proposed settlement in a class action provides for a recovery of coupons to a class member, 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. Judge Posner thinks "this is a badly drafted statute." To begin with, read literally, the statutory phrase “value to class members of the coupons
that are redeemed” would prevent class counsel from being paid in full until the settlement had been fully implemented. For until then one wouldn’t know how many coupons had been redeemed. An alternative interpretation of “value … of the coupons that are redeemed” would be the face value of the coupons received by class members who responded positively to notice of the class action. In this case that would be 83,000 of the millions of class members who received notice, though not all 83,000 will actually use the coupon.

Perhaps there is no need for a rigid rule—a final choice, for all cases, among the possibilities suggested. In some cases the optimal solution may be part payment to class members and
class counsel up front with final payment when the settlement is wound up. That might be appropriate in a case such as this, said the court. What was inappropriate, however, was an attempt to determine the ultimate value of the settlement before the redemption period ended without even an estimate by a qualified expert of what that ultimate value was likely to prove to be.

Some had called this  an “all‐coupon” case (only benefit was a coupon), but class counsel call it a “zero‐coupon” case. They argued that a coupon that can be used to buy an entire product, and not just to provide a discount, is a voucher, not a coupon. “Voucher” was indeed the term used in the settlement agreement, because the parties didn’t want to subject themselves to the coupon  provisions of the Class Action Fairness Act. But the idea that a coupon is not a coupon if it can ever be used to buy an entire product didn't make any sense to Judge Posner, certainly in terms of the
Act. Why would it make a difference, so far as the suspicion of coupon settlements that animates the Act’s coupon provisions is concerned, that the proposed $10 coupon could be used either to reduce by $10 the cash price of an item priced at more than $10, or to buy the entire item if its price were
$10 or less? Coupons usually are discounts, but if the face value of a coupon exceeds the price of an item sold by the issuer of the coupon, the customer often is permitted to use the coupon to buy the item—and sometimes he’ll be refunded the difference between that face value and the price of the item.

This case illustrated, said the panel, why Congress was concerned that class members can be shortchanged in coupon settlements whether a coupon is used to obtain a discount off the full
price of an item or to obtain the entire item; class counsel’s proposed distinction between discount coupons and vouchers also would impose a heavy administrative burden in distinguishing
coupons used for discounts on more expensive items (“coupons” in class counsel’s narrow sense of coupon) and the identical coupons used to pay the full prices of cheaper items (“vouchers” in class counsel’s lexicon and not “coupons” at all).  Assessing the reasonableness of attorneys’ fees based on a coupon’s nominal face value instead of its true economic value was no less troublesome when the coupon may be exchanged for a full product.

The difficulty of valuing a coupon settlement exposed for the court another defect in the proposed settlement: placing the fee award to class counsel and the compensation to the class members in separate compartments. The $1 million attorneys’ fee is guaranteed, while the benefit of the settlement to the members of the class depends on the value of the coupons, which may well turn out to be much less than $830,000. This guaranty is the equivalent of a contingent‐fee contract that entitles the plaintiff’s lawyer to the first $50,000 of the judgment or settlement plus one‐third of any amount above $50,000—so if the judgment or settlement were for $100,000 the attorneys’ fee would be $66,667, leaving only a third of the combined value (to plaintiff and lawyer) of the
settlement to the plaintiff. Another questionable feature of the settlement for the appeals court was the inclusion of a “clear‐sailing clause”—a clause in which the defendant agreed not to contest class counsel’s request for attorneys’ fees. Because it’s in the defendant’s interest to contest that request in order to reduce the overall cost of the settlement, the defendant won’t agree to a clear‐sailing clause without compensation—namely a reduction in the part of the settlement that goes to the class members, as that is the only reduction class counsel are likely to consider. The existence
of such clauses thus illustrates the danger, said the court, of collusion in class actions between class counsel and the defendant, to the detriment of the class members.

The panel was also bothered by the fact that class counsel did not file the attorneys’ fee motion until after the deadline set by the court for objections to the settlement had expired. That violated Rule 23(h). See In re Mercury Interactive Corp. Securities Litigation, 618 F.3d 988, 993–95 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Committee Notes on the 2003 Amendments to Rule 23. From reading the proposed settlement the objectors knew that class counsel were likely to ask for $1 million in attorneys’ fees, but they were handicapped in objecting because the details of class counsel’s hours and expenses were submitted later, with the fee motion, and so they did not have all the information they needed to justify their objections. 

So, coupon settlement and fee rejected.

Supreme Court Hears Argument in CAFA Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a case raising the issue whether a parens patriae group action by a state attorney general -- a class-like litigation without the procedural protections of a class action -- is removable as a mass action under CAFA.  See Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp.,  No. 12-1036 (U.S., oral argument 11/6/13).

The Fifth Circuit, 701 F.3d 796 (5th Cir. 2012), had announced a claim-by-claim analysis to determine the real party in interest for purposes of CAFA jurisdiction in such parens patriae actions; the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits have taken a different, more “whole case” approach, considering the entire complaint to determine the real party in interest.  See AU Optronics Corp. v. South Carolina, 699 F.3d 385 (4th Cir. 2012); LG Display Co. v. Madigan, 665 F.3d 768 (7th Cir. 2011); Nevada v. Bank of America Corp., 672 F.3d 661 (9th Cir. 2012).

CAFA allows removal of certain mass actions, even if not styled as class actions, but contains an exception that a suit is not a mass action if all of the claims in the action are asserted on behalf of the general public (and not on behalf of individual claimants or members of a purported class) pursuant to a state statute specifically authorizing such action; but when specific individual consumers, in addition to the state, are the real parties in interest, there is no way that all of the claims are asserted on behalf of the general public.

Mississippi, of course, argued for "state sovereign prerogatives.”  And Mississippi focused on the statutory language about a mass action seeking a joint trial, and contended that the parens patriae action did not propose a joint trial for 100 or more plaintiffs' claims. On the other hand, defendants noted that the use of the word “persons” in CAFA's mass action provision clearly required the court to engage in a fact specific claim-by-claim analysis, rather than take a whole-claim approach. CAFA could have, but did not focus on “named plaintiffs.”  It was clear that the Mississippi consumers allegedly harmed by defendants' prices were the real parties in interest.  Regarding the federalism concerns, defendants noted that this was only a question of forum, and federal courts can faithfully enforce state law.

The Washington Legal Foundation, in one of multiple amicus filings, argued that CAFA was enacted to enhance the ability of defendants to remove interstate mass actions to federal court.  The Chief Justice raised the most compelling issue, asking “So the answer is, that there is nothing to prevent 50 attorneys general, from saying, every time there is a successful class action as to which somebody in my State purchased one of the items, we are going to file a parens patriae action, the complaint is going to look an awful lot like the class action complaint, and we want our money” -- in state court, out of the reach of CAFA?

 

New Article on Lawyer Behavior in Mass Torts

For our readers interested in ethical issues in mass torts, a note that Professor Richard Zitrin from UC Hastings has written an article, "Regulating the Behavior of Lawyers in Mass Individual Representations: A Call for Reform,"  3 St. Mary’s J. on Legal Malpractice & Ethics 86 (2013).

Here's the abstract from SSRN:

Cases in which lawyers represent large numbers of individual plaintiffs are increasingly common. While these cases have some of the indicia of class actions, they are not class actions, usually because there are no common damages, but rather individual representations on a mass scale. Current ethics rules do not provide adequate guidance for even the most ethical lawyers. The absence of sufficiently flexible, practical ethical rules has become an open invitation for less-ethical attorneys to abuse, often severely, the mass-representation framework by abrogating individual clients’ rights. These problems can be abated if the ethics rules offered better practical solutions to the mass-representation problem. It is necessary to reform the current rules, but only with a solution that is both practical and attainable, and with changes that maintain the core ethical and fiduciary duties owed by lawyers to their individual clients, including loyalty, candor, and independent professional advice.

Supreme Court Takes CAFA Parens Patriae Issue

The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert last week to address whether a state attorney general's parens patriae antitrust action is removable as a mass action under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.  See Mississippi v. AU Optronics Corp., No. 12-1036 (U.S., certiorari granted 05/28/13).

As noted in the respondents' papers, CAFA expands federal diversity jurisdiction for both “class actions” and “mass actions.” A “mass action” is defined as any civil action in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly.  The definitions of “class actions” and “mass actions” are connected, as a mass action is deemed to be a class action removable to federal court if it otherwise meets the provisions of a “class action,” including CAFA’s unique minimal diversity.

Determining whether the 100 person level is satisfied requires consideration of whose claims are actually being asserted, as the Court has held that diversity  jurisdiction must be based upon the citizenship of
real parties to the controversy. E.g.,  Navarro Sav. Ass’n v. Lee, 446 U.S. 458, 461 (1980).  Where the action filed by the State seeks monetary relief claims on behalf of more than 100 unnamed persons who are among the real parties in interest and any one of them is diverse from any defendant, CAFA applies.  This was the approach of the 5th Circuit here, 701 F.3d 796, 800 (5th Cir. 2012), under the so-called “claim-by-claim" approach.  In contrast other courts look to the "state’s complaint as a whole." E.g., AU Optronics Corp. v. South Carolina, 699 F.3d 385, 394 (4th Cir. 2012).

It will be interesting to see if the Court applies the notion from the unanimous CAFA decision in Standard Fire that treating a nonbinding stipulation (on damages) from the class rep before a class is even certified as if it were binding on the later class would “exalt form over substance, and run directly counter to CAFA's primary objective: ensuring federal court consideration of interstate cases of national importance.”

 

 

Drug Maker Defeats AG Motion to Dismiss Action Challenging Private Contingency Counsel

We have warned readers before about the dangerous and growing practice of governmental agencies delegating state police powers to private (plaintiff) attorneys on a contingency fee basis.  The latest round in this nationwide battle comes from Kentucky, where the court recently ruled that Merck can continue its suit alleging violation of its due process rights after the state hired such outside counsel.  See Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Conway, No. 3:11-cv-51 (E.D. Ky., 12/19/12).

The matter underlying this action arose from Merck’s marketing and distribution of the prescription medication Vioxx. The AG filed suit against Merck in the Franklin County Circuit Court in 2009, alleging a violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act (“KCPA”). Merck removed the case to federal court, and the action was then transferred to the Eastern District of Louisiana on April 15, 2010, as part of the multidistrict litigation, In re Vioxx Product Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1657.  But on January 3, 2012, the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted the AG’s motion to remand, concluding that the case was improperly removed from state court. In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1657, 2012 WL 10552, at *14 (E.D. La. Jan. 3, 2012).

Now, approximately one year into the proceeding, the AG had retained outside counsel to take over the Vioxx KCPA litigation.  Under the contract executed, private counsel agreed to be compensated by a contingency fee “to be withheld from any settlement award resulting from the litigation.” Merck filed suit against the AG in federal court in August, 2011, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. In its complaint,  Merck alleged that the AG had “delegated his coercive powers to private lawyers having a clear, direct and substantial financial stake in the outcome...."  The case was "a punitive enforcement action that must be prosecuted in the public interest or not at all.”  As a result, Merck asserted, its “right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment had been infringed.” 

The AG moved to dismiss, and the issue in this decision focused on the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); it provides that when a state proceeding is pending, principles of federalism dictate that any federal constitutional claims should be raised and decided in state court without interference by the federal courts. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 17 (1987).  If a federal district court concludes that its resolution of the case before it would directly interfere with ongoing state proceedings, then it must determine whether to abstain from hearing the case altogether, under the following: (1) there must be an ongoing state
judicial proceeding; (2) the proceeding must implicate important state interests; and (3) there
must be an adequate opportunity in the state proceeding to raise constitutional challenges.

Merck argued that the AG’s active litigation in federal court — through the filing of answers, motions to dismiss, and motions for summary judgment — was sufficient to establish that proceedings of substance had taken place before the remand, i.e., before an action had been pending in state court.  The court agreed that the abstention doctrine did not require a strict view of the federal action timeline nor a formalistic approach to the abstention analysis. Using a "common sense approach," several factors weighed in favor of a conclusion that proceedings of substance had taken place: (1) the federal action had been pending for over seven months when the state court proceeding was remanded on March 20, 2012; (2) on the date of the remand, there were two important motions that were fully briefed and ripe for adjudication; and (3) the court had held a scheduling conference during which the parties advised the court about their positions on those two motions. Based on these facts, the court concluded that the federal action was well beyond an “embryonic stage.” Because the state proceeding was not “ongoing” in a meaningful sense, abstention was not appropriate under the principles of Younger.

Your humble blogger notes that the legal policy of many states strongly favors open, competitive bidding for contracts involving state funds. Such requirements, included in some state Constitutions and various statutes, are designed to prevent fraud, eliminate bias and favoritism, and thus protect vital public interests. Those same goals of open and good government reside in the requirement that state officials give their undivided loyalty to the people of a state. Many of the contingent fee contracts used by state officials to bring mass tort actions violate the core principle that attorneys pursuing actions on behalf of the state represent a sovereign whose obligation to govern impartially is essential to its right to govern. Government attorneys must exercise independent judgment as a ministers of justice and not act simply as advocates. The impartiality required of government lawyers cannot be met where the private pecuniary interest inherent in the contingent fee is the primary motive force behind the bringing of the action. By turning over sovereign prosecutorial-like power to contingency counsel, a state effectively creates a new branch of government – motivated by the prospect of private gain rather than the pursuit of justice or the public welfare. This subversion of neutrality does more than implicate the due process rights of those confronting such tainted prosecutions. Direction of state prosecutions by financially interested surrogates also damages the very public interest that such litigation is supposed to advance. 
 

Supreme Court Passes on Case Involving State Retention of Private Counsel

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to review a California Supreme Court ruling that permitted cities and counties to engage private attorneys for public nuisance litigation against lead paint defendants on a contingency fee basis.  See Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Santa Clara County, Calif., No. 10-546 (U.S. cert. denied 1/10/11).

Readers may recall our previous posts on the important issue of  the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation.  One case we posted on was County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Cal., No. S163681 (7/26/10), in which a group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint.

The state supreme court permitted the use of contingency fee counsel with restrictions. To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. Accordingly, when public entities have retained the requisite authority in appropriate civil actions to control the litigation and to make all critical discretionary decisions, the impartiality required of government attorneys prosecuting the case on behalf of the public has been maintained, said the court. 

We noted that the list of specific indicia of control identified by the court seem quite strained, and to elevate form over substance, written agreements over human nature. Defendants sought cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public. The amici argued that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers to impact the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raised another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

These kinds of contingency fee prosecutors threaten to diminish the public's faith in the fairness of civil government prosecutions. These arrangements frequently result in allegations that government officials are doling out contingency fee agreements to lawyers who make substantial campaign contributions.


 

Use of Contingency Fee Private Counsel Appealed

A variety of business groups have weighed in as amici, asking the Supreme Court to recognize how contingency fee arrangements by California counties and cities pursuing lead paint litigation violated the due process rights of the defendants. Atlantic Richfield Co. v. County of Santa Clara, No. 10-546 (U.S., amicus curiae brief submitted 11/24/10).

Readers may recall our previous posts about how the California supreme court had taken a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had limited the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation. County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, No. S163681 (Cal. 7/26/10).

A group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint. Defendants moved to bar the public entities from compensating their privately retained counsel by means of contingent fees. The lower court, relying upon People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740 (1985), ordered that the public entities were barred from compensating their private counsel by means of any contingent-fee agreement, reasoning that under Clancy, all attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance actions must be “absolutely neutral.”

The state supreme court acknowledged that Clancy arguably supported defendants' position favoring a bright-line rule barring any attorney with a financial interest in the outcome of a case from representing the interests of the public in a public nuisance abatement action. The court proceeded to engage in a reexamination of the rule in Clancy, however, finding it should be "narrowed," in recognition of both (1) the wide array of public-nuisance actions (and the corresponding diversity in the types of interests implicated by various prosecutions), and (2) the different means by which prosecutorial duties may be delegated to private attorneys supposedly without compromising either the integrity of the prosecution or the public's faith in the judicial process.

The state court had previously concluded that for purposes of evaluating the propriety of a contingent-fee agreement between a public entity and a private attorney, the neutrality rules applicable to criminal prosecutors were equally applicable to government attorneys prosecuting certain civil cases. The court had noted that a prosecutor's duty of neutrality stems from two fundamental aspects of his or her employment. As a representative of the government, a prosecutor must act with the impartiality required of those who govern. Second, because a prosecutor has as a resource the vast power of the government, he or she must refrain from abusing that power by failing to act evenhandedly.

But then, the court concluded that to the extent Clancy suggested that public-nuisance prosecutions always invoke the same constitutional and institutional interests present in a criminal case, that analysis was "unnecessarily broad" and failed to take into account the wide spectrum of cases a state may bring. The court described a range of cases; criminal cases require complete neutrality. In some ordinary civil cases, neutrality is not a concern when the government acts as an ordinary party to a controversy, simply enforcing its own contract and property rights against individuals and entities that allegedly have infringed upon those interests. The nuisance cases fall between these two extremes on the spectrum of neutrality required of a government attorney. The case was not an “ordinary” civil case in that the public entities' attorneys were appearing as representatives of the public and not as counsel for the government acting as an ordinary party in a civil controversy. The case was being prosecuted on behalf of the public, and, accordingly, the concerns identified in Clancy as being inherent in a public prosecution were, indeed, implicated.

But, despite that, state supreme court found that the interests affected in this case were not similar in character to those invoked by a criminal prosecution or the nuisance action in Clancy. The case would not have resulted in an injunction that prevents the defendants from continuing their current business operations. The challenged conduct (the production and distribution of lead paint) has been illegal in the state since 1978. Accordingly, whatever the outcome of the litigation, no ongoing business activity would be enjoined. Nor would the case prevent defendants from exercising any First Amendment right. Although liability may be based in part on prior commercial speech, the remedy would not involve enjoining current or future speech, said the court.

While a heightened standard of neutrality was required for attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance cases on behalf of the government, that heightened standard of neutrality is not always compromised by the hiring of contingent-fee counsel to assist government attorneys in the prosecution of a public-nuisance abatement action. Use of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis is permissible in such cases if neutral, conflict-free government attorneys retain the power to control and supervise the litigation.

In so finding, the court downplayed the reality that the public attorneys' decision-making conceivably could be influenced by their professional reliance upon the private attorneys' expertise and a concomitant sense of obligation to those attorneys to ensure that they receive payment for their many hours of work on the case.To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. .

The list of specific indicia of control identified by the state supreme court seem quite strained, however, and to elevate form over substance, and written agreements over human nature. The authority to settle the case involves a paramount discretionary decision and is an important factor in ensuring that defendants' constitutional right to a fair trial is not compromised by overzealous actions of an attorney with a pecuniary stake in the outcome.  In reality, even if the control of private counsel by government attorneys is viable in theory, it fails in application because private counsel in such cases are hired based upon their expertise and experience, and therefore always will assume a primary and controlling role in guiding the course of the litigation, rendering illusory the notion of government “control”.

Defendants are seeking cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, have argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public.  The amici argue that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers impacts the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raises another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

California Supreme Court Amends Rules for Government Retention of Private Contingent Fee Counsel

The California supreme court has taken a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had properly limited the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation. County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Cal., No. S163681 (7/26/10). 

A group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint. Defendants moved to bar the public entities from compensating their privately retained counsel by means of contingent fees. The lower court, relying upon People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740 (1985), ordered that the public entities were barred from compensating their private counsel by means of any contingent-fee agreement, reasoning that under Clancy, all attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance actions must be “absolutely neutral.”

The supreme court acknowledged that Clancy arguably supported defendants' position favoring a bright-line rule barring any attorney with a financial interest in the outcome of a case from representing the interests of the public in a public-nuisance abatement action. The court proceeded to engage in a reexamination of the rule in Clancy, however, finding it should be "narrowed," in recognition of both (1) the wide array of public-nuisance actions (and the corresponding diversity in the types of interests implicated by various prosecutions), and (2) the different means by which prosecutorial duties may be delegated to private attorneys supposedly without compromising either the integrity of the prosecution or the public's faith in the judicial process.

The court had previously concluded that for purposes of evaluating the propriety of a contingent-fee agreement between a public entity and a private attorney, the neutrality rules applicable to criminal prosecutors were equally applicable to government attorneys prosecuting certain civil cases. The court had noted that a prosecutor's duty of neutrality stems from two fundamental aspects of his or her employment. As a representative of the government, a prosecutor must act with the impartiality required of those who govern. Second, because a prosecutor has as a resource the vast power of the government, he or she must refrain from abusing that power by failing to act evenhandedly.

But now, the court concluded that to the extent Clancy suggested that public-nuisance prosecutions always invoke the same constitutional and institutional interests present in a criminal case, that analysis was "unnecessarily broad" and failed to take into account the wide spectrum of cases that fall within the public-nuisance rubric. In the present case, found the court, both the types of remedies sought and the types of interests implicated differed significantly from those involved in Clancy and, accordingly, invocation of the strict rules requiring the automatic disqualification of criminal prosecutors was unwarranted.

The court described a range of cases; criminal cases require complete neutrality. In some ordinary civil cases, neutrality is not a concern when the government acts as an ordinary party to a controversy, simply enforcing its own contract and property rights against individuals and entities that allegedly have infringed upon those interests. The present case fell between these two extremes on the spectrum of neutrality required of a government attorney. The case was not an “ordinary” civil case in that the public entities' attorneys were appearing as representatives of the public and not as counsel for the government acting as an ordinary party in a civil controversy. A public-nuisance abatement action must be prosecuted by a governmental entity and may not be initiated by a private party unless the nuisance is personally injurious to that private party. The case was being prosecuted on behalf of the public, and, accordingly, the concerns identified in Clancy as being inherent in a public prosecution were, indeed, implicated.

But, the court found that the interests affected in this case were not similar in character to those invoked by a criminal prosecution or the nuisance action in Clancy.  This case would not result in an injunction that prevents the defendants from continuing their current business operations. The challenged conduct (the production and distribution of lead paint) has been illegal in the state since 1978. Accordingly, whatever the outcome of the litigation, no ongoing business activity would be enjoined. Nor would the case prevent defendants from exercising any First Amendment right. Although liability may be based in part on prior commercial speech, the remedy would not involve enjoining current or future speech, said the court.

With the public-nuisance abatement action being prosecuted on behalf of the public, the attorneys prosecuting this action, although not subject to the same stringent conflict-of-interest rules governing the conduct of criminal prosecutors or adjudicators, were held to be subject to a heightened standard of ethical conduct applicable to public officials acting in the name of the public — standards that would not be invoked in an ordinary civil case.  That is,  to ensure that an attorney representing the government acts evenhandedly and does not abuse the unique power entrusted in him or her in that capacity — and that public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system is not thereby undermined — a heightened standard of neutrality is required for attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance cases on behalf of the government.

The court then determined that this heightened standard of neutrality is not always compromised by the hiring of contingent-fee counsel to assist government attorneys in the prosecution of a public-nuisance abatement action.  Use of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis is permissible in such cases if neutral, conflict-free government attorneys retain the power to control and supervise the litigation.  In so finding, the court downplayed the reality that the public attorneys'  decision-making conceivably could be influenced by their professional reliance upon the private attorneys' expertise and a concomitant sense of obligation to those attorneys to ensure that they receive payment for their many hours of work on the case.

To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. Accordingly, when public entities have retained the requisite authority in appropriate civil actions to control the litigation and to make all critical discretionary decisions, the impartiality required of government attorneys prosecuting the case on behalf of the public has been maintained, said  the court.

The list of specific indicia of control identified by the court seem quite strained, and to elevate form over substance, written agreements over human nature. The authority to settle the case involves a paramount discretionary decision and is an important factor in ensuring that defendants' constitutional right to a fair trial is not compromised by overzealous actions of an attorney with a pecuniary stake in the outcome. The court found that retention agreements between public entities and private counsel must specifically provide that decisions regarding settlement of the case are reserved exclusively to the discretion of the public entity's own attorneys. Similarly, such agreements must specify that any defendant that is the subject of such litigation may contact the lead government attorneys directly, without having to confer with contingent-fee counsel.

But in reality, even if the control of private counsel by government attorneys is viable in theory, it fails in application because private counsel in such cases are hired based upon their expertise and experience, and therefore always will assume a primary and controlling role in guiding the course of the litigation, rendering illusory the notion of government “control”.  The concurring opinion questioned whether public attorneys under all foreseeable circumstances will be able to exercise the independent supervisory judgment the majority concludes is essential if private counsel are to be retained under contingent fee agreements. 

The court noted that the issues all arose under its authority to regulated the practice of law, and no statutes or state constitutional provisions were at issue, which may distinguish the case from the issue in other states.