In January, we discussed a Center for Class Action Fairness objection to a coupon settlement involving HP inkjet printers. That settlement turned out to be even worse than the pathetic one advertised: $5 million in coupons were offered, but the multi-million member class only bothered to file claims for $1.5 million worth of the coupons, with the rest reverting to HP. And of course, a claim for a coupon is not an actual redemption of the coupon: my $2 coupon will likely go unused, since there's nothing HP sells on its website that isn't more than two dollars more expensive than what I can get it for elsewhere.
The attorneys asked for $2.9 million in fees and expenses, justifying it with a quack economic expert report valuing some token injunctive relief as being worth tens of millions of dollars. In a March 29 opinion, Judge Fogel rejected that valuation, held that the settlement was worth only $1.5 million to the class, and reduced the award of fees and expenses to $2.1 million.
Some of the language in the opinion is very good: all too often, courts divorce the fee inquiry from the relief actually won. As Russell Jackson points out, this court said, "To allow an award of attorneys' fees to outstrip the benefit to consumers in such cases would undermine the importance of focusing the efforts of class action counsel on issues that most affect consumers."
So why did the attorneys get $2.1 million? Because of the economic fiction of "fees" and "expenses," which are calculated differently. See, "expenses" cover things like travel, experts, and copying costs. But "fees," that covers things like rent and other overhead, attorney salaries, and paralegals. Attorneys will allocate a dollar received into one bucket or the other, and for some reason, courts will scrutinize the buckets differently, though at the end of the day, the attorneys get a check for money. So the court held that the $2.9 million requested, consisting of $2.3 million in fees and $0.6 million in expenses, was unreasonable with respect to the fees, and reasonable with respect to the expenses—even though the fee request also includes money that goes to expenses, just a different category of expenses. So the attorneys got all of their "expense" request, and just had the "fee" request reduced—but still ended up with more than the class.
That's just business as usual, but there were a couple of other troubling things about the decision. The Class Action Fairness Act requires coupons to be valued by their redemption rate, not by the claim rate. Many of these coupons (such as the one I am scheduled to receive) are not going to be used; one institutional party received tens of thousands of unusable coupons because the terms of the settlement require a claimant to use only one coupon per order, and it would be infeasible for the company to split up its bulk orders to tens of thousands of individual orders.
Second, the court opinion says that there were only three objections, but this is false: there were hundreds of objections, but, because of a confusing notice, 99% of the objectors (including the institution discussed earlier) sent their objections to the claims administrator, the parties never passed along those objections to the court, and the court disregarded my complaint about the procedure in its opinion. Ironic for a consumer fraud case that the plaintiffs' attorneys successfully took advantage of a misleading notice they provided.
Should CCAF appeal this decision? An attorney commenting at Jackson's site suggests that the plaintiffs' attorneys will appeal, and if they do, we'll certainly cross-appeal. At some point CCAF will ask the appellate courts to create a bright-line rule forbidding attorneys from recovering more than their clients. Is this the case to do it?
The Center for Class Action Fairness, LLC, is not affiliated with the Manhattan Institute.