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Schloss v. Gosmith, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. California

January 8, 2020

CATHI SCHLOSS, Plaintiff,
v.
GOSMITH, INC., Defendant.

          NOTICE AND ORDER RE PUTATIVE CLASS ACTIONS AND FACTORS TO BE EVALUATED FOR ANY PROPOSED CLASS SETTLEMENT AND PROTOCOL FOR INTERVIEWING PUTATIVE CLASS MEMBERS

          WILLIAM ALSUP UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         For the settlement guidance of counsel, please review the Procedural Guidance for Class Action Settlements, which is available on the website for the United States District Court for the Northern District of California at www.cand.uscourts.gov/ClassActionSettlementGuidance. In addition, counsel should review the following substantive and timing factors that Judge William Alsup will consider in determining whether to grant preliminary and/or final approval to a proposed class settlement. Many of these factors have already been set forth in In re Bluetooth Headset Products Liability Litigation, 654 F.3d 935, 946-47 (9th Cir. 2011). Counsel will please see from the foregoing that the main focus will be on what is in the best interest of absent class members. For an example of an order denying proposed preliminary approval based on many of these considerations, see Kakani v. Oracle Corp., No. C 06-06493 WHA, 2007 WL 1793774 (N.D. Cal. June 19, 2007).

         1. Adequacy of Representation.

         Anyone seeking to represent a class, including a settlement class, must affirmatively meet the Rule 23 standards, including adequacy. It will not be enough for a defendant to stipulate to adequacy of the class representation (because a defendant cannot speak for absent class members). An affirmative showing of adequacy must be made in a sworn record. Also to be disclosed in a sworn record are any possible shortcomings in a plaintiff's resume, such as a conflict of interest, a criminal conviction, a prior history of litigiousness, a prior history with counsel, and/or a prior history of filing putative class actions only to extract an individual settlement with a premium for dismissing the case. Adequacy of counsel is not a substitute for adequacy of the representative.

         2. Due Diligence.

         When anyone undertakes to act as a fiduciary on behalf of others (here, the absent class members), one must perform adequate due diligence before compromising their claims. This requires the representative and his or her counsel to investigate the actual strengths and weaknesses of the case, including determining the best-case dollar amount of claim relief. This usually requires discovery. A quick deal up front may save counsel money yet be unfair to absent class members.

         3. Cost-Benefit for Absent Class Members.

         If the settlement will provide a full recovery, then much less will be required to justify the settlement than for a partial recovery, in which case the discount will have to be justified. The greater the discount, the greater must be the justification. This will require an analysis of the specific proof, such as a synopsis of any conflicting evidence on key fact points. It will also require a final class-wide damage study or a very good substitute, in sworn form. If little discovery has been done to see how strong the claim is, it will be hard to justify a substantial discount on the mere generalized theory of “risks of litigation.” If defendant is broke or nearly so with no prospect of future rehabilitation, a steeper discount may be warranted. This must be proven. Counsel should normally verify a claim of poverty via a sworn record. A coupon settlement will rarely be approved. Where there are various subgroups within the class, counsel must also justify the plan of allocation of the settlement fund.

         4. The Release.

         The proposed release should be limited only to the claims certified for class treatment. A recurring problem, for example, is a class complaint for only rest- and meal-breaks which the defendant seeks to convert to a blanket class-wide release of all California Labor Code violations, including overtime, usually accompanied by a stipulation for plaintiff's counsel to receive a large fee. Language releasing claims that “could have been brought” is too vague and overbroad. The specific statutory or common law claims to be released should be spelled out. Class counsel must justify the release as to each claim released, the probability of winning, and its estimated value if fully successful.

         In litigation, defendants usually oppose class certification and/or argue for a narrow class. In settling, however, defendants often seek to expand the class, either geographically (i.e., nationwide) or claim-wise (including claims not even in the complaint) or person-wise (e.g., multiple new categories). Such expansions will be viewed with suspicion. If an expansion is to occur it must come with an adequate plaintiff and one with standing to represent the add-on scope and with an amended complaint to include the new claims, not to mention due diligence as to the expanded scope. The settlement dollars must be sufficient to cover the old scope plus the new scope.

         5. Reversion.

         A proposed class settlement that allows for a reversion of settlement funds to defendant(s) is a red flag, for it runs the risk of an illusory settlement, especially when combined with a requirement to submit claims that may lead to a shortfall in claim submissions.

         6. ...


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