Third Circuit Smacks Down Class Action Settlement in Google Cookie Placement Litigation

In a refreshingly plain-spoken opinion issued Aug. 6, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals criticized a multimillion-dollar class action settlement in litigation over Google’s unauthorized use of internet tracking “cookies,” remanding to the District Court for more detailed findings of fact. In re: Google Inc. Cookie Placement Consumer Privacy Litigation, No. 17-cv-1480 (3d Cir. Aug. 6, 2019).

The case arose from allegations that Google created a web browser cookie, which tracks an internet user’s browsing activity even if the user tries to configure privacy settings to block it. The parties reached a settlement that would require Google to “stop using the cookies for Safari browsers and to pay $5.5 million to cover class counsel’s fees and costs, incentive awards for the named class representatives, and cy pres distributions, without directly compensating any class members.” The District Court certified an injunctive relief-only settlement class under Rule 23(b)(2), notwithstanding the fact that the settlement purported to release all class members’ potential claims for money damages. The only monetary benefit to the class was tangential: Google was to pay $3 million to organizations devoted to advocating for online privacy – a mechanism commonly referred to as cy pres, meaning a distribution that is supposed to be “as near as possible” to direct monetary relief.

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Standing in Uncertainty: Spokeo Three Years Later

In 2016, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, holding that even when Congress has granted parties a statutory right, a procedural violation of that right will not by itself satisfy the “concrete harm” requirement for Article III standing. The Court explained that while harm must be “concrete,” it need not be “tangible.” With little guidance on what this distinction actually means, the Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit, then denied a petition for writ of certiorari when the petitioners sought clarification on what constitutes a concrete, “intangible” harm.

Three years later, we are no closer to truly understanding what is required for Spokeo standing. Indeed, the recent decision in Frank v. Gaos, 139 S. Ct. 1041 (2019) not only demonstrates the Supreme Court’s present unwillingness to substantively address standing under Spokeo, but also serves as a sobering example of how a lack of clarity on the issue can derail nearly a decade’s worth of litigation and settlement efforts.  Continue Reading

Supreme Court: Express Consent Required for Class Arbitration

On April 24, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an ambiguous arbitration agreement does not provide a sufficient basis to conclude that parties agreed to class arbitration.

In Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision that the arbitration agreement between Lamps Plus and one of its employees allowed the employee to pursue class claims even though the agreement was vague as to class arbitration. Continue Reading

Caution: Precertification Communications with Absent Class Members

Are absent members of an uncertified class or Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) collective action “parties” and thus “represented” by plaintiff’s counsel? If so, is defense counsel prohibited from speaking with absent class members? At first glance, the answer would appear to be no, for two reasons. First, “a nonnamed class member is [not] a party to the class-action litigation before the class is certified.” Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Knowles, 568 U.S. 588, 593 (2013). And “[u]nder the FLSA, employees become parties to a collective action only by filing written consent” with the court after receiving court-approved notice. Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66, 75 (2013). Second, district courts cannot restrict parties or counsel in an alleged class action from communicating with putative class members unless the speech restriction is “justified,” generally because of abuse or other misconduct. See Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 101, 104 (1981). Continue Reading

Trial Courts Wrestle with Expert Testimony and Daubert at Class Certification

Expert testimony plays a critical role in nearly all putative class actions, including at the class certification stage where parties rely on expert evidence to address the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that trial courts must look beyond the pleadings and conduct a searching inquiry to resolve factual disputes about Rule 23’s requirements. But the Supreme Court has not explicitly held whether that searching inquiry requires expert testimony to satisfy the Daubert requirements before being considered in deciding a motion to certify. In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the Supreme Court noted that “the District Court concluded that Daubert did not apply to expert testimony at the certification stage of class-action proceedings.” 564 U.S. 338, 354 (2011). The Supreme Court expressed skepticism about that holding but did not reject it outright: “We doubt that is so.” Id. As we wrote here, the Supreme Court again addressed expert testimony at the class certification stage in Comcast v. Behrend, 569 U.S. 27 (2013), but deferred the specific question of whether that evidence must satisfy Daubert in order to be considered. Id. at 35 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting). Continue Reading

Q4 2018 Insurance Class Action Update

Hand pushing house button on screen with mortgage contract, keys and boxesThe final quarter of 2018 witnessed a number of new twists on old theories in class actions involving auto and homeowners claims and coverages, as well as further activity in some long-running class actions. Read BakerHostetler’s Q4 2018 Insurance Class Action Update, written by partner Mark Johnson, here.

Courts Remain Skeptical of Certifying Data Privacy Class Actions

Hacker Stealing Data with Binary Data Technology Abstract

In this era where there appears to be a new data security incident announced each month, there is surprisingly little class certification jurisprudence for data security class actions. Indeed, to date we know of only four decisions that have addressed class certification of data privacy actions, excluding settlement certification: Dolmage v. Combined Ins. Co. of Am., No. 14 C 3809, 2017 WL 1754772, at *7 (N.D. Ill., May 3, 2017); In re Target Corp. Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig., 309 F.R.D. 482, 484 (D. Minn., 2015); In re Hannaford Bros. Co. Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig., 293 F.R.D. 21, 33 (D. Me., 2013); and In re TJX Companies Retail Sec. Breach Litig., 246 F.R.D. 389, 397-98 (D. Mass., 2007). With only one exception (Target), courts have refused to certify contested data privacy classes.

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