This week, the United States Supreme Court looked at whether it should start assigning limits to class action lawsuits in which lawyers for the plaintiff receive millions of dollars, but the client gets [effectively] nothing.
The discussion came out of an $8.5 million settlement in which class action lawyers accused Google of violating its own user privacy rights. In this deal, the lawyers received more than $2 million but the actual class members who wanted to file the suit in the first place received zero dollars.
In lieu of the payment, Google agreed to contribute money to various institutions which are concerned with online privacy. These institutions include the likes of Stanford, Harvard, and Chicago-Kent College of Law, as well as AARP.
Indeed, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr commented that this makes no sense at all. It is not right, he argues, for the attorneys to get money while the class members have to forfeit their money to organizations they may not support or even know about, especially since these contributions will probably have no direct benefit to them at all.
While many other justices agreed about the puzzling nature of this option, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg commenter that it is not always easy or possible to money to all class members. For example, she argues, sometimes the divided totals are just too little to justify the cost associated with actually distributing them. She advises, then, that it does make more sense–at least, in instances like this–for a company to just pay the lump sum to a charity instead pennies to each person.
At the same time, Theodore H. Frank filed an objection to the settlement, arguing that it does not, in fact, provide any member of the class with any money, or any other benefit, at all. Of course, some of the justices exhibited visual uncertainty that members of the class had suffered enough of an injury to qualify and support the filing of such a suit. After all, this case is largely about Google’s website search term disclosure, and the opinions regarding whether this was actually harmful to anyone, in the end, varied greatly.