Incentive Awards for Class Representatives -- Rodriguez v. West Publishing Corporation

Class settlement agreements typically provide that individuals serving as class representatives may recovery special monetary payments, known as "enhancements" or "service awards."    In the recent decision of Rodriguez v. West Publishing Corporation the appellate court discussed when such payments are proper and when they may cross the by creating potential conflicts of interest with other class members

The Rodriguez decision arose when objectors challenged the lower court's approval of a $49 million settlement in an anti-trust action against the providers of the Bar-Bri and Kaplan bar review courses.  The objectors claimed that a conflict of interest existed because Class Counsel and certain class representatives had agreed at the outset of the action to seek specific awards based on the amount of any future settlement.  In particular:

[I]f the [settlement] amount were greater than or equal to $500,000, class counsel would seek a $10,000 award for each of them; if it were $1.5 million or more, counsel would seek a $25,000 award; if it were $5 million or more, counsel would seek $50,000; and if it were $10 million or more, counsel would seek $75,000.

The Court began its analysis by noting that there is nothing wrong or unusual about incentive awards to class representatives in general.

Incentive awards are fairly typical in class action cases. Such awards are discretionary, and are intended to compensate class representatives for work done on behalf of the class, to make up for financial or reputational risk undertaken in bringing the action, and, sometimes, to recognize their willingness to act as a private attorney general. Awards are generally sought after a settlement or verdict has been achieved.  (Internal citations omitted)

The Court proceeded to explain, however, that any agreement that purports to tie a class representative's compensation to particular settlement  target may result in perverse incentives and conflicts of interest.

[O]nce the threshold cash settlement was met, the agreements created a disincentive to go to trial; going to trial would put their $75,000 at risk in return for only a marginal individual gain even if the verdict were significantly greater than the settlement. The agreements also gave the contracting representatives an interest in a monetary settlement, as distinguished from other remedies, that set them apart from other members of the class. Further, agreements of this sort infect the class action environment with the troubling appearance of shopping plaintiffships. If allowed, ex ante incentive agreements could tempt potential plaintiffs to sell their lawsuits to attorneys who are the highest bidders, and vice-versa. In addition, these agreements implicate California ethics rules that prohibit representation of clients with conflicting interests.

 The Rodriguez decision thus seems to stand for the proposition that any "ex ante" agreement to seek a specific enhancement for class representatives is disapproved and may jeopardize the validity of any class settlement.  Admittedly, this was a highly unusual arrangement to begin with.  (As bar review customers the class representatives in Rodriguez were presumably lawyers or lawyers-to-be, which probably accounts for the unusually self-serving deal.)

Nevertheless, Rodriguez v. West Publishing is still an important decision because it expressly recognizes and approves of enhancement awards generally, as well as its discussion of the interplay between the financial incentives and fiduciary duties of class representatives.            

 

 

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