Courts have an important responsibility to approve class action settlements and ensure that the plaintiffs and their attorneys are not selling out the class by colluding with the defendants. Sometimes, though, in their zealous protection of the absent class members, courts wind up forgetting the old aphorism attributed to Confucius: "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." Uber drivers may wind up with pebbles rather than somewhat flawed diamonds. Crushed pebbles may make concrete, but even flawed diamonds could help pay a lot more bills.
When veteran wage-and-hour litigator Shannon Liss-Riordan sought court approval for a $100 million settlement on behalf of a class of 385,000 Uber drivers in California and Massachusetts, she was denounced by some objectors for the compromise she reached, even after she volunteered to cut her fee in half. Then Judge Edward Chen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California last month denied approval of the proposed settlement of the drivers’ independent-contractor-misclassification claims, finding that the settlement was not “fair, adequate, and reasonable,” as required to grant preliminary approval.
Judge Chen is one of the most careful protectors of absent class members and one of the most thoughtful jurists when it comes to adjudicating wage protections. In denying preliminary approval for the proposed independent-contractor-misclassification settlement, Judge Chen expressly endorsed the view that district court review of class action settlements should not be too lax – and particularly that the court’s review at the preliminary (as opposed to the final) approval stage should be more searching. But, in this case, his decision disapproving the settlement may have unintended consequences.
In disapproving the settlement, Judge Chen acknowledged the risk posed by Uber’s previously-rejected arbitration provisions, stating: “The most obvious risk to Plaintiffs is, of course, that the Ninth Circuit [which sits as the Northern District of California’s reviewing court] will uphold the validity of the arbitration provision contained in the 2013 and/or 2014 agreements, which this Court found was invalid as a matter of public policy.” This is exactly what happened.
Last week’s decision from the Ninth Circuit upholding Uber’s arbitration agreements (which contained class waivers) in another case may mean that the vast majority of those 385,000 drivers will get nothing. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Judge Chen had erred in previously declaring Uber’s arbitration agreements unenforceable, and that in doing so, he had “ignore[d]” circuit precedent.
Now, to get anything at all, each driver may need to bring an individual arbitration against Uber and win, showing that he or she was more like an Uber employee than an independent contractor. This will be a tough showing and, as Uber well knows, the vast majority of drivers will never step forward to assert the risky claims at all.
Denying approval for the $100 million settlement, Judge Chen found that the settlement reflected a 90% discount on the full value of the drivers claims, with the exception of the claim under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), for which the Court indicated that the settlement was a mere 0.1% of their full value. In particular, Judge Chen expressed concern that the PAGA claim had recently been added to the lawsuit to induce Uber to settle. Furthermore, Judge Chen questioned the value of the nonmonetary relief in the settlement, such as the provision that would allow drivers to accept cash tips (as opposed to in-app tipping as with Lyft), suggesting that riders accustomed to a cashless experience are unlikely to reach for their wallets.
It is possible that each of these terms was a compromise that was less than ideal for the Uber driver class members. Of course, any settlement of a wage-and-hour class action (or more broadly, any settlement of any lawsuit) is going to consist of a mix of terms, both good and bad for both sides of the dispute. But surely getting some money in a settlement – even an imperfect settlement – would be much better for hundreds of thousands of Uber drivers than getting nothing at all.
These Uber disputes raise central questions about the level of scrutiny a district court should apply to a class settlement – particularly given Judge Chen’s criticism of “lax review” – and whether the Court or class counsel is in a better position to evaluate the risks of non-recovery. While the court is charged with preventing collusive settlements to protect absent class members, ultimately, seasoned and responsible class counsel and class members both tend to care most about the bottom line, in light of the risks. With the benefit of hindsight, Liss-Riordan appears to have been right about the risks of proceeding with the litigation, and the settlement’s objectors were misguided.
The case is not over. Liss-Riordan has been signing up Uber drivers to pursue individual arbitrations in California. The PAGA claims on behalf of California drivers may not be compelled to arbitration. Nonetheless, the likelihood of a recovery nearing $100 million, or getting money for all 385,000 Uber drivers, looks bleak.
When reviewing class action settlements that were negotiated at arm’s length by experienced class counsel, where class counsel is able to articulate the rationale for their position, courts should be hesitant to second-guess counsel’s risk assessment. The perfect is often the enemy of the good in these cases, where a court – with a single decision – can erase years of work to obtain a successful result, absent some kind of an agreement between the parties. Particularly in the employment context, where workers should be recovering more than nominal amounts in any class resolution, those who do not wish to participate can always opt-out of a deal and pursue their own claims if they are so inclined. For the rest, though, receiving flawed diamonds might be a whole lot better than the alternative – getting dirt.