Moody v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 2008 NCBC 14 (N.C. Super. Ct. August 6, 2008)

The North Carolina Business Court has set out an explicit set of procedures to be followed when parties take a voluntary dismissal of a class action before a decision on class certification. 

This Order yesterday by Judge Tennille in the Moody case comes following the Court of Appeals decision in that case last month, which reversed the Business Court and held that full faith and credit should have been accorded to an Illinois court’s approval of a nationwide class action.

The new opinion from the Business Court requires that counsel taking a pre-certification dismissal of a class action must file a statement which includes:

(1) the reason for dismissal, (2) the personal gain received by the plaintiffs in any settlement, (3) a statement of any other material terms of the settlement, specifically including any terms which have the potential to impact class members, (4) a statement of any counsel fees paid to plaintiff’s counsel by defendants, and (5) a statement of any agreement by plaintiff(s) restricting their ability to file other litigation against any defendant. 

Op. at ¶2.  In addition, counsel for the Plaintiff is required to "file a statement either detailing any potential prejudice to putative class members or representing to the Court that no prejudice exists."  Judge Tennille indicated that the Court would "be particularly concerned about issues related to tolling of the statute of limitations."

In a case involving the dismissal of a North Carolina class action resulting from the approval of a nationwide class action settlement in another state, which was the situation in Moody, there is a different requirement.  Then:

counsel shall file with the Court a copy of the order approving settlement and sufficient information concerning the notice provisions so that the Court can ascertain if jurisdictional and due process issues have been addressed by the foreign court and whether North Carolina citizens have been represented in the proceeding. 

Op. at ¶4.  Judge Tennille indicated that this filing would permit the court to "raise any concerns with the foreign court," and that "once those concerns have been addressed, the foreign court’s order will be entitled to full faith and credit whether or not this Court would have granted approval of the settlement."  Op. at ¶4.  (It doesn’t appear that in a case involving an out-of-North Carolina settlement that the statement regarding the reasons for the dismissal is necessary.)

In all cases, the Business Court will require a final accounting of the distribution of any settlement proceeds and attorneys fees.  This is not a new requirement of the Court.  As Judge Tennille stated, "it has been the practice of this Court to require class representatives to file and publish a copy of the final accounting detailing the amount of money (or coupons) actually received by the class, the amount of administrative fees, and the amount of attorney fees received."  Op. at ¶6.

The Court noted two reasons for the requirement of an accounting.  First, the Court said that this would "promote greater transparency that will fill the ‘informational black hole’ concerning final distributions and make administration of class actions more efficient and effective and thus more beneficial to class members."  Op. at ¶8.

Second, the Court said it would use this information for other purposes, including an assessment of the qualifications of class counsel:

This Court would add to that list of benefits from transparency, the benefit of judges being able to assess the past performance, abilities and commitment of those lawyers who seek to be class counsel in other cases. A history of final results in other cases would also alert judges to scrutinize settlements proposed by defendants who have settled their class action in ways that resulted in no benefits to class members. This Court can think of no reason why the final results should not be made known to the Court and the citizens affected. 

Op. at ¶9.  The accounting information will be available on the Business Court’s website. 

The accounting in Moody is that the members of the class in North Carolina received $66 in cash and coupons, the nationwide class members received $2,402 in cash and coupons, and Plaintiff’s counsel received $1,100,000 in cash and coupons.  Notwithstanding its reversal of the Business Court’s opinion of the original decision in Moody (which you can read about here) the Court of Appeals expressed concern about the adequacy and fairness of the Illinois settlement, stating "we share the trial court’s serious concerns regarding the final accounting in the . . . settlement."