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REYNOLDS v. BENEFICIAL NATIONAL BANK

April 15, 2003

CHERYL REYNOLDS AND NANNIE TRIPLETT, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS, VS. BENEFICIAL NATIONAL BANK, BENEFICIAL TAX MASTERS, INC. AND H & R BLOCK, INC., DEFENDANTS. DECARLO TURNER, ON BEHALF OF HERSELF AND ALL THE CLASS OF SIMILARLY SITUATED BORROWERS, PLAINTIFFS, VS. BENEFICIAL NATIONAL BANK AND BENEFICIAL TAX MASTERS, DEFENDANTS.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elaine E. Bucklo, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This case is before me on remand from the Seventh Circuit pursuant to local Circuit Rule 36. Reynolds v. Beneficial National Bank, 288 F.3d 277 (7th Cir. 2002). In that decision the Seventh Circuit concluded that the circumstances surrounding the settlement of this litigation were suspicious and that it did not have enough information to determine if the settlement was fair. Lawyers for proponents of the settlement and objectors have filed various papers before me and presented argument and witnesses on three days. I decline to approve the settlement.

Two complaints were filed in April, 1998. The first, 98 C 2178, was brought by Joel Zawikowski, Cheryl Reynolds, Debra Barnes, Phyllis Barnes and Nannie Triplett against Beneficial National Bank, Beneficial Tax Masters, Inc., H&R Block, Inc. and various H&R Block subsidiaries. That complaint alleged violations of the federal Truth in Lending Act ("TILA," 15 U.S.C. § 1601, et seq.), state consumer fraud statutes, breaches of contractual and fiduciary duties, and unjust enrichment. On April 28, 1998, DeCarlo Turner filed a separate complaint, No. 98 C 2550, against Beneficial National Bank and Beneficial Tax Masters, Inc., alleging violations of TILA, RICO, 18 U.S.C. § 1961, et seq., and state consumer fraud statutes as well as breach of contract. The Zawikowski plaintiffs were represented by Francine Schwartz, Jennifer Sprengel, Dominic Rizzi, and Marvin Miller at the time the case began. A few weeks later, Howard Prossnitz filed an appearance on behalf of Nannie Triplett. Turner was represented by Daniel Harris. Both complaints were filed as class actions. The Turner class was defined as all persons who obtained Refund Anticipation Loans (defined below) from Beneficial National Bank from January 1, 1994 to the present, with the exception of persons who obtained their loans through Jackson Hewitt (those claims having previously been settled). The Zawikowski class claims were broader, going back to 1987 for certain claims against Beneficial and as to Block from 1996.

In essence, the complaints allege that plaintiffs — who are as a class described in pleadings or opinions in related cases, as persons who are unsophisticated, of limited education, financially strapped, and sometimes elderly — were led to believe they were obtaining a quick income tax refund through defendants' services, while in reality they were signing documents and obtaining a loan (a Refund Anticipation Loan or "RAL") at very high interest rates, without proper timely disclosures. Among the alleged misrepresentations or failures to disclose were the real finance charges they were paying and the fact that their tax preparer in the case of Block was receiving part of that fee.

The history of these cases was summarized in the Seventh Circuit opinion. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaints. In response, in part, plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed all but one of the Block defendants. The remainder of the motion to dismiss the Zawikowski complaint was briefed and granted in part by Judge Zagel in January and February, 1999. Judge Zagel denied defendants' motion to dismiss the Turner complaint in March, 1999. In October, 1999, the plaintiffs and defendants, including Block although it had been dismissed, filed a proposed settlement agreement with the court. That settlement would pay each class member (broadly defined in a new "settlement class") who filed a claim a pro rata share of a $25,000,000 claim fund up to a maximum of $15.00, with any remaining amount to revert to defendants. Judge Zagel required that the cap be raised to $30.00 for claimants who had more than one RAL, and disallowed the reversion. Following hearing, to which there were objections by lawyers representing plaintiffs in actions pending in other jurisdictions whose actions would be extinguished by the settlement, the settlement, as amended, was approved. The Seventh Circuit reversed.

On remand, the proponents of the settlement have vigorously argued for its renewed approval. Initially, I severed two classes that the Seventh Circuit found to be improperly included within the settlement, the Peterson and Carbajal classes, whose claims were different from those alleged by the settlement class but who had been included in the final settlement at the insistence of Block. I also refused to enter a new injunction (the old one had been vacated by the Seventh Circuit) enjoining proceedings in a Texas case, Haese v. H&P Block, Inc., et al., which was set for trial in the fall of 2002. I held a fairness hearing on October 7 and 8 and, at the request of objectors, a further hearing on November 15, 2002. At those hearings, and in legal memoranda, the proponents of the settlement have attempted to show, through purported legal experts (I accepted their opinions as additional briefs but not as expert opinions) and economic experts whose opinions were based on the legal conclusions of the law professor "experts", that the $25,000,000 settlement is quantifiably fair. Objectors have focused on what they say is proof that the class was sold out by unscrupulous counsel, which they say prevents the settlement from being approved regardless of the amount, although they also argue that the cases against these defendants are worth far more than $25,000,000.

It is settled law that a class action settlement cannot be approved, regardless of objective fairness, if the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23, including adequacy of counsel, are not met. Anchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 621-22 (1997); Reynolds, 288 F.3d at 284. Theoretically, if the settlement is fair, adequacy might be assumed. But as has often been noted, once a settlement is agreed upon, counsel, adequate or not, will, as in this case, argue for the fairness of the settlement. The court, therefore, does not have the benefit of the adversarial argument that should enable it to reach an objective conclusion on the fairness of the settlement. See, e.g., Kamilewicz v. Bank of Boston Corp., 100 F.3d 1348, 1352 (7th Cir. 1996) (Easterbrook, J., dissenting on request for rehearing en banc) ("Representative plaintiffs and their lawyers may be imperfect agents of the other class members-may even put one over on the court, in a staged performance."). Objectors may provide some balance but in most cases they are probably reluctant to commit the substantial resources that may be needed, knowing that they may not see reimbursement.

In this case the Seventh Circuit noted that the lawyers "representation of the class was almost certainly inadequate, an independent reason for disapproving a settlement" (288 F.3d at 284) but nevertheless sent the case back for a further examination of the settlement. Given the requirement of adequacy, noted by the Court, I conclude that it simply did not find it had sufficient information to make a definite determination of adequacy. Both sides have pursued the inquiry on remand.

The Seventh Circuit's tentative conclusion of inadequacy cited a lack of discovery, the fact that various classes were included in the settlement that did not seem appropriate, the inclusion of Block, who was not even a defendant, without additional compensation to the class, and various actions, particularly a meeting between certain counsel for plaintiffs and counsel for defendants, several months before the suits were filed. The meeting in question was a lunch at a Chicago club in September, 1997. The meeting was arranged by Ms. Schwartz, one of plaintiffs' counsel. With her was Mr. Prossnitz and Mr. Harris. Also present were Burt Rublin, Beneficial's lead lawyer and James Adducci, also a lawyer for Beneficial. The Seventh Circuit noted that no suit was pending against Beneficial at the time, that it was questionable whether Ms. Schwartz or Mr. Prossnitz had a client who might be a prospective plaintiff, and that Mr. Harris "certainly . . . did not." Id. at 280-81. Nevertheless, counsel arranged the lunch to discuss the possibility of a global settlement of RAL litigation. At the lunch, Mr. Harris later testified, Mr. Rublin "threw out a number, for purposes of illustration, of $24 or $25 million" as a possible settlement figure. Id. at 281. While the case did not settle very soon after this, and indeed was not filed until the following April, the Seventh Circuit found the coincidence of the numbers thrown out by Mr. Rublin with the final settlement figure, and the fact that the lawyers actually agreed to an amount that was likely to be considerably less than that, particularly troublesome, especially given the other facts noted above.

On remand, proponents of the settlement argue that the Seventh Circuit was mistaken, and that Mr. Rublin did not mention even a possibility of settlement in the range of $25 million. Both Mr. Rublin and Mr. Adducci testified that no such conversation occurred. Mr. Prossnitz also testified, somewhat less assuredly, stating that he did not recall Mr. Rublin mentioning such a number. Mr. Harris, whose deposition testimony had been relied upon by the Seventh Circuit as well as by Judge Zagel, did not testify. Neither did Ms. Schwartz. I am not certain that the Seventh Circuit's finding in this regard is even open to question (indeed, opponents of the settlement say that the Seventh Circuit at oral argument asked Mr. Rublin if he would like them to remand the case for a hearing before Judge Zagel, at which he could testify under oath in contradiction to Mr. Harris' testimony, and Mr. Rublin turned down the offer), but the luncheon would appear to be mostly of evidentiary interest in examining the general adequacy of counsel in this case. What is particularly important about the lunch was that counsel for plaintiffs, months before they filed a case, and without in some cases even clients to represent,*fn1 indicated their interest in an early settlement.

Additional facts of record also are relevant to the representation issue. Mr. Prossnitz and Ms. Schwartz had represented plaintiffs in an earlier RAL suit in federal and then state court against Beneficial and another tax return preparer, Jackson Hewitt. Adams v. Jackson Hewitt, Inc., 95 CH 11825 (Cir. Ct. Cook Cty.). The federal case had been dismissed but the state court case had survived a motion to dismiss. It had gone up to the state appellate court on a discretionary appeal, to which plaintiffs' counsel had agreed. But in the appellate court they nevertheless opposed allowing the appeal, and the state trial court held that it would impose sanctions in the form of defendants' attorneys' fees. Immediately following this order, and before a monetary amount of sanction could be imposed, plaintiffs' counsel agreed to settle the case. The settlement purported to give Jackson Hewitt a nationwide release of all RAL claims over a three year period in return for $75,000 in attorneys' fees, agreed dismissal of the sanctions order, and a $15 credit towards the cost of future tax preparation service to anyone who sent in a claim form. Notice of this settlement (which essentially gave plaintiffs nothing*fn2) was to be a one time notice in USA Today. Plaintiffs' counsel also agreed not to issue press releases or talk to news media about the lawsuit or its settlement. After objectors came in, the notice was increased to three times rather than once in USA Today and notice was to be placed in the Chicago Sun-Times as well. Whether counsel had a basis for concluding that a class comprised of people who generally obtained RALs through Jackson Hewitt read USA Today or (apart from Chicagoans) the Chicago Sun-Times is not known. Cf., Kamilewicz, 100 F.3d at 1349 (discussing defective notice). At any rate, the settlement was approved. Ms. Schwartz stated in time records submitted to the court in this case that there were "very few claims" made in the case. Mr. Rublin, defendants' counsel from New York, was in Chicago for a hearing on that settlement on the date of the September Metropolitan Club lunch.

After the Metropolitan Club lunch, the three attorneys sent defense counsel the names and social security numbers of their prospective plaintiffs and Mr. Adducci informed plaintiffs' counsel that Beneficial was not interested in a settlement. Within weeks after suit was filed the following April, Mr. Harris contacted Mr. Adducci with a settlement proposal. The proposal was for two $15 coupons to be used for discounts "on charges in connection with a Beneficial loan in the year" 2001 and 2002. Beneficial was to pay $1.6 million in cash (presumably in attorney fees, although on what basis Mr. Harris made the offer is not known because at his deposition he refused to answer any questions about the origin of the offer*fn3.) Individual notice was to be given only for persons for whom Beneficial had current addresses. Beneficial would receive a release of all RAL claims that could have been asserted since the beginning of 1994. Mr. Harris admits he had obtained no discovery at the time he made this settlement proposal. Beneficial turned down this offer. However, in January, 1998, after Judge Zagel had denied part of defendants' motion to dismiss, Mr. Rublin contacted Mr. Harris and began settlement negotiations. Mr. Harris agreed to Mr. Rublin's :request not to tell his fellow plaintiffs' counsel about the negotiations until he was given "permission" (his word) to do so by defendants' counsel. Defense counsel told Mr. Harris they preferred to negotiate with him alone and did not want him to lose control of the discussions. (Given his earlier indications of willingness to enter into settlement, it was of course not surprising that defense counsel sought him out.) At some point Mr. Harris understood that defense counsel wanted to reach a settlement before a class was certified in a New York case, Affatato v. Beneficial National Bank, 96 C 5376 (E.D.N.Y.). He also learned that there had been decisions favorable to plaintiffs in RAL litigation involving Beneficial or Block or both in various state and federal courts in 1999. He learned as well that if there was a settlement it would include Block although Block was no longer a defendant in the Chicago cases.

With Messrs. Miller, Prossnitz, and Harris and Ms. Schwartz (the "settlement lawyers") in the two cases before this court eventually involved in the negotiations, counsel reached the settlement that was submitted to Judge Zagel in October, 1999. Essentially all of the efforts of counsel between January and October that went into this case concerned settlement. On August 10, 1999, counsel told Judge Zagel that they had reached a settlement in principle, but negotiations continued concerning the exact language of the agreement, attorneys' fees, and the kind of notice that would be sent. The defendants refused to agree to a procedure where a rebate certificate would be mailed to the class members, insisting that a claim be filed although no information was required for the millions of members known to them. Plaintiffs' counsel agreed to this. There was also some discussion about excluding at least some of the classes in the several state and federal actions in New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Texas, that had survived motions to dismiss and were ongoing, but except for Block class members in Pennsylvania, all were eventually encompassed within the class. Mr. Harris testified that unless plaintiffs' counsel agreed to a release that would extinguish the rights of plaintiffs in these actions they would not have a deal. At some point two of plaintiffs' counsel, Ms. Schwartz and Mr. Miller, asked for more money if they were going to agree to include a release of Block RALs from Bank One, Greenwood Trust and Mellon Bank (over 10,000,000 RALs according to Mr. Adducci), none of which were defendants but all of which were included in the broad definition of the proposed amended class. Block refused and plaintiffs acquiesced.

On February 19, 2003, prior to reviewing the time records of settlement counsel but concerned with a number of statements in the testimony at the fairness hearing, I ordered settlement counsel to provide a complete list of discovery taken in this case. An examination of the material received in response confirms what I had learned from my subsequent reading of the time records and further study of various testimony while waiting for counsel's submission. In this case, settlement counsel never served a single set of interrogatories, or a formal request for documents, and never took a single deposition of an employee of Beneficial, H&R Block, or any of the other released lenders. They obtained some documents from defendants and answers to some questions; there are, however, no sworn answers or responses. The limited informal discovery sought prior to the time settlement had been agreed upon consisted in documents or information concerning the named plaintiffs' loans, information about H&R Block's document retention policies, pricing for RALs in various years, Block's license fee, the number of class members, a table with information about electronic filing fees and document preparation fees charged RAL customers in certain years (provided in September, after counsel had informed Judge Zagel that they had reached a settlement). In June, 1999, Mr. Harris had relayed to Mr. Adducci various questions that Ms. Schwartz had told him needed to be answered before she could agree on a settlement. (He stated in his memorandum to Mr. Adducci: "Here are Francine' s questions (with some edits).") She wanted to know how many people paid $25, $35 or any other electronic filing fees, how many people paid a higher finance charge than stated in the RAL application, what was this price, what were the document preparation fees, how many people paid them, how many paid these charges when they were not included in the TILA statement, whether there were additional fees or rebates paid to Block and other loan originators, and if so, the total amount paid, the total amount of finance charges paid, Beneficial's and Block's gross income from RALs, whether there was any other category of fee charged besides the document preparation fee and the administrative fee, and who sets and who gets these fees. On July 27, 1999, Mr. Adducci wrote his co-counsel indicating that Ms. Schwartz had called him that day saying she needed the answers to her questions. On August 17, 1999, one of Mr. Adducci's co-counsel reported that plaintiffs' expert, Mr. Adler, was going to look at documents to come up with an "economic justification" for the settlement that had been reached. These were apparently a number of boxes of documents that had been produced in the New York Affatato litigation, which Mr. Adducci made available as "confirmatory" discovery. Subsequently, Mr. Adducci reported to Mr. Adler that there was no index or table of contents identifying the contents of the boxes. Mr. Adducci purported to respond to Ms. Schwartz' questions in a letter dated September 1, 1999. In general he referred to two charts on which he said the answers could be found. The charts contain only the number of persons who paid particular electronic filing fees and "document fee" amounts for Beneficial in particular years. ...


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