The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Amy J. St. Eve
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
AMY J. ST. EVE, District Court Judge:
This consolidated class action arises from numerous cases brought against AT&T Mobility, L.L.C. ("AT&T"), for its collection of certain state and local taxes in alleged violation of the Internet Tax Freedom Act ("ITFA"). The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ("the JPML") centralized twenty-eight actions against AT&T pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1408 in this Court. (R. 1.) On June 24, 2010, Plaintiffs filed their Consolidated Master Class Action Complaint. (R. 48.) On August 11, 2010, the Court granted in large part the parties' joint motion for class certification, preliminary approval of class settlement, approval of notice, and appointment of notice administrator.*fn1 (R. 96.) Since then, the parties have filed memoranda in support of their motion for final approval of the class-action settlement, and a number of objectors (as well as certain states) have filed briefs in opposition to the Settlement Agreement ("the Agreement" or "the Settlement"). The Court held a fairness hearing on March 10, 2011, and allowed further time for amici to file briefs. (R. 169.)
Having studied the Agreement and the relevant briefing, the Court grants the motion for final approval of the Settlement (R. 154), finding that it is fair, reasonable, and adequate. The Court will address in a separate order Class Counsel's motion for approval of attorneys' fees, costs and expenses, and for approval of incentive awards for class representatives (R. 124).
I. The History of the Litigation
The ITFA provides that no state shall impose taxes on Internet access, or multiple or discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce, beginning November 1, 2003, and ending November 1, 2014. 47 U.S.C. § 151 (1998) (as amended). AT&T remitted a variety of sales and use taxes to certain state and local taxing authorities, which led numerous plaintiffs, who contended that the ITFA forbade such taxes, to bring suit. (R. 156 at 15.) AT&T subsequently moved under 28 U.S.C. § 1407 to transfer those actions for consolidated proceedings. (R. 1 at 1.) On April 7, 2010, the JPML transferred the cases to this Court, but declined to transfer the single case of Johnson v. AT&T, No. 4:09-CV-4014. (Id. at 3-7.) Plaintiffs in the Wiand action pending in the Eastern District of Michigan and the Johnson action pending in the Southern District of Texas opposed inclusion of their actions in centralized proceedings. (Id. at 1.)
The JPML carefully considered certain Plaintiffs' arguments that the application of the ITFA will vary from state to state and that centralization could have the negative effect of allowing AT&T later to argue against class certification based on the distinct tax rules of each state. (R. 1 at 2.) Nevertheless, the panel concluded that "the benefits of centralization are significant," and thus found that the relevant actions met the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 1407. The JPML determined, however, that the Johnson action was sufficiently distinct to warrant exclusion from the centralized proceedings. (Id.)
On June 24, 2010, AT&T and 57 plaintiffs in the consolidated actions filed a joint motion for an order certifying the proposed class and subclasses for settlement purposes, preliminarily approving the settlement agreement, approving the notice plan, ordering the dissemination of notice as set out in the Settlement Agreement, and appointing Analysis Research Planning Corporation ("ARPC") as the Notice and Settlement Administrator. (R. 49.) On August 11, 2010, the Court granted the joint motion for class certification, preliminary approval of class settlement, approval of notice, and appointment of notice administrator, but reserved judgment on whether to appoint ARPC as settlement administrator. (R. 96.)
In preliminarily approving the Settlement Agreement, the Court weighed the strength of Plaintiffs' case against that of AT&T. (R. 97 at 20-24.) It observed that Plaintiffs' action faces "significant hurdles," but noted that AT&T had agreed for the purpose of the proposed settlement not to argue that (1) Plaintiffs must arbitrate their claims; (2) the Court cannot certify the proposed class; (3) Plaintiffs lack standing; (4) the ITFA does not preempt the relevant taxes; and (5) the voluntary-payment doctrine bars Plaintiffs' claims. (Id. at 21.) The Court further observed the relevance of discounting to present value, which means that, even if the Plaintiffs were ultimately to prevail in the future, a dollar then would not be equivalent to a dollar now. (Id. at 21-22.) This constituted a benefit to the Proposed Settlement, which would provide immediate benefits. (Id. at 22.) In addition, the Court noted AT&T's agreement that it would stop collecting taxes on Internet-access services within 30 days of the Court's preliminary approval. (Id.)
Further benefits to class members as a result of the Agreement involved AT&T's creation of an escrow account and coordination of tax refunds and credits without requiring class members to submit any claim forms. (Id.) Within 90 days of preliminary approval of the Settlement Agreement, AT&T had to begin filing refund and credit applications. (Id.) The Court also observed the creation of state-specific subclass accounts, which would facilitate recovery in light of different states' distinct procedures for allowing refunds. (Id. at 22-23.) In addition, AT&T agreed to waive its opposition to class certification and to pay the cost of notifying the class. (Id. at 23.) The Court concluded its discussion of the relative strengths of the parties' cases by observing:
Movants have represented that hundreds of millions of dollars are at issue in this action, but they have not provided a more-definite figure of how much is at issue or exactly how much Plaintiffs can expect to recover. That is not problematic at this stage, however, because it appears that Plaintiffs would receive a high percentage of what is at issue -- whatever that dollar value may be -- under the Proposed Settlement Agreement. As such, this factor favors preliminary approval. (Id. at 24.)
The likely complexity, length, and expense of litigation favored granting preliminary approval of the Settlement because AT&T's service agreements contain mandatory arbitration clauses. (Id. at 25-26.) In relying on the opinion of AT&T's counsel and the Interim Settlement Class Counsel, the Court deemed it relevant that "class counsel will only be paid from state-specific escrow accounts if those accounts are funded through refunds or credits from the taxing jurisdictions, and they have agreed to seek fees that are no greater than the lesser of ten percent of the aggregate value of the settlement or twenty-five percent of the aggregate value of the class damages actually recovered." (Id. at 26-27.)
Although formal discovery had not taken place, that fact alone did not preclude approval of the Settlement in light of the significant amount of informal discovery that the parties had conducted. (Id. at 27.) The Court emphasized the unique circumstances of the case, in that Defendant acted as a pass-through to taxing authorities, but stressed that it "will require additional information, including detailed financial information, before giving final approval." (Id. at 28.)
The proposed notice satisfied Rule 23. The notice plan entailed AT&T's sending both a message with each customer's monthly bill and a text message to its current customers. (Id. at 30.) Former customers would receive notice via email, if they had provided the same to AT&T, or by U.S. Mail otherwise. (Id.) In addition, AT&T agreed to publish a notice twice in the USA Today newspaper. (Id.) The details contained in the various forms of notice met the requirements of Rule 23. (Id. at 30-33.)
II. The Settlement Agreement
The Court briefly summarizes the more important provisions of the Settlement Agreement, which acknowledges Plaintiffs' allegation that AT&T charged Internet Taxes to its customers in violation of the ITFA and/or various state statutes and common-law doctrines, thus rendering AT&T liable for damages, but makes clear that AT&T views these allegations as incorrect and denies all liability. (R. 50-3 at 13.)
The Agreement defines the relevant class as follows:
All persons or entities who are or were customers of AT&T Mobility and who were charged Internet Taxes on bills issued from November 1, 2005 through [the final date on which AT&T Mobility issues bills to customers prior to implementing the billing system changes pursuant to Section 8.1].
Excluded from the Settlement Class are: (i) AT&T Mobility, any entity in which AT&T Mobility has a controlling interest or which has a controlling interest in AT&T Mobility, and AT&T Mobility's legal representatives, predecessors, successors and assigns; (ii) governmental entities; (iii) AT&T Mobility's employees, officers, directors, agents and representatives; and (iv) the Court presiding over any motion to approve this Settlement Agreement.
(R. 50-3 at 14-15.) The Court certified this Class on August 11, 2010.*fn2 (R. 97 at 34.) The Court further certified District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and forty-five state-specific subclasses for:
All persons or entities who are or were customers of AT&T Mobility and who were charged Internet Taxes in [STATE] on bills issued from November 1, 2005 through the final date on which AT&T Mobility issues bills to customers prior to implementing the billing system changes pursuant to Section 8.1 of the Settlement Agreement. Excluded from the [State] Settlement Class are: (i) AT&T Mobility, any entity in which AT&T Mobility has a controlling interest or which has a controlling interest in AT&T Mobility, and AT&T Mobility's legal representatives, predecessors, successors and assigns; (ii) governmental entities;
(iii) AT&T Mobility's employees, officers, directors, agents and representatives; and (iv) the Court presiding over any motion to approve this Settlement Agreement.
The Agreement imposes a variety of obligations on AT&T. First, the company must cease charging the challenged Internet Taxes, though it may reinstate such charges if the Court does not approve the Agreement or if "federal, state or local laws, statutes, regulations, administrative decisions or pronouncements, or the interpretation of any of the foregoing specifically requires, authorizes or permits the collection and payment of Internet Taxes on, or on the charge for, any services or products set forth on Exhibit I." (Id. at 15.) Second, AT&T must process and assist in processing refund claims on behalf of class members. The Agreement contemplates that the taxing jurisdictions have different methods for seeking reimbursement of the taxes. Specifically:
8.3. In those Taxing Jurisdictions . . . in which only AT&T Mobility has standing to seek a refund of the Internet Taxes collected and paid by AT&T Mobility, AT&T Mobility, on behalf of the Settlement Class but at AT&T Mobility's expense, shall file claims with the Taxing Jurisdictions for refunds of the Internet Taxes for the available period or periods for which refund claims may be filed under each jurisdiction's laws.
8.4. In those Taxing Jurisdictions . . . in which AT&T Mobility and Class Plaintiffs have standing to seek a refund of the Internet Taxes collected and paid by AT&T Mobility, AT&T Mobility, on behalf of the Settlement Class but at AT&T Mobility's expense, shall file claims joined in by the Settlement Class with the Taxing Jurisdictions for refunds of the Internet Taxes for the period or periods for which refund claims may be filed under each jurisdiction's laws.
8.5 In those Taxing Jurisdictions . . . in which only the Settlement Class Members have standing to seek a refund of the Internet Taxes collected and paid by AT&T Mobility, AT&T Mobility, on behalf of the Settlement Class but at AT&T Mobility's expense, shall prepare and provide: (i) a template for filing a claim for refund of Internet Taxes, (ii) documentation showing the aggregate Internet Taxes paid to each such jurisdiction for the period or periods for which refund claims may be filed under each jurisdiction's laws, and (iii) such other information reasonably necessary to prepare, file and process the refund claims as is requested by the Settlement Class and is available in AT&T Mobility's records, in a format determined by AT&T Mobility.
Third, the Agreement provides that AT&T and the Class Plaintiffs will seek interest from the Taxing Jurisdictions with respect to the refund claims when permitted by statute. (Id. at 16.)
Fourth, for those Taxing Jurisdictions that require AT&T to refund the relevant Internet Taxes to affected customers before those jurisdictions will grant a claimed refund, AT&T will make such a payment in escrow to a fund contemporaneously with the filing of the refund claim. (Id. at 17.) Pursuant to the Agreement, "each Settlement Class Member agrees that, for purposes of satisfying the requirement of any Taxing Jurisdiction, that [sic] AT&T Mobility refund taxes to the affected customers prior to granting or paying a refund claim, the payment by AT&T of an amount representing Internet Taxes paid by that Settlement Class Member into the Pre-Refund Escrow Fund will be considered the payment by AT&T of such taxes to such Settlement Class Member." (Id.) An entity unrelated to the Settling Parties will maintain the amounts paid into the escrow fund until one of two possible release events occurs, upon which time AT&T will receive back all amounts, plus any interest earned, it paid to the fund. (Id. at 17-18.)
Fifth, the Class Members consent to AT&T's filing of claims and to the distribution of the Net Settlement Fund. (Id. at 18.) Sixth, the Agreement explains procedures for filing and prosecuting refund claims. (Id. at 19-20.) Should a taxing jurisdiction deny a refund claim, AT&T shall promptly notify Class Counsel and, if the latter decide to appeal, AT&T will cooperate in that process. (Id. at 19.) Independent counsel shall conduct any such appeals and will be paid from any funds realized by the appeal or, in the event that the appeal is unsuccessful, by Class Counsel.
The Agreement next provides that AT&T shall assign all of its rights in a refund to the Settlement Class and will seek to have the taxing authorities pay the refunded amounts directly to the Escrow Accounts. (Id. at 20.) To the extent AT&T directly receives refunds, it will transfer them to the Escrow Accounts within seven business days. (Id.) Importantly, "[t]he monies transferred by AT&T Mobility to the Escrow Accounts for refunds from a Taxing Jurisdiction shall be segregated . . . into separate accounts, each designated as originating from the specific jurisdiction for which the monies in questions were received . . ." (Id.)
If a taxing jurisdiction issues future tax credits in lieu of a pecuniary refund, AT&T shall "remit monies in the amount of the credit . . . to the Escrow Accounts" within fourteen business days. (Id. at 21.) AT&T will apply no discount rate to compute the net present value of future tax credits spread over three years or less, but will apply a 5% discount rate for future tax credits that extend into fourth and succeeding years. (Id.)
The Agreement further provides that AT&T shall remit the Vendor's Compensation collected from Class Members to the Escrow Accounts within seven business days, and the Escrow Agent shall segregate the monies into separate accounts, "each designated as originating from the specific jurisdiction authorizing the Vendor's Compensation and each for the benefit of those Settlement Class Members who were charged Internet Taxes from which the Vendor's Compensation at issue was deducted." (Id. at 22-23.)
Upon entry of a final order, the Agreement provides that Class Members who do not opt out and Class Plaintiffs "release and forever discharge AT&T Mobility from any and all claims . . . causes of action, obligations, . . . and costs, whether known or unknown . . . that were or could have been asserted or sought in the Actions, relating in any way or arising out of (a) AT&T Mobility's charging of the Internet Taxes . . . and (b) any and all claims that were asserted or could have been asserted by the Settlement Class in the Actions with respect to AT&T Mobility's charging of taxes, fees or surcharges on internet access allegedly in violation of ITFA, state and local laws." (Id. at 27.) The Agreement includes an express waiver to the fullest extent permitted by law and provides that "[t]he Settling Parties acknowledge, and the Settlement Class Members shall be deemed by operation of the Final Order to have acknowledged, that the foregoing waiver was separately bargained for and a key element of the Settlement of which this release is a part." (Id. at 28.)
Furthermore, AT&T has the right to set aside or rescind the Agreement if "any objections to the proposed settlement are sustained" or if "there are any material modifications to this Agreement, including exhibits, by the Court[.]" (Id. at 31.) Finally, the Agreement provides that the Court shall retain continuing jurisdiction over the Actions and the Settling Parties and that "[a]ny dispute or controversies arising with respect to the interpretation, enforcement, or implementation of the Settlement Agreement shall be presented by motion to the Court, exclusively." (Id. at 34.)
III. Class-Member Objections
A. Douglas Cherry, individually and on behalf of Kraft Foods Global, Inc.
Douglas W. Cherry, individually and as attorney for Kraft Foods Global, Inc., objects to the Settlement on the ground that Kraft has reimbursed Cherry and thousands of its other employees for Internet-access taxes that AT&T charged to those employees. (R. 136.) Kraft Foods thus challenges AT&T's issuing refunds to its employees who are Class Members instead of to Kraft. (Id. at 1-2.) Cherry and Kraft Foods thus propose that, "in these situations, the employer (in this case Kraft) that actually paid the taxes be substituted as a member of the settlement class for all such individuals with respect to all such amounts." (Id. at 2.) They submit that "[t]he employer is the real party in interest with respect to all such amounts under the law of subrogation." (Id.)
Objector Paige Nash contends that the notice provided to Class Members in this case falls short of the notice requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, violates those members' due-process rights, and contravenes the decisions of Mullane v. Cent. Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306 (1950), and Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156 (1974). (R. 147.) Nash does not explain how the Settlement runs afoul of these decisions. Nash does contend, however, that due process requires that every single class member receive notice. (Id. at 1.) Furthermore, Nash submits that the lawyers for the class will file the fee petition after the objection deadline and argues that this sequence also violates due process, Rule 23(h), and the Ninth Circuit's decision in In re Mercury Interactive Corp. Sec. Litig., 618 F.3d 989 (9th Cir. 2010). (Id. at 1-2.). Finally, Nash states that "[a]ny discussion on attorney [sic] fees should not be made until after the amount collected is known. Right now there is no basis upon which to support an award of attorney [sic] fees." (Id. at 2.)
In a supplemental filing, Nash specifically incorporates Texas's objections to the settlement that "Texas consumers will recover nothing, though they will be bound by the release negotiated on their behalf"; "Texas law provides remedies for tax challenge"; "Texas is grandfathered under ITFA and the Lawyers knew it"; and "AT&T's customers fare better under Texas law than under the settlement." (R. 172 at 1-2.) She further objects that the alleged monetary relief to the Texas subclass is illusory and that the settling parties have not met their burden of proof. (Id. at 2.)
Michael Hale, Summer Hogan, Michael Schulz, and Omar Rivero ("Hale") raise a variety of objections to the Agreement. (R. 141.) As a preliminary matter, Hale objects to the class definition because of its failsafe definition, which depends on the determination of an ultimate merits issue in this case. (Id. at 2.) Hale then articulates a series of further objections, specifically that: (1) the class notice improperly (though truthfully) states that objectors may be subject to depositions; (2) proponents of the Settlement have not carried their burden of proof that the settlement is reasonable, adequate, and fair; (3) there may be a disparity in the refunds that Class Members of different states receive; (4) the class notice does not provide sufficient information by which one could determine the actual dollar amount of fees sought by Class Counsel; (5) the sought-after attorneys' fees are excessive under a lodestar analysis or a percentage-of-recovery analysis; (6) the class notice does not disclose the amount of expenses and costs that the attorneys seek reimbursement for and that amount may be excessive; (7) proponents of the Settlement cannot discharge their burden of proof on commonality, typicality, and predominance; and (8) the class definition is vague and ambiguous. (Id. at 2-3.)
D. Travis Cox and Margaret Johnson
Travis Cox and Margaret Johnson, who are both members of the proposed Texas subclass, object to the settlement. (R. 132.) In addition to objecting generally to the class notice, which they deem insufficient, Cox and Johnson make a number of objections with respect to the Settlement itself. They first note that the parties have reached a settlement without the benefit of formal discovery. (Id. at 2.) Observing Texas's difficult financial situation, they also express concern that the relevant taxing jurisdictions will not pay refunds. (Id. at 2-3.) Cox and Johnson also worry that Class Counsel will neglect AT&T customers in certain states in favor of customers in those states in which counsel will receive large fees on refunds. (Id. at 3.) Cox and Johnson further assert, without explanation, that the incentive payments to class representatives are excessive. (Id.)
Cox and Johnson object with greater specificity to the fee petition. (Id. at 3-6.) They contend that "Class Counsel will not file an attorney fee application prior to the objection deadline on March 10, 2011."*fn3 (Id. at 3.) They therefore submit that "[c]lass members . . . were not given a reasonable time to evaluate and object to the motion," which they argue violates Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(h). (Id. at 3-4.) Cox and Johnson also rely on Mercury, 618 F.3d at 988, for the proposition that it is improper to set objection deadlines prior to the deadline for filing motions for attorneys' fees in class actions. (Id. at 4-6.) Finally, they object that [i]n this case there will not even be the opportunity to cross check using the lodestar method." (Id. at 6.)
E. Angela Vrana and Barbara M. Fisher
Angela Vrana and Barbara M. Fisher object to the Settlement. (R. 143.) They argue that it would violate the parties' contract, which explicitly provides that the parties would resolve all disputes between them through arbitration. (Id. at 2-5.) Vrana and Fisher submit that, "[j]ust as that very agreement prevents one party to the transaction from resolving a dispute through a court or class action, the agreement also prevents ATTM from resolving a dispute through a court or class action." (Id. at 2.) They contend that the parties entered into the arbitration agreement because they expected that it would allow consumers to enjoy better recoveries than would be available in class actions. (Id. at 3.) They further submit that the Federal Arbitration Act compels AT&T to abide by its agreement to arbitrate, and argue that the law estops AT&T from contesting the enforceability of the arbitration agreement. (Id. at 4-6.) Vrana and Fisher thus request the Court to stay proceedings until the parties engage in arbitration. (Id. at 6.)
In the event that the Court declines to enter a stay, Vrana and Fisher articulate a variety of objections to the settlement. (Id. at 7-14.) They observe that, where-as here-settlement approval takes place before formal class certification, the law requires a higher standard of fairness. (Id. at 7.) They then proceed to make a number of criticisms. First, they contend that AT&T cannot obtain a refund from Texas because the state requires a person seeking a refund first to refund all relevant taxes and interest "to the person from whom the taxes were collected." (Id. at 8.) Vrana and Fisher submit that ¶ 8.7 of the settlement agreement will be inefficacious in this respect because a "pre-refund escrow fund" is not a refund and the parties' agreement that AT&T's payment into the escrow fund "will be considered payment by AT&T of such taxes to" the Class Member will not solve the problem. (Id. at 9.) They opine further:
[C]lass members have no interest in or right to the money in the Pre-Refund Escrow Fund. More importantly, the state is not bound by the class members' agreement. The statute requires actual payment of the refund to the person who paid it, not an agreement by the payer that the ATTM has refunded the tax when, in fact, it has not refunded the tax. (Id. at 9) (emphasis omitted).
Vrana and Fisher also express concern that AT&T's agreement to stop collecting taxes is illusory because it contains an exception that eliminates the promise. (Id. at 9-10.) Specifically, they point to language that gives AT&T the right to reinstate charges for Internet taxes if its "interpretation" of "federal, state or local laws, statutes, regulations, administrative decisions or pronouncements" requires or permits it. (Id. at 10.) Finally, Vrana and Fisher object that the $5,000 incentive awards are excessive because the class representatives "never had to respond to a single discovery request or deposition." (Id.)
Karen Wiand offers a rather detailed objection to the Settlement, and her counsel appeared at the fairness hearing to express these objections. (R. 116.) She broadly objects to the nature of the Agreement, which purports immediately to relieve AT&T of all related breach-of-contract claims against it, while only imposing a future obligation on AT&T to help the Class Members obtain refunds from state and local governments. (Id. at 1.) Wiand also contends that her state, Michigan, has a tax statute of limitations, which precludes any recovery of "tax refunds back to 2005." (Id.) In addition, Wiand questions paragraph 8.2 of the Settlement Agreement, which she reads to permit AT&T to resume monthly billing upon expiration of the ITFA in 2014, even if state laws to the contrary then exist. (Id. at 1-2.) She further objects to the fact that the Agreement seeks to "saddle" the Class Members with the administration costs and attorneys' fees. (Id. at 2.) In addition, Wiand maintains that AT&T's improper tax collections underlying the present lawsuit are criminal violations of Michigan law, which render AT&T's cessation of the same to be invalid consideration for the Settlement. (Id.) Furthermore, Wiand considers the notice to be inadequate because "many consumers" did not receive the relevant text, the notice did not provide any information as to the amount consumers would receive under the Settlement, and because the notice "fails to apprise consumers that statutes of limitations would bar recovery for portions of the time period that are touted as encompassed by the settlement." (Id. at 6.) Wiand also objects to the $5,000 award that the Agreement purports to provide each named Plaintiff because none of those Plaintiffs responded to any written discovery, appeared for a deposition, or contributed in any other way to the litigation. (Id.)
Finally, Wiand contends that Class Counsel have conducted the present litigation inadequately. (Id. at 2-6.) She specifically objects on the following grounds: (1) Class Counsel agreed to settle without conducting any formal discovery and thus seek to settle without "determining which states will pay refunds . . . [and] the specific actual procedure for refunds which the various states would require"; (2) Class Counsel have failed to establish a procedure for proposed tax refunds for Michigan residents; (3) Class Counsel have improperly purported to represent Michigan class members via a Michigan law firm in which one of the partners testified as an expert at the request of AT&T in support of its motion to dismiss a similar consumer lawsuit; and (4) Class Counsel face a conflict of interest because, although they purport to represent consumers in all states, they "will receive payments of huge fees from refunds paid in some states even if consumers in other states receive little or nothing." (Id. at 3-6.) On this last point, Wiand further explains:
Class counsel's disingenuous ploy to overcome this conflict is facile and immoral-arguing that this arrangement is perfectly fine because they will get little or no contingent fees from consumers in states where refunds are little or nothing-leaving totally unanswered the fact that those consumers would be sacrificed via permanent dismissal of their claims in favor of consumers in other states. (Id. at 5.)
Shelley Stevens, a Class Member, objects to the Settlement on the following grounds: (1) every Class Member is entitled to personal service because AT&T knows their contact information; (2) the post card Stevens received did not provide information concerning Class Members' options or the deadline for objecting, opting out, or even filing a claim; (3) if AT&T wrongly collected taxes, then it should pay the Class Members; (4) the Settlement lacks cohesion because of divergent state (and circuit) laws, some of which may bar refunds due to statutes of limitations; and (5) Class Counsel and AT&T had not informed Stevens of the sought-after attorneys' fees. (R. 151.)
Objector Margaret Strohlein has filed a detailed objection. (R. 156-4.) Observing AT&T's "seemingly overt violations of the ITFA," Strohlein argues that the strength of Plaintiffs' case does not support settlement. (Id. at 3-4.) In this respect, she considers Defendant's potential defenses, as well as impediments to Plaintiffs' ability to recover independent of the Settlement, to be "hollow." (Id.) She further observes that the parties filed their joint motion for preliminary settlement only 70 days after consolidation, notes that the docket is devoid of conflict between the parties, and points out that there is no way to know whether the Agreement is beneficial to the Class because the parties did not conduct discovery. (Id.)
Strohlein also objects to the terms of the Settlement. (Id. at 4-8.) She contends that the requested fee is unreasonable and does not reflect what the attorneys would have received from a paying client in a similar case. (Id. at 4-5.) Strohlein observes that Lead Counsel estimate the maximum monetary recovery at $956,160,000, and request 25% of the same, which amounts to $239,040,500.*fn4 (Id. at 5.) Strohlein points out that, based on the number of days between consolidation and the fairness hearing, "92 attorneys will be entitled to a daily salary of $7,873.53, seven days a week, for 11 months of work." (Id.) She concludes that, "[t]o reward each attorney an average of $2.59 million dollars for such an uncertain reward after this protracted litigation is not even close to the going market rate." (Id.)
Strohlein next argues that the reward to Class Members is uncertain "[d]ue to the wildly disparate laws among the states." (Id. at 5-6.) She then objects to the lack of a lodestar cross-check, which the Seventh Circuit has noted is a guard against the over-compensation of attorneys that can accompany a percentage or common-fund approach. (Id. at 6 (quoting Harman v. Lyphomed, Inc., 945 F.2d 969, 974 (7th Cir. 1991).) She observes that Class Counsel's motion does not even disclose the lodestar amount, "making this Objector curious as to how many hours were actually spent in settling this case." (Id. at 7.) She points out that it would not be difficult to conduct a lodestar cross-check because attorneys routinely keep track of their hours and, because the case has not been protracted, the Court would not have to review voluminous billing records. (Id. at 7.)
Class Counsel's argument that a lodestar approach is inappropriate because the lodestar amount would increase post-settlement does not convince Strohlein. (Id. at 7-8, 11-13.) She points out that "[t]heir economic expert, Dr. Landes, was capable of estimating future tax rates in 2,000 taxing jurisdictions" and suggests that "she could also estimate the attorney hours required going forward." (Id. at 8.) Strohlein also observes that, according to the terms of the Agreement itself, Class Counsel will have a limited role in managing the claims. (Id.) She explains:
[T]he Settlement Administrator and Escrow Agent (entities and individuals independent of Class Counsel) will be managing the collection and distribution of funds. The Administrator and Escrow Agent will be paid for by the Class (5% of every refund shall be contributed from each Class Member to the administration of this fund). . . Additionally, it is AT&T that will conduct the bulk of the work in recouping the recoveries. Of the three 'types' of taxing Jurisdictions, AT&T is permitted to collect on behalf of the Class Members in two of those jurisdictions. In the third type, the Class Member must claim its own refund[,] so, AT&T will fill out all necessary paperwork and provide it to each Class Member in those jurisdictions. It is therefore unclear what extensive attorneys' fees Class Counsel will continue to accrue during the disbursement of the Class Members' rewards. (Id. at 8) (internal citations omitted.)
Strohlein reminds the Court that Class Counsel's experts, though highly qualified, are nevertheless effective employees of Class Counsel, and so the Court should discount their opinions accordingly. (Id. at 9.) Strohlein disputes the substance of Dr. Landes's expert report, which calculates the present value of benefits that the class would realize by virtue of the Settlement at $2.02 billion.*fn5 (Id. at 9-11.) She argues that Dr. Landes could have used a more accurate method for calculating a common "tax rate" that AT&T might otherwise collect in the future but for the Settlement. (Id. at 10.) Strohlein characterizes Dr. Landes's averaging all the states' and jurisdictions' tax rates as speculative. (Id.) She also criticizes Dr. Landes's method for calculating the relevant discount rate, which involved using the yield on an index of U.S. bonds with short-term maturities issued by utilities and phone companies as a proxy for AT&T's debt rate. (Id. at 10-11.) Strohlein criticizes Dr. Landes for failing to explain how those other companies' debt rates are comparable to those of AT&T. (Id.)
Finally, Strohlein argues that the certified class does not meet the predominance requirements of Rule 23(b) because "each state provides different remedies for consumer protection statutes and different tax rates for each city and state." (Id. at 13-14.)
Robert Shattuck expresses concern with class actions that implicate the rights of many people, where those affected rights are significant in the aggregate, but minimal at the level of the individual owner. (R. 156-6.) He worries that class-action settlements, including the one presently before the Court, foster collusion between corporate management and plaintiffs' lawyers. (Id. at 4-5.)
With respect to the Settlement Agreement specifically, Shattuck objects that it will prevent AT&T's shareholders from determining whether the company's management was corrupt or negligent and further argues that customers have alternative avenues by which to seek compensation, and that it overrides rules and limitations put in place by lawmaking bodies and violates the business-judgment rule. (Id. at 7-8.) Shattuck further submits that the Court should not award attorneys' fees in excess of $100,000. (Id. at 9.)
A number of states have filed amicus briefs, asking the Court to reject the Settlement Agreement.
Texas states that it "is not willing to submit to an agreement between private parties that a made-up procedure, in conflict with Texas law, will be used" and submits that "[a]n order from this Court approving the private agreement has no bearing on this fact." (R. 178 at 8.) It contends that the Settlement Agreement "will control and interfere with Texas tax collection procedures" and thus "asks that the Court remove the Texas Subclass from the case for two reasons." (Id. at 8-9.) These reasons are, first, that the only federal interest in this case concerns the ITFA, which, Texas maintains, grandfathers the state such that "the ITFA does not apply to collection of sales taxes from AT&T's Texas customers." (Id. at 9.) Second, Texas argues that, "[u]nder the Settlement Agreement[,] each member of the Texas Subclass is likely to receive a zero recovery while forfeiting possibly valid claims under a broad release of AT&T." (Id. at 9, 21-24.)
Texas further contends that its laws require AT&T to collect taxes on Internet-access service, such that the Agreement's provision requiring AT&T to stop collecting or remitting these taxes would violate Texas law. (Id. at 10.) It also submits that, absent the Agreement, AT&T could assign its refund rights to its Texas customers, thus enabling them to receive 100% of any refund. (Id. at 11.) Furthermore, the state maintains that Plaintiffs seek relief beyond the power of this Court to grant, "namely an injunction against AT&T [sic] collecting state sales taxes on Internet access charges in Texas[.]" (Id. at 12.) Texas thus argues that the parties' private agreement does not "confer power on this Court to excuse AT&T from its duties under Texas law." (Id. at 13.)
The state appeals to the Tax Injunction Act ("TIA"), which it contends forbids "federal district courts to 'enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law,' provided that an adequate remedy is available in the state courts." (Id. at 14 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1341).) Texas quotes the Seventh Circuit to the effect that, "if the relief sought would diminish or encumber state tax revenue, then the [TIA] bars federal jurisdiction over claims seeking such relief." (Id. at 15 (citing Levy v. Pappas, 510 F.3d 755, 762 (7th Cir. 2007), abrogated by Levin v. Commerce Energy, Inc., 130 S. Ct. 2323, 2329 (2010).) The state concludes that the TIA "strips this Court of jurisdiction to prevent or interfere with AT&T's collection of Texas sales taxes." (Id. at 16-19.) It forewarns that, "when a Texas court inevitably orders AT&T to resume the collection of state taxes, as is required under state law, AT&T may refuse to do so, citing its federal consent decree." (Id. at 18.) Texas also argues that comity "restrains federal courts from entertaining claims for relief that risk disrupting state tax administration." (Id. at 15-16.)
In addition, Texas contends that the parties "hope to use orders from this Court to force states to acknowledge compliance with state law when there is no compliance." (Id. at 24.) Quoting Paragraph 8.7 of the Agreement that payment by AT&T into the Pre-Refund Escrow Fund "will be considered the payment by AT&T of such taxes to such Settlement Class Member," the state reads this language as "an attempt by the parties to force the Texas Comptroller to adhere to their agreement concerning Texas tax law." (Id. at 28)
Ohio has filed an amicus brief, submitting that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction due to the TIA and principles of comity. (R. 171.) The state submits that "the TIA bars a federal district court from granting the 'injunctive' relief sought by the Plaintiffs" because "where, as here, there are 'plain, speedy, and efficient remedies' available to the Plaintiff class in state courts, the TIA expressly bars federal district courts from issuing order to 'enjoin the assessment, levy, or collection of any tax under State law.'" (Id. at 2.) Ohio further explains that, "[b]y seeking to enjoin AT&T from collecting certain Ohio sales taxes, the Plaintiffs' Complaint thereby impermissibly seeks this Court to enjoin Ohio from collecting the tax." (Id.) It concludes by asserting that "any agreement by AT&T with its customers to cease collection of validly imposed Ohio sales taxes may not properly bind Ohio." (Id.)
C. Colorado, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Utah, and Wyoming
Colorado, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Utah, and Wyoming have collectively filed an amicus brief, similarly arguing that the TIA and principles of comity bar federal district-court review. (R. 179.) They also submit that Class Members will receive less-favorable treatment than if they were simply to file for refunds themselves, and contend that the Settlement Agreement's provisions conflict with state law, thus creating uncertainty as to the operation of the same. (Id.)
Focusing on the language of the TIA, which provides that "district courts shall not enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State[,]" amici first observe that the statute prohibits the Court "from enjoining the collection of any tax, not just taxes collected by a state." (Id. at 5) (emphasis omitted.) They then point out that "each state named in the Complaint provides for a plain, speedy and efficient remedy[.]" (Id.) Submitting that the Court thus lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, amici urge the Court to dismiss the present action in its entirety. (Id. at 7.)
Amici also argue that the Court should dismiss this action pursuant to principles of comity. (Id. at 7-10.) They submit that Congress did not create a private right of action to enforce the ITFA, and thus conclude that "the plaintiffs have no right of action to pursue a federal lawsuit to enjoin the collection of these taxes." (Id. at 8-9.)
The states next contend that the Settlement Agreement is unfair to taxpayers because they would reap a greater benefit if they availed themselves of the states' existing mechanisms for recovering improperly collected taxes. (Id. at 10-12.) They further contend that AT&T will not be liable for any damages, costs, or expenses, but submit that, instead, "AT&T Mobility's customers-the members of the Plaintiff class in this action-bear all of the costs, including attorney fees." (Id. at 11.)
Amici further submit that Class Counsel's request for attorneys' fees is exorbitant because they vastly exceed the value that Counsel have realized for the Class. (Id. at 13.) The states contend that no class action was necessary because taxpayers could have availed of the various states' refund mechanisms. (Id.) They also characterize the monetary award as speculative. (Id. at 14.) Pointing to Colorado law, which provides that a person's right to a refund shall not be assignable, the states argue that "the claimed refunds at issue in this litigation cannot be assigned by the taxpayer to AT&T Mobility." (Id. at 15-16.) They conclude by observing that, "[p]ursuant to the TIA, any [order that requires Colorado to issue refund vouchers to AT&T] . . . cannot emanate from a federal court; it must issue from a Colorado court, which can properly exercise jurisdiction over the Department." (Id. at 16.)
On March 10, 2011, the Court held a fairness hearing at which the parties had several witnesses testify and the Court entertained any objections to the Settlement. (R. 169.) During the hearing, the Court assessed the credibility of each of the witnesses.
Dr. Elisabeth Landes, a Senior Vice President at Compass Lexecon who holds a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University, testified for the settling parties. Dr. Landes provided a convincing expert opinion as to the value of the continuing tax savings that Class Members will receive due to AT&T's no longer collecting the challenged taxes.
In conducting her analysis, Dr. Landes testified that she did not assess the varied details of state-specific tax collections because it would have been both difficult and misleading, creating a false sense of precision. Instead, she looked at data on state-by-state unauthorized tax collections, which she used to determine the average tax rate. She also relied on the predictions of independent industry investment analysts as to AT&T's ...