Court Forces Activist Objecting To Questionable Class Action Settlement To Shut Up And Promote The Settlement

from the wow dept

Here is a rather egregious violation of basic free speech rights. For years, we've talked about how the class action process is quite frequently abused, such that it makes lawyers quite wealthy, while doing next to nothing for the "class" they're representing. In extreme cases, we've seen "settlements" that actually make the defendants in class actions better off, while still making the lawyers (of course) quite wealthy. The stories of companies being forced to pay up millions of dollars, with none of it going to actual "victims," are more common than you would imagine.

So, when Majed Moughni in Dearborn Michigan heard about such a class action settlement concerning McDonald's having sold non-halal Chicken McNuggets that were advertised as halal, he decided to protest the settlement and try to get others to do so. The settlement was what is known as a cy pres settlement, in which the lawyers get paid and the defendant agrees to give a chunk of money to charity, rather than to the class (about $700,000 in this case). There are, at times, good reasons for doing a cy pres award, but it can also be open to abuse. Settlement agreements, by law, have a period of time in which people are free to object to a settlement before it is approved, and Moughni was doing exactly that, if at times crudely, with a Facebook page that may have gone a bit far in its claims. Moughni was upset with the cy pres nature of the award, but also with the fact that there was no injunction that would block McDonald's from doing the same thing again.

However, as Paul Levy, who is now representing Moughni, makes clear in a blog post about the motion he filed in the case, the court deciding to issue a broad injunction against Moughni, barring him from talking about the case, while also forcing him to post the lawyers' view of the case, would appear to be a pretty blatant First Amendment violation:
The lawyers for the plaintiff class threatened Moughni with both a defamation suit and disciplinary charges (Moughni is a lawyer, although not by any means a specialist in class actions). Moughni would not back down, so the plaintiff’s lawyers asked the judge to shut down the page — or, more precisely, they asked that Moughni be required to take everything he had said about the case down, and to post on his Facebook page instead what they said (and what the Court had said) (That is why I am not linking to my client’s Facebook page – it isn’t really HIS page any more. Let the parties do their own publicity.) And, they asked that Moughni be forbidden to make any statements that class members might see or hear, such as by talking about the litigation to the press which, in turn, might print stories from which class members might learn Moughni’s views.

The lawyers continued their claim that they had been defamed, but really, they said, this isn’t about us, this is about protecting the poor class members against having their confidence in the lawyers undermined, protecting public confidence in the court system, and preventing class members from being confused about whether they should object to having their claims for damages extinguished so that settlement funds could go to the charities (and the lawyers). The judge held a hearing a few days later; plaintiff’s counsel spoke his piece, McDonald’s lawyers chimed in with their agreement, but Moughni’s attempt to speak was rebuffed with a peremptory “Don’t you even” from the judge. And the judge ruled, granting the injunction almost exactly as requested.
As Levy notes, with class action settlements there is strong incentive for the lawyers from both sides and the judge to get the settlement approved. It gets a case off the docket and gets the lawyers paid. So this is a situation where all three of those parties have the incentive to team up against anyone who dares to raise questions about the settlement. In fact, Levy noted that when he contacted the lawyers, noting his own intention to represent Moughni, they threatened him with sanction too. Levy notes that Moughni's original Facebook post may not have been as carefully worded as one would hope, but in no way should that ever lead to a broad injunction, along with compelling speech one disagrees with, in response. From the filing:
Giving Moughni only a few days’ notice, the Court convened an emergency hearing; then, without hearing from Moughni, issued a prior restraint of unparallelled breadth, barring Moughni from making any public statements about an entire subject matter, even statements that were entirely truthful and not at all misleading. It further compelled him to place speech with which he fervently disagreed on his own web page; and it forbade him from dissemination, circulation or publication of any opt-out form or objection during the crucial ten-day period before the deadline for members of the class to decide whether to opt out or object. On a literal reading of the injunction, Moughni was barred even from speaking to his own wife and children about the settlement, and even from submitting an objection to the settlement on his own behalf.

While he was pro se, Moughni acknowledged that he is not an expert in class action procedure; as his counsel, we readily concede that some of his statements could have been worded more felicitously. But Moughni was not counsel for a named party; he spoke only as a member of the affected community, and the Court’s order holding him to standards that would have been inappropriate even for a lawyer in the case violated black-letter law against prior restraints of speech. The injunction should, therefore, be vacated immediately. In addition, during the crucial ten-day period before the opt-out or objection deadline, the order deprived the class of the opportunity to hear dissenting views about whether to go along with a settlement that potentially deprives them of valuable rights. The Court should, therefore, reopen the period for the class to respond to the notice, and should defer any decision about approval of the settlement until that time has expired.
Even if you agree that Moughni may have gone too far with some of his Facebook postings, completely denying his right to talk about and object to the settlement, while then forcing him to post information he disagreed with, seems like an egregious violation of his rights. As Levy notes back in his blog post, whether or not the actual settlement is a good one is somewhat besides the point:
Moughni has his own view, but our motion takes no position on the merits of the settlement: our only point is that Moughni ought to have the right to say what he thinks about the settlement, and that the remedy for speech claimed to be false is not less speech but more speech. In my own mind, I have come to no conclusion about the merits of the proposed settlement.

But that just leaves me wondering, if the settlement is so wonderful, why the lawyers felt they had to resort to suppressing critical speech instead of just putting their own replies into the marketplace of ideas. At the hearing for an injunction, they had reminded the Court of how attentive the national media press had been to their publicity about the settlement (115 national media outlets, and a hundred million viewers, they claimed); surely the media would continue to give them a platform.
Hopefully the court is willing to recognize its mistake and vacate the injunction quickly.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Feb 2013 @ 11:26am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Cops rarely prevent crimes and except in the most miniscule mount of cases arrive way too late to make any real difference especially in the situation you just described. Please insert coin and try again.

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