Over the last several years, federal courts of appeals have been closely scrutinizing cy pres distributions to charitable organizations in class action settlements. This includes opinions by the First Circuit, Third Circuit and Ninth Circuit. The general thrust of these decisions is that cy pres should be used sparingly, and the charitable organization should be closely tied to the objective of the lawsuit. The Eighth Circuit recently weighed in and largely joined its sister circuits, with one judge dissenting.

In re BankAmerica Corporation Securities Litigation, No. 13-2620, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 306 (8th Cir. Jan. 8, 2015) involved a $490 million securities class action settlement . After two distributions to class members, $2.4 million remained. The district court ordered a cy pres distribution to the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Inc., and also awarded a supplemental attorneys’ fee of approximately $98,000 for work done after the initial distribution. An objecting class representative represented by Ted Frank of the Center for Class Action Fairness appealed, and the Eighth Circuit vacated the order and remanded.

 Key points made in the opinion include:

  • “Because the settlement funds are the property of the class, a cy pres distribution to a third party of unclaimed settlement funds is permissible ‘only when it is not feasible to make further distributions to class members’ . . . . except where an additional distribution would provide a windfall to class members with liquidated-damages claims that were 100 percent satisfied by the initial distribution.” Id. at *7 (citation omitted).
  • Simply because class members submitting claims have received the amounts they are due under the terms of the settlement does not mean they have been “fully compensated,” and thus does not necessarily justify a cy pres award. Id. at *11.
  • A settlement agreement and settlement approval order providing for a cy pres distribution of unclaimed funds is not binding on the court with respect to disposing of unclaimed funds. Id. at *12-13.
  • “[U]nless the amount of funds to be distributed cy pres is de minimus, the district court should makea cy pres proposal publicly available and allow class members to object or suggest alternative recipients before the court selects a cy pres recipient.” Id. at *14.
  • A cy pres “distribution must be ‘for the next best use . . for indirect class benefit,’ and ‘for uses consistent with the nature of the underlying action and with the judicial function.” Id. at *15 (citation omitted). In this case, the Missouri nonprofit, which served victims of fraud, was likely not appropriate for a nationwide securities class action. The court suggested that perhaps the SEC Fair Funds would be appropriate.

Judge Murphy dissented, concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion because the settlement agreement provided for the cy pres distribution, a further distribution was unlikely to be feasible (particularly where many shareholders held shares through a mutual fund and many would have sold those shares over the years), and the Missouri organization was sufficiently tied to the nature of the suit.

Based on the recent appellate decisions, cy pres distributions are likely to be used less frequently, but there is still a place for them. In some cases, for example, the transaction cost of making a supplemental distribution to class members will make such a distribution not practical. Where cy pres is used, giving some type of notice to the class (although individual notice might be cost prohibitive) and selecting an appropriate recipient are important. Another potential way to avoid this problem entirely is to do a “claims made” settlement where only those class members making claims receive payment, although that structure can raise other concerns.