FTC proposes using Internet panel for class action notice study

by Ballard Spahr LLP
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As part of its “Class Action Fairness Project,” the FTC is seeking comment on its plans to use an Internet panel to conduct research on class action notices.  According to the FTC’s Federal Register notice, the project “strives to protect injured consumers from settlements that provide them with little to no benefit and to protect businesses from the incentives such settlements may create for the filing of frivolous lawsuits.”  Actions taken by the FTC as part of the project include monitoring class actions and filing amicus briefs or intervening in appropriate cases; coordinating with state, federal, and private groups on important class action issues; and monitoring the progress of legislation and class action rule changes.  Comments in response to the FTC’s notice will be due on or before August 17, 2017.

In 2015, the FTC announced its plans to study whether consumers receiving class action notices understand the process and implications for opting out of a settlement, the process for participating in a settlement, and the implications for doing nothing (Notice Study).  It also announced that it planned to conduct a study to determine what factors influence a consumer’s decision to participate in a class action settlement, opt out of a class action settlement, or object to the settlement (Deciding Factors Study).

In the new notice, the FTC states that as part of the Notice Study, it proposes to conduct an Internet-based consumer research study to explore consumer perceptions of class action notices.  Using notices sent to class members in various nationwide class action settlements and “streamlined versions designed by the FTC staff,” the study will focus on notices sent to individual consumers via email and will examine whether variables such as the sender’s email address and subject line impact a consumer’s perception of and willingness to open an email notice.  The FTC plans to send an Internet questionnaire to participants drawn from an Internet panel with nationwide coverage maintained by a consumer research firm that operates the panel.

While the FTC plans to assess consumer comprehension of the options conveyed by the notice, including the process for participating in the settlement and the implications of consumer choice, in the Notice Study, it no longer plans to examine whether consumers understood the implications of opting out of a settlement,  According to the FTC, it has determined that the opt-out issue is more appropriately addressed in the Deciding Factors Study.

In November 2015, the FTC issued orders to eight claims administrators requiring them to provide information on their procedures for notifying class members about settlements and the response rates for various methods of notification.  While the FTC notes that it has used data obtained through the orders to inform the Notice Study and that such data will also be used to inform its Deciding Factors Study, it does not provide any information about what such data revealed.  We had commented that the response rate data provided to the FTC by the claims administrators was expected to show extremely low response rates (i.e., less than 5 percent) in most cases, providing support for critics of the CFPB’s proposed rule to prohibit providers of certain consumer financial products and services from using a pre-dispute arbitration agreement that contains a class action waiver.

That rule has now been finalized and like the CFPB’s proposed rule, is based on the CFPB’s view that consumers obtain more meaningful relief through class actions than in arbitration.  Low average response rates would be further evidence that the CFPB’s premise is incorrect and arbitration is more beneficial to consumers than class actions.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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