Shining a Light on Professional Objectors – In re Law Office of Jonathan E. Fortman, LLC, 2013 WL 414476 (E.D. Mo., Feb 1, 2013)
In a brief, but useful order, Judge Fleissig denied a motion to quash a subpoena and for sanctions asserted by counsel characterized as a “professional objector.” Class counsel for a class action pending in the United States District Court for the Central District of California had served a subpoena on the Law Office of Jonathan E. Fortman, LLC, which represented an objector to the proposed class settlement. The subpoena instructed Fortman/Movant to attend a deposition and produce documents related to:
1) The filing of the objection in the underlying action;
(2) Any objections filed in state or federal court by Movant to other class action settlements;
(3) Any fee sharing arrangements between Movant and its clients in relation to the current and other objections; and
(4) Any settlements or payouts Movant received in return for withdrawing a client’s objection or appeal.
Fortman asserted “outrage,” moved to quash, and sought fees as a sanction. We imagine asserting “outrage” must be analogous to calling “shenannigans.” Class counsel responded by asserting that Fortman had filed 26 prior objections to various class settlements, characterized Fortman as a “professional objector,” and asserted that the “background and intent” of objectors is indeed relevant in assessing the merits of their objections, particularly where there is evidence that the objection is motivated by something other than the best interests of the class. Judge Fleissig agreed, citing both the broad scope of discovery under Fed. R. Civ. P 26(b)(1) as well as cases from other jurisdictions in which the courts have taken into account the track record and potential motivations of professional objectors, and denied Fortman’s motion.
Those of us who have struggled with the problem of professional objectors – defined by the District Court as “those who seek out class actions to simply extract a fee by lodging generic, unhelpful protests” — can attest to the added cost and frustration they can bring to class settlement dynamics. This case illustrates an excellent way to turn the tables and reveal their true motivations to the court. We’re tucking this little order away in our back pocket.