WASHINGTON — In a case of interest to business and consumer groups, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared to be divided over a company’s effort to end a class-action lawsuit by offering the person who first sued everything he asked for.
The court heard arguments Wednesday in a dispute over unsolicited text messages sent by the Campbell-Ewald Company to the cellphone of California resident Jose Gomez. The messages were part of a recruitment campaign the company was running for the Navy.
Gomez never consented to receive such messages and filed a class-action lawsuit under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Among the issues for the court is whether the company’s offer to pay Gomez every penny to which he was entitled should he end the lawsuit. That amounted to $1,503, far less than the company might be liable for in a class action involving hundreds or even thousands of plaintiffs.
But Gomez never accepted the offer and the two sides are disputing whether there is anything left of the lawsuit.
Businesses often try to end class actions essentially before they begin because the cost of the litigation as well as potential settlements can be prohibitively expensive. One tactic companies use is to try to remove the lead plaintiff through some sort of individual settlement.
Campbell-Ewald said the consumer protection law has allowed unwanted text messages to be turned into multi-million-dollar class-action settlements, with the bulk of the money going to lawyers instead of consumers.
Chief Justice John Roberts was among the court’s conservative voices that were skeptical that Gomez’s lawsuit could go forward because Campbell-Ewald offered the most Gomez could collect under the law.
“You won’t take ‘yes’ for an answer,” Justice Roberts told Gomez’ lawyer, Jonathan Mitchell.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who appeared to favor Gomez, said federal courts should have a role to play in deciding whether the company’s offer was sufficient.
“You get to say on your own, unilaterally, ‘I offered you complete relief,'” Justice Sotomayor said to Gregory Garre, who is representing Campbell-Ewald.
The text message recruitment campaign that Campbell-Ewald undertook for the Navy in 2006 was supposed to reach 150,000 people ages 18 to 24 taken from a list of those who consented to be contacted via text.
“Destined for something big? Do it in the Navy,” the text began.
But the campaign only sent about 100,000 messages and they did not always reach their target audience. Gomez, for instance, was 40 years old when he got the unwanted texts.
The case is Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 14-857.