Class Action Litigation

A California appellate court recently ruled that Tinder’s age-based pricing strategy violated the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which broadly outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, sexual orientation, age, and other classes. California’s Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles reversed the trial court’s dismissal of a class action brought by a putative group of customers over 30 years of age, who claim Tinder improperly charged them more for a premium service than it did users in the 18-29 age range.

This case, which has drawn a great deal of publicity, may appear to signal the beginning of a judicial push against age-based price differences, but the implications outside California are likely limited.

In March 2015, the free dating service switched to a “freemium” pricing model. Users could still join Tinder without cost, but for a fee, they could upgrade their membership to Tinder Plus and receive additional features, including the ability to undo mistaken swipes or expand their geographic filter for potential matches. For this membership upgrade, users over 30 paid a $20 subscription fee, while users under 30 paid only $14.99 (or $9.99, depending on any promotions in effect).

Tinder claimed that before setting the price, it conducted market research that showed that users under 30 were more likely to be “budget constrained” and were less likely to pay an increased fee. The named plaintiffs (one of whom previously sued a women-only networking event to allow the inclusion of men) argued that this stated basis failed to justify what amounted to a surcharge on older customers, some of whom might actually have had less disposable cash than younger users.

The court found that, under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Tinder’s stated basis failed to justify what amounted to age discrimination. The court acknowledged that while this practice might make business sense, it violated the spirit of California’s law, which treats people equally unless the legislature provides an explicit basis to do otherwise (as it has for discounts for elderly persons and minor children). The court found no such legislative basis for young adults generally.

Many other products lend themselves well to different pricing tiers like the one challenged in the Tinder case: software licenses, content subscriptions, club memberships, etc. This scrutiny of Tinder’s pricing suggests that potential plaintiffs may scrutinize any pricing benefitting a non-elderly or minor age group. However, because the age-based claim that will now proceed in California is cutting-edge and largely untested, the full impact of this ruling remains to be seen. In several states (California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), courts have found that ladies’ nights violate state discrimination laws, but have not clearly addressed age-based pricing in a similar context.  Regardless, the case law in California and elsewhere will continue to develop. For example, it remains an open question whether student discounts would pass the Appeal Court’s “legislative-findings” standard as applied in the Tinder case.

 
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A group of companies that advertised job opportunities through Facebook’s ad-serving platform discriminated against older members of the applicant pool, claims a proposed class action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. This filing suggests potential liability for any employer that posts jobs via ads that target recipients based on demographic metadata.

 

As Facebook’s roughly two-billion active users view, like, and share content, they give Facebook concrete information about their preferences and behaviors. Facebook’s ad platform leverages this data by allowing advertisers to reach the users most likely to find their ads relevant. Because Facebook also collects information on its users’ demographic factors, such as  age, race, and gender, critics note a potential for discriminatory ad targeting. In a December 20th filing, a proposed class of older job-seekers on Facebook argued that this discriminatory potential came to fruition when a group of employers (including Amazon, Cox, and T-Mobile) used an age filtering feature for their job postings to target younger cohorts and screen out older ones in violation of the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA).

Largely in response to concerns about the opacity of Facebook’s ad-targeting, Facebook offers a feature on each ad that allows users to determine “Why am I seeing this ad?” Based on job postings like the one above, class members claim they were screened off from job postings that reached younger Facebook users. Since this filing, Facebook, which was not named a defendant, commented in response to this suit that its ads could be part of a broader media campaign by hiring employers, and that targeting is a permissible part of a diversified hiring strategy. Facebook further noted that its ads are no different from TV and magazine ads, which inherently reach different demographics by virtue of their viewer and subscriber bases.

Several important implications from this filing:

  • Targeting may not equal discrimination, but it can get you sued.

The defendant employers likely share Facebook’s view—that targeting is not per se discrimination. Whether or not this argument prevails, this filing shows that applicants scrutinize potential discrimination in posting criteria as well as in the hiring decision. The plaintiffs argue that Facebook ads are so ubiquitous and pervasive that being screened off from those ads is to be effectively eliminated from the pool. Courts will have to decide whether or not targeting gives rise to ADEA liability, but before the question can be settled, employers accused of targeting will be dragged into expensive, broad-ranging suits like this one if their postings facially preference a certain age.

  • This is bigger than Facebook postings.

Facebook is not the only platform with targeted ads. A 12/20/17 ProPublica and New York Times report highlighting potentially discriminatory employment ads found that Google’s AdSense and LinkedIn ads had the same age-filtering capability (LinkedIn since eliminated this function). Going forward, postings through these and other, smaller ad-serving platforms can expect the same scrutiny by potential plaintiffs and their lawyers. The proposed class
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Manion Gaynor & Manning LLP (“MG+M”) has obtained a summary judgment on behalf of client HealthPort Technologies (“HealthPort”) in Basil Crookshanks, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, v. HealthPort and Charlestown Area Medical Center (“CAMC”).  On Wednesday, May 25, 2017, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia issued a writ of prohibition ordering the trial court to dismiss a class action case against HealthPort and CAMC brought in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.  The Supreme Court held that the representative plaintiff, Basil Crookshanks, lacked Article 3 standing to assert a claim because his purported injury was contingent upon a future event.

Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that HealthPort and CAMC (collectively, “Defendants”) had violated W.Va. Code § 16-29-2(a) by overcharging for the production of medical records.  Plaintiff sought to certify a state wide class comprised of all similarly-situated individuals that had requested their records from CAMC or other providers serviced by HealthPort, who had been similarly charged purportedly excessive fees under West Virginia law.

The case arose from Plaintiff’s retention of a law firm (“Plaintiff’s Firm”) to prosecute a medical malpractice claim against a nursing home.  Plaintiff entered into a contingent fee agreement with Plaintiff’s Firm, whereby it would front all litigation expenses and only receive reimbursement, if there was a recovery on Plaintiff’s behalf.

Plaintiff’s Firm requested his medical records from CAMC.  HealthPort, which served as CAMC’s health information management provider, processed Plaintiff’s Firm’s request and invoiced it for the records.  Plaintiff’s Firm paid HealthPort’s invoice and filed the class action on Plaintiff’s behalf soon thereafter. At the time the class action complaint was filed, Plaintiff’s medical malpractice claim was pending and no money had been recovered on his behalf.

Defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff’s claims were not ripe and that he did not have standing because not only had he not yet paid for his medical records, but he may never pay for them.  The trial court denied Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  Defendants petitioned the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia for a writ of prohibition to stop the circuit court from exercising jurisdiction over the case.

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia agreed with Defendants’ argument that Plaintiff lacked standing, thereby depriving the circuit court of jurisdiction.  The Court summarized standing as “[a] party’s right to make a legal claim or seek judicial enforcement of a duty or right,” Findley v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 213 W.Va. 80, 94, 576 S.E.2d 807, 821 (2002) (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1413 (7th ed. 1999)), and reviewed the three elements of standing as follows:

First, the party attempting to establish standing must have suffered an “injury-in-fact” – an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent and not conjectural or hypothetical.  Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct forming the basis


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