WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a class-action lawsuit can continue, even after a business offers to pay everything sought by the person who first sued.
The 6-3 ruling on Wednesday is a rare victory for consumers in a class-action case at the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court that a settlement offer cannot end a suit if the offer is unaccepted. "Once unaccepted, the offer is off the table," Ginsburg said.
The case involves 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. "Destined for something big? Do it in the Navy," the text began.
Gomez never consented to receive such messages and filed a class-action lawsuit under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Campbell-Ewald offered Gomez the $1,503 to which he was entitled, far less than the company might be liable for in a class action involving hundreds or even thousands of plaintiffs.
Gomez did not accept the offer, and lower courts ruled that the suit could proceed.
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 multimillion-dollar class-action settlements, with the bulk of the money going to lawyers instead of consumers.
Roberts wrote a dissent that was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia. The company offered Gomez all he asked for, Roberts said. "Although Gomez nonetheless wants to continue litigating, the issue is not what the plaintiff wants, but what the federal courts may do," Roberts said. "The court today takes that important responsibility away from the federal courts and hands it to the plaintiff."
The text message recruitment campaign that Campbell-Ewald undertook for the Navy in 2006 did not run smoothly. Only about 100,000 messages were sent, though the campaign was supposed to reach 150,000 people. While Gomez was 40 years old when received a text, recruiters were seeking people age 18 to 24.
The case is Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 14-857.