Facebook Inc. headquarters. (Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM)

SAN FRANCISCO—The judge overseeing litigation targeting Facebook Inc. with claims related to its Cambridge Analytica scandal had a series of tough questions for plaintiffs lawyers pitching to lead the potentially precedent-setting case.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California, who was assigned the batch of class actions against Facebook and the now-defunct data analytics firm in June by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, questioned how Facebook users were harmed when Cambridge Analytica accessed data without permission. The judge also puzzled over how the litigation would proceed since Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy, staying civil litigation against it.

Chhabria’s questions came as lawyers he’d chosen as finalists for the lead counsel slot each made short presentations in what the judge termed “a beauty contest.”

“Why does your client have standing?” Chhabria asked Gayle Blatt of CaseyGerry at the top of Wednesday’s hearing. “What’s the injury?” the judge prodded later.

Blatt was among the 10 lawyers Chhabria chose out of a pool of 30 applicants who asked for a leadership role in the case. Also among the finalists were April Falcon Doss of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr; Andrew Friedman of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll; Derek Loeser of Keller Rohrback; Marlon Kimpson of Motley Rice; Rosemary Rivas of Levi & Korsinsky; Norman Siegel of Stueve Siegel Hanson; Michael Sobol of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein; Lesley Weaver of Bleichmar Fonti & Auld; and Tina Wolfson of Ahdoot & Wolfson.

Chhabria throughout the proceedings pushed back against the plaintiffs lawyers’ contentions that this would be a large discovery-intensive case. “Obviously none of us know the ins and outs of the case yet other than the folks who represent Facebook,” Chhabria said at one point. But the judge said “at least at first glance” the Facebook case doesn’t seem as complex as his other MDL, a group of more than 400 federal cases claiming the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide causes a type of cancer.

“You understand why you need a bunch of lawyers on that case,” Chhabria said. In the Monsanto Co. case, he said, there’s a massive amount of discovery that’s unique to each individual plaintiff.

“Why isn’t it more akin to a somewhat complex securities class action?” Chhabria said.

In response to the judge’s questions about the impact of Cambridge Analytica’s pending bankruptcy, the plaintiffs were in consensus that the case against Facebook could move forward. Two lawyers, Motley Rice’s Kimpson and Lieff Cabraser’s Sobol, mentioned that their firms had retained bankruptcy counsel to make appearances in the bankruptcy case with a focus on preserving evidence that could help prove their claims.

Facebook’s lead lawyer, Orin Snyder of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said Facebook would likely go “arm-in-arm” with plaintiffs to the bankruptcy court because access to Cambridge Analytica’s documents is central to one of the company’s defenses: That Cambridge Analytica and its officials acted in violation of Facebook’s user agreement in disseminating data gathered from a Facebook quiz.

But Snyder got some pushback from Chhabria about the way he characterized the plaintiffs claims. “The way they allege it is that Facebook made a promise not to allow third parties to get information without permission and Facebook allowed [them],” Chhabria said.

Snyder responded the whole episode triggered a “very broad conversation” about user privacy, but that the lawsuits were filed because of the Cambridge Analytica revelations before plaintiffs could evaluate the viability of their claims.

“They catalyzed a broad discussion about critical issues in our society. It doesn’t mean that they translated into cognizable claims,” Snyder said.

Chhabria didn’t indicate Wednesday which lawyer or lawyers he will choose to lead the litigation, but said he intends to get an order out late this week or early next.