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It’s well documented that a lot of judges happen to be amateur magicians. Here’s how two of them made $15 million disappear. Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman gutted much of a consumer privacy suit following its transfer to Chicago via the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation — even though a proposed settlement had already been before a San Francisco federal judge. The credit reporting agency Trans Union LLP was sued for selling information about consumers in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and a few years ago the parties walked into U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s courtroom with a $15 million settlement in hand. But amid objections that it was a low-ball deal — the proposed class was essentially all credit consumers — Alsup suggested the attorneys try again. According to plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Righetti, by that time other plaintiffs’ attorneys had gotten wind of the suit and began filing cases in other districts. That sent the case to the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, and the cases were consolidated in Chicago. There, attorneys for the defense put something different in front of Gettleman — a motion to dismiss. For the most part, the tactic was successful. On Sept. 10, Gettleman struck a significant portion of the case. Righetti of Righetti & Wynne said he didn’t blame Alsup for delaying approval. “I hate to get into the blame game. I think it’s just an education in how district judges can see things radically differently,” said Righetti, who may appeal the decision to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Trans Union attorney Roger Longtin, a partner at Piper Rudnick in Chicago, stressed that Alsup and Gettleman were dealing with two entirely different situations. He also said Alsup himself had mused that there may be problems with some of the claims. It’s not necessarily true that Gettleman thought little of the plaintiffs’ case. After all, the Federal Trade Commission has already litigated a case against Trans Union all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on precisely the same issue. Instead, he based part of his decision on the fact that the potential damages against Trans Union could be catastrophic — a minimum $100 per violation multiplied by each member of a class comprised of mostly credit users — while the harm to consumers (not to mention their slice of any settlement) was relatively small. That move was regrettable for Righetti, who said he would have liked “something between nothing for the class and annihilating Trans Union. � We’re certainly not interested in annihilating Trans Union.” Longtin forcefully stressed that Gettleman and Alsup were looking at two different things, saying he didn’t think Gettleman did anything Alsup wouldn’t have done. Both judges were appointed by former President Bill Clinton. Longtin declined to say why Alsup was greeted by a proposed settlement while Gettleman got a motion to dismiss. “I’m not going to discuss settlement negotiations and whether they were fruitful or not,” he said. Nor was it his choice to go through the multidistrict litigation panel. That, he said, came from the plaintiffs’ side. He did say the defense suggested the case be heard in either San Francisco or Chicago, where it eventually landed. A case against Trans Union is proceeding in state court on behalf of California consumers.

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