We may only be one month into 2015, but some of the most interesting lawsuits in recent years have been making headlines around the world. There’s the Facebook privacy suit filed by more than 25,000 people in Europe, ongoing developments in data breach lawsuits, and – inconceivable even three years ago – more lawsuits filed over unpaid internships. Still, there’s a lot more of the year to go, and that got the writers of ClassAction.org thinking; what are the most interesting cases and legal areas we’ve come across? What trends have we seen and, more importantly, what do we think will be the cases making headlines in the coming months? We’ve put together a list of the areas we think show the most potential for change – topics that could very well affect the lives of millions of people across the country. The world’s changing faster than ever and, as the law adapts and continues to reflect the world we live in, we’ll be here reporting and offering our opinions on the latest news.
Unpaid “Volunteer” Lawsuits
Very few posts on our website sparked as much attention as our page on the lawsuit against Insomniac. The case, still active in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, was filed in March 2014 and alleged that the concert and event production company violated federal and California law by failing to pay its volunteers at least the minimum wage. The suit argued that Insomniac, along with Live Nation Worldwide, was recruiting unpaid volunteers to perform the work of paid employees at its music festivals. The thing that many people did not understand about the lawsuit was that even though a company calls you a volunteer (or assistant manager or anything else) doesn’t mean that’s what the law says you are. According to the suit, Insomniac and Live Nation were recruiting people who, in the eyes of the law, should have been paid for their time.
A similar lawsuit was filed against Major League Baseball several months before the Insomniac suit and has since been dismissed. The judge overseeing the case ruled that the MLB’s All-Star FanFest volunteers were not entitled to wages because of an exemption that applies to certain amusement and temporary recreation establishments. Will the judge overseeing the Insomniac case make a similar ruling? (California courts tend to be more plaintiff-friendly.) Will more suits be filed? (Similar allegations have been lodged against South by Southwest.) A favorable ruling in the Insomniac case could bring a flood of unpaid volunteer lawsuits as music festivals and other events in which volunteers are recruited in exchange for admission become more and more popular.
Social Media Privacy Lawsuits
Some of the most interesting and nuanced cases of the past few years concern the brave new world of social media. The rise of Facebook, Twitter and multiple other platforms has enabled us to share our lives like never before – while also creating difficult new gray areas in the law. Do your Tweets count as your property? Can police officers request access to your Facebook page – and what happens if you grant it? These are questions that have never been asked before and, as such, finding the answers is proving difficult.
In 2013, Is That Legal? reported on the “collision” of social media and the law, identifying five lawsuits that dealt exclusively with questions of online privacy and the repercussions of sharing our thoughts, photos and opinions. Highlighted suits included a case in which a student claimed her privacy was invaded when a school district publicly posted a picture from her Facebook page, a lawsuit involving an employee who was fired for remarks he made online, and even a case in which a sheriff fired six workers for "liking" an opponent's Facebook page.
In the two years since the article was written, multiple new lawsuits have questioned exactly what is and what isn’t legal when it comes to social media. As we reported in late January, the Department of Justice has just agreed to pay $134,000 to a woman whose personal photographs were taken with “implied consent” from her phone and used to create a fake Facebook account under the control of police officers. On January 2, 2014, Bloomberg reported that Facebook itself was being sued for allegedly scanning private messages, possibly in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The list goes on and on – and there’s no indication these suits are going to slow down anytime soon. If anything, the rise of the “digital native” generation – those born after the use of the Internet and social media became commonplace – may only lead to more lawsuits, as older generations’ wariness about sharing personal information online is replaced by the new normal of constant updates and 24/7 access to our online lives. Exactly how will existing laws be applied in these cases? We’ll keep an eye out in 2015 and the years to come, as social media looks like it’s here to stay.
Natural Food Lawsuits
Did you know that more than 60 percent of consumers believe that “natural” labels on food are synonymous with GMO-free? That’s according to a survey from Consumer Reports, which perhaps explains why “all natural” lawsuits have recently shifted their focus from synthetic and artificial ingredients to those derived from genetically modified (GM) corn, soy and canola. But the question of whether these “natural” labels violate federal food regulations has largely remained unanswered, as the Food and Drug Administration has failed to answer multiple judges’ cries for a formal definition for the term.
This regulatory ambiguity may change in 2015 following a settlement with General Mills. Under the settlement, the company agreed that it would no longer label its granola bars “all natural” if they contained more than .9 percent GMOs. The settlement may prompt the FDA to offer its own guidance on what the term “all natural” should mean when used on food packaging. In the courts, the General Mills settlement may also serve to illustrate how consumers perceive “all natural” labels, which could lead to settlements in other natural food cases that are slowly making their way through the judicial system.
On a larger scale, the settlement may help persuade other companies to follow in General Mills’ footsteps when labeling their food. Better food labeling could provide some of the transparency many consumers seek through mandatory GMO labeling, as the topic continues to be hotly debated.
So, while some may argue that these class actions will die a “natural death” in 2015, recent developments in the “all natural” litigation may prove to do just the opposite. Both inside and outside of the courts, these cases will continue to bring more awareness to food companies about the public’s interest in what’s in their food and the importance of accurate food labels.
Uber Ridesharing Lawsuits
The problem with an unprecedentedly successful (and polarizing) company like Uber—the ride-sharing service used by business executives, eco-friendly carpoolers, broke millennials and drunk college students alike—is that once you’re at the top of the mountain, your shortcomings (both actual and alleged) essentially become targets. When these targets are dragged into the legal realm, and the word “lawsuit” becomes conjoined with your company’s name in almost every Google search, what could once be viewed as a string of bad luck quickly turns into a bona fide trend that could cause serious problems in the months ahead.
Despite the company’s expansion to more than 250 cities worldwide and even greater increases in profits (which have reportedly made it more valuable than many decades-old business giants), doubt exists as to whether Uber can survive a ballooning monsoon of litigation (not to mention reams of awful press) threatening the company’s very foundation. As of May 2014, when Uber was still climbing its way out of the uber-saturated (sorry) bottomless pit of tech start-ups that comprise Silicon Valley, the company was already facing 13 lawsuits. The allegations made by these suits—many of which have yet to be resolved—are as diverse as those who use Uber: consumer fraud and unlawful business practices, driver misclassification, rape, undeclared use of credit reports during background checks, harassment, tip stealing, insurance coverage issues, and more. One recent class action lawsuit even alleged Uber’s entire business model, at its core, is too dangerous for consumers.
At ClassAction.org, we feel that Uber isn’t going to be able to easily escape its legal troubles, and the company and its legal counsel will spend more time in court in 2015 than they could have ever imagined. As more cities take a stand against Uber—with some, like New Delhi, Las Vegas, Bangkok, Madrid and Portland, Oregon, barring the company from operating within their borders entirely—and more internal emails come out documenting the company’s feelings on its workers and its competition, ClassAction.org expects to have plenty to report on this year as it watches this company closely.