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National Veterans Legal Services Program v. United States

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 24, 2017

NATIONAL VETERANS LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELLEN SEGAL HUVELLE United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs, organizations and individuals who have paid fees to obtain records through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER), claim that PACER's fee schedule is higher than necessary to cover the costs of operating PACER and therefore violates the E-Government Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-347, § 205(e), 116 Stat. 2899, 2915 (codified as 28 U.S.C § 1913 note). (Compl. at 2, ECF No. 1.) They have brought this class action against the United States under the Little Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a), to recover the allegedly excessive fees that they have paid over the last six years. (Id. at 14-15, ¶¶ 33-34.) Plaintiffs have moved to certify a class of “[a]ll individuals and entities who have paid fees for the use of PACER within the past six years, excluding class counsel and agencies of the federal government.” (Pls.' Mot. Class Certif., ECF No. 8.) The proposed class representatives are three nonprofit legal advocacy organizations: the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Alliance for Justice. (Id. at 14.) Defendant opposes class certification primarily on the ground that the named plaintiffs are not adequate representatives because they are eligible to apply for PACER fee exemptions, while some other class members are not. (Def.'s Opp., ECF. No. 13) For the reasons herein, the Court will grant plaintiffs' motion and certify a class under Rule 23(b)(3).

         BACKGROUND

         PACER is an online electronic records system provided by the Federal Judiciary that allows public access to case and docket information from federal courts. PACER, https://www.pacer.gov (last visited Jan. 23, 2017). Congress has authorized the Judicial Conference that it “may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees . . . for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment.” 28 U.S.C. § 1913 note. The fees “shall be deposited as offsetting collections . . . to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services.” Id. Plaintiffs allege that the fee to use PACER was $.07 per page in 1998, with a maximum of $2.10 per request introduced in 2002. (Compl. at ¶ 8.) The fee increased to $.08 per page in 2005 and to $.10 per page in 2012. (Id. at ¶¶ 13, 19.)

         The current PACER fee schedule issued by the Judicial Conference sets forth both the access fees and the conditions for exemption from the fees. Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule, PACER, https://www.pacer.gov/documents/epafeesched.pdf (Effective Dec. 1, 2013). The current fee is $.10 per page, with a maximum of $3.00 per record for case documents but no maximum for transcripts and non-case specific reports. Id. There is no fee for access to judicial opinions, for viewing documents at courthouse public access terminals, for any quarterly billing cycle in which a user accrues no more than $15.00 in charges, or for parties and attorneys in a case to receive one free electronic copy of documents filed in that case. Id. As a matter of discretion, courts may grant fee exemptions to “indigents, bankruptcy case trustees, pro bono attorneys, pro bono alternative dispute resolution neutrals, Section 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations, and individual researchers associated with educational institutions, ” but only if they “have demonstrated that an exemption is necessary in order to avoid unreasonable burdens and to promote public access to information.” Id. “Courts should not . . . exempt individuals or groups that have the ability to pay the statutorily established access fee.” Id. “[E]xemptions should be granted as the exception, not the rule, ” should be granted for a definite period of time, and should be limited in scope. Id.

         Plaintiffs claim that the fees they have been charged violate the E-Government Act because they are “far more than necessary to recover the cost of providing access to electronic records.” (Compl. at 2, ¶ 9.) For example, in 2012 the judiciary spent $12.1 million generated from public access receipts on the public access system, while it spent more than $28.9 million of the receipts on courtroom technology. (Id. at ¶ 20.) “In 2014 . . . the judiciary collected more than $145 million in fees, much of which was earmarked for other purposes such as courtroom technology, websites for jurors, and bankruptcy notification systems.” (Id. at ¶ 21.) Furthermore, plaintiffs claim that excessive fees have “inhibited public understanding of the courts and thwarted equal access to justice.” (Id. at 2.) Based on the alleged violation of the E-Government Act, plaintiffs assert that the Little Tucker Act entitles them to a “refund of the excessive PACER fees illegally exacted.” (Id. at ¶¶ 33-34.) “Each plaintiff and putative class member has multiple individual illegal-exaction claims against the United States, none of which exceeds $10, 000.” (Id. at ¶ 5.)

         Named plaintiffs are nonprofit organizations that have incurred fees for downloading records from PACER. (Compl. at ¶¶ 1-3.) Plaintiff National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) “has represented thousands of veterans in individual court cases, educated countless people about veterans-benefits law, and brought numerous class-action lawsuits challenging the legality of rules and policies of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.” (Id. at ¶ 1; Stichman Decl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 30.) Plaintiff National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) conducts “policy analysis, advocacy, litigation, expert-witness services, and training for consumer advocates.” (Compl. at ¶ 2; Rossman Decl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 29.) Plaintiff Alliance for Justice (AFJ) “is a national association of over 100 public-interest organizations that focus on a broad array of issues” and “works to ensure that the federal judiciary advances core constitutional values, preserves unfettered access to the courts, and adheres to the even-handed administration of justice for all Americans.” (Compl. at ¶ 3; Goldberg Decl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 28.)

         During the six years covered by this lawsuit, named plaintiffs regularly paid fees to use PACER. NVLSP paid $317 in PACER fees in 2016 and estimates that it has paid similar amounts annually over the past six years. (Stichman Decl. ¶ 2.) NCLC paid at least $5, 863 in fees during the past six years. (Rossman Decl. ¶ 2; Mot. Hr'g Tr. 2, Jan. 18, 2017.) AFJ paid at least $391 in fees during the past six years. (Goldberg Decl. ¶ 2; Tr. 3.) None of the three named plaintiffs asked for exemptions from PACER fees, because they could not represent to a court that they were unable to pay the fees. (Tr. 3-4.) The reason for this is that each organization has annual revenue of at least $3 million. (Id.; Stichman Decl. ¶ 2; Rossman Decl. ¶ 2; Goldberg Decl. ¶ 2.)

         In a prior opinion, this Court denied defendant's motion to dismiss the suit. See National Veterans Legal Services Program v. United States, No. 16-cv-745, 2016 WL 7076986 (D.D.C. Dec. 5, 2016). First, the Court held that the first-to-file rule did not bar this suit because it concerns the legality of the PACER fee schedule, whereas the plaintiffs in Fisher v. United States, No. 15-1575C (Fed. Cl. May 12, 2016), claim an error in the application of the fee schedule. Id. at *3. Second, the Court held that plaintiffs were not required to alert the PACER Service Center about their claims as a prerequisite to bringing suit under the Little Tucker Act. Id.

         In the current motion, plaintiffs have asked this Court to certify a class under Rule 23(b)(3) or, in the alternative, 23(b)(1). (Pls.' Mot. at 18.) Their motion proposed a class of “[a]ll individuals and entities who have paid fees for the use of PACER within the past six years, excluding class counsel and agencies of the federal government.” (Id. at 1.) In opposition to class certification, defendant argues that (1) plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that they satisfy the numerosity requirement, because they have not established the number of users who raised their concerns with the PACER Service Center or the number of potential plaintiffs who are nonprofit organizations; (2) the class representatives fail the typicality and adequacy requirements, because their nonprofit status makes them eligible to request fee exemptions, which not all class members can do; (3) the Court should not allow this suit to proceed as a class action, because it could produce results that conflict with those in Fisher; and (4) individual questions predominate, because the Court would need to determine whether each user received free pages in excess of the 30 charged pages, such that the user's per page cost did not violate the E-Government Act. (Def.'s Opp. at 9-22.)

         ANALYSIS

         I. JURISDICTION

         Although defendant has not raised any jurisdictional arguments in its opposition to class certification, courts must assure themselves that they have jurisdiction. Plaintiffs have brought this case under the Little Tucker Act, which gives district courts jurisdiction over a “civil action or claim against the United States, not exceeding $10, 000 in amount, founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress, or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2).[1] Interpreting the identical wording of the Tucker Act, which applies to claims that exceed $10, 000, the Federal Circuit has held that a plaintiff can “recover an illegal exaction by government officials when the exaction is based on an asserted statutory power” and “was improperly paid, exacted, or taken from the claimant in contravention of the Constitution, a statute, or a regulation.” Aerolineas Argentinas v. United States, 77 F.3d 1564, 1572-73 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (quoting Eastport S.S. Corp. v. United States, 372 F.2d 1002, 1007 (Ct. Cl. 1967)); Norman v. United States, 429 F.3d 1081, 1095 (Fed. Cir. 2005).[2]

         In their complaint, plaintiffs request “monetary relief for any PACER fees collected by the defendant in the past six years that are found to exceed the amount authorized by law.” (Compl. at 14-15.) A suit in district court under the Little Tucker Act may seek over $10, 000 in total monetary relief, as long as the right to compensation arises from separate transactions for which the claims do not individually exceed $10, 000. Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Austin, 778 F.Supp. 72, 76-77 (D.D.C. 1991); Alaska Airlines v. Austin, 801 F.Supp. 760, 762 (D.D.C. 1992), aff'd in relevant part by Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Johnson, 8 F.3d 791, 797 (Fed. Cir. 1993); United States v. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co., 221 F.2d 698, 701 (6th Cir. 1955). Plaintiffs assert that no class member has a claim exceeding $10, 000 for a single PACER transaction, and defendant does not dispute this. (Pls.' Mot. at 11; Tr. 22-23.) Therefore, plaintiffs' monetary claim does not exceed the jurisdictional limitation of the Little Tucker Act.

         II. CLASS CERTIFICATION

         Rule 23 sets forth two sets of requirements for a suit to be maintained as a class action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23. First, under Rule 23(a), all class actions must satisfy the four requirements of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy. Second, the suit must fit into one of the three types of class action outlined in Rule 23(b)(1), (b)(2), and (b)(3). The Court finds that this suit satisfies the 23(a) requirements and that a class should be certified under 23(b)(3).

         A. ...


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