When a defendant settles a nationwide class action suit, it hopes to gain global peace and finality. However, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida limited the finality afforded to the settling defendant when it ruled in Spinelli v. Capital One Bank, N.A. that a nationwide class action settlement did not bar subsequent claims by state attorneys general related to the settled issue.
Capital One cardholders originally filed suit in 2007 against the bank over its "payment protection" fees, and the parties reached a nationwide class action settlement in 2010. The settlement agreement explicitly released claims by those “who assert claims on [cardholders’] behalf, including the government in its capacity in parens patriae." But the attorneys general of Hawaii and Mississippi subsequently filed state-court parens patriae suits against Capital One in April and June 2012, citing the same payment protection fees at issue in the class action.
The court rejected Capital One's argument that the settlement barred the lawsuits by the state attorneys general. It emphasized that the settlement class definition only encompassed “natural persons,” not governmental entities. "The [state Attorneys General] were not defined as class members and did not have an opportunity to participate in the litigation or opt out of the class. It would be a violation of the Due Process clause to now enjoin such Attorney General via the requested injunction."
The Spinelli case serves as a cautionary tale, because it illustrates that even a well-drafted, broad release in a nationwide consumer class action settlement agreement may not fully protect a defendant from subsequent suits by state attorneys general.