Monies reserved to settle class action lawsuits often go unclaimed because absent class members cannot be identified or notified or because the paperwork required is too onerous. Rather than allow the unclaimed funds to revert to the defendant or escheat to the state, courts are experimenting with cy pres distributions—they award the funds to charities whose work ostensibly serves the interests of the class “as nearly as possible.”
Although laudable in theory, cy pres distributions raise a host of problems in practice. They often stray far from the “next best use,” sometimes benefitting the defendant more than the class. Class counsel often lacks a personal financial interest in maximizing direct payments to class members because the fee is just as large if the money is paid cy pres to charity. And if the judge has discretion to select the charitable recipient of the unclaimed funds, she may select her alma mater or another favored charity, thereby creating an appearance of impropriety.