This week a New York trial court entered a final order approving a class-action settlement in a case filed against the Metropolitan Museum of Art based on its allegedly deceptive admissions policy. The settlement requires the Met to implement meaningless changes such as referring to its admission price as “suggested” rather than “recommended” in its signs and ticket kiosks. It also requires the Met to pay $350,000 in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers who filed the case.
The Met’s admission policy is at the heart of the litigation. As most of us are aware, the Met has long had a “recommended” price of admission but allows visitors to pay only as much as they wish before granting them entrance to the exhibit halls. This policy dates back to the Met’s lease with the City of New York and a 1893 law requiring the museum to admit for free all members of the general public on multiple days each week. The Met, in turn, was given free use of its building and land in Central Park as well as additional funding and expense payments by the City of New York. The lawsuit set its sights on the way in which the Met communicated this policy to the public, claiming that the Met tried to trick visitors into believing that the “recommended” price was mandatory—even though multiple signs at the museum stated that it was simply recommended.
While it’s easy to shake one’s head at yet another example of plaintiffs’ lawyers turning the legal system into a personal piggybank, this lawsuit and others like it do real harm to our nations’ cultural institutions.
The settlement approval comes on the heels of the Met’s announcement that in early May it submitted a formal proposal to the City of New York seeking to implement a mandatory admission charge for all non-New York State residents who visit the Met. In other words, the Met wants to impose a charge on tourists, most of whom do not have regular access to the type of world-class art on display at the Met.
While the plaintiffs’ attorneys professed their goal as making the Met available to everybody and disavowed any intent to harm the museum, the timing of the settlement and the Met’s announcement suggest their litigation had the opposite effect. They complained the Met’s admission policy had turned the Met into an “expensive, fee-for-viewing, elite tourist attraction.” But that description is becoming a reality only after the litigation they brought, surely knowing at the time that it would impose additional costs (not the least of which are attorneys’ fees), with little corresponding benefit to the public. Meanwhile, as the Met restricts access to the public and adjusts its budget in the aftermath of the settlement, the lawyers collect a six-figure payment.
This is far from the first instance of counter-productive class-action litigation brought against a public or quasi-public institution. In most meritless class actions brought against private companies, the litigation is socially wasteful and unnecessarily burdens our judicial system, but the harm is sufficiently dispersed that few of us notice the pernicious effect on our everyday lives. Here, and in an unfortunate number of similar cases, that’s not true for the intended beneficiaries of museums, schools, and other institutions targeted by these lawsuits.
As long as these suits are profitable for the plaintiffs’ attorneys and courts are willing to approve settlements with no more than nominal benefits to the class, no end is in sight. Thus, it is up to courts to scrutinize the actual benefit achieved by class-action litigation before signing off on a settlement. When the settlement does not provide a plainly material benefit, courts should reject the settlement altogether and award $0 in fees.
For their part, class members who become aware of such settlements can help by filing an objection with the court pointing out the raw deal they are getting. Objectors are important because courts are not well equipped to perform an investigatory function without adversary presentation, and the settling parties have no incentive to suggest that court should engage in scrutiny on behalf of the public.