Reynolds v. Dept/Transportation, et al

Filing 9212

OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Myron H. Thompson on 6/7/17. (djy, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, NORTHERN DIVISION JOHNNY REYNOLDS, et al., ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) Plaintiffs, v. ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, et al., Defendants. CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:85cv665-MHT (WO) OPINION Now before the court is the final chapter in a long story for the non-black case in the 1990s. intervenors who joined this They joined the lawsuit to ask the court to reconsider certain race-conscious provisions in a proposed consent decree between the original plaintiffs to this action and the original defendants, which included the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT). As a result of their intervention, a consent decree was entered in 1994 without the race-conscious provisions to which they objected. After a partial settlement agreement with defendants resolving their claims for monetary relief through May 29, 2001, the intervenors brought individual-contempt claims by which they asserted that the defendants’ contempt--in the form of delayed implementation of certain actions under the consent decree--caused them further harm. this moment, the only remaining claims As of between the intervenors and the defendants are claims relating to actions under Article 15, paragraph 1 of the consent decree; these claims involved 213 individuals. The proposed intervenors and settlement the agreement individual contempt claims. the intervenors and defendants the of reached the a remaining Upon a joint motion from defendants, the court considered and preliminarily approved that settlement agreement and provisionally settlement class. certified the proposed After preliminarily approving the settlement agreement and provisionally certifying the proposed settlement class, the court directed that the 2 parties provide notice to the members of the proposed settlement class and to all current ALDOT employees. After allowing time for the filing and reporting of objections, the court convened a final fairness hearing on May 12, 2017. The court has now considered the objections to the proposed settlement, the argument of the parties, and the issues presented by these claims. For the reasons that follow, the court will grant final approval with of the respect settlement to final and the class parties’ motions certification and associated issues. I. DESCRIPTION OF THE PROPOSED SETTLEMENT Pursuant to the proposed settlement agreement, $ 213,000.00 shall be released from the court registry fine fund, and $ 1,000.00 shall be paid to each of the 213 members of settlement class resolution of the (the intervenor-contempt-relief ICR Settlement all remaining 3 Class) in claims full for individual-contempt relief concerning reclassification. The 213 non-black members of the ICR Settlement Class are those members of the intervenor class whom defendants identified as due to be reclassified based on April 1994 duties and who were employed after the May 29, 2001, fairness hearing and are either currently employed with ALDOT or were employed prior to 2007. These ICR valid Settlement claims for Class members have individual-contempt potentially relief for potential lost pay after May 29, 2001, arising from defendants’ alleged failure to implement timely the reclassification that Article 15 of the consent decree required. The intervenors and the defendants agreed that the foregoing payments shall not be considered in calculating retirement benefits for employees under the State Retirement System. members of the ICR They also agreed that the Settlement Class shall be responsible for payment of all taxes and fees payable 4 as a result of the receipt of the funds. In exchange for the foregoing payments, the intervenors release all further claims, demands, causes of action, or requests for any further relief of any kind in the Reynolds litigation, including any request for contempt relief. The intervenors and the defendants further agreed that the clerk of the court shall pay $ 150,000.00 to the intervenors’ counsel from the court registry fine fund for all remaining attorney’s fees and expenses of the intervenors. II. Judicial overriding public particularly this case. policy in DISCUSSION favors interest complex, settlement. in favor lengthy of There is an settlement, litigation such as See, e.g., Cotton v. Hinton, 559 F.2d 1326, 1331 (5th Cir. 1977).1 A class-action settlement should 1. See Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc) (adopting as binding precedent all of the decisions of the former Fifth 5 be approved so long as it is “fair, adequate and reasonable and is not the product of collusion between the parties.” 986 (11th Bennett v. Behring Corp., 737 F.2d 982, Cir. 1984). In determining whether a settlement is fair, adequate, and reasonable, the court must consider all relevant factors, including (1) the likelihood of success at trial; (2) the range of possible recovery; (3) the point on or below the range of possible recovery at which a settlement is fair, adequate, and reasonable; (4) the complexity, expense, and duration of the litigation; (5) the substance and amount of opposition to the settlement; and (6) the state of proceedings when the settlement was achieved. Id. The court should not attempt to try the case on the merits, experienced substitute but should counsel its own and rely on should judgment for the be that judgment hesitant of of to counsel. Cotton, 559 F.2d at 1330. Circuit handed down prior to the close of business on September 30, 1981). 6 A. The Class Certification: Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a) & (b)(2) court previously granted certification of a settlement class. provisional Having considered the parties’ post-settlement submissions on this topic, the court now concludes that final certification of this the ICR Settlement Class is appropriate. In order for any certification motion to succeed, the proponents of class treatment must establish that the requirements 23(a) are met. of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure In addition, a class must fit within one of the types of classes described in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b). Here, the certification of a Rule 23(b)(2) class. class encompasses opposing the class situations has acted in or parties seek This type of which refused the to party act on grounds that apply generally to the class so that final injunctive relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2). 7 These requirements apply to uncontested certification of a class for purposes of settlement only. Austin v. Hopper, 15 F. Supp. 2d 1210, 1224 (M.D. Ala. 1998) (Thompson, J.). The court notes that, in evaluating the request for final approval of class certification in this case, it has had the benefit of many years of motions practice related to the issues involved individual-contempt claims. longer contest in the intervenors’ Although the defendants no certification for purposes of and in light of the settlement, the court has independently assured itself that class certification is appropriate here. Rule 23(a) requires a finding that a proposed class satisfies the requirements of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. Rule 23(a)(1)’s requirement of numerosity is satisfied here because the usual method of combining similar claims--joinder--is impracticable. The members of the 8 ICR Settlement Class number 213, which is more than sufficient to satisfy this requirement. See, e.g., Cox v. Am. Cast Iron Pipe Co., 784 F.2d 1546, 1553 (11th Cir. 1986). Rule 23(a)(2) requires that there questions of law or fact common to the class. be Where, as here, the claims depend upon a common contention with a capacity for common answers, this requirement is met. See, e.g., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 350 (2011). typicality asks Rule 23(a)(3)’s requirement of whether the class representative’s claims arise from the same event or pattern or practice and are based on the same legal theory as those of the putative class members. See, e.g., Williams v. Mohawk Indus., Inc., 568 F.3d 1350, 1357 (11th Cir. 2009). This requirement is easily met here in that all of the ICR Settlement defendants’ Article 15. that the Class’s failure to claims reclassify arise them out of timely the under Rule 23(a)(4) requires the court to find representative parties 9 will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. analysis delves into whether conflicts of This interest exist between representatives and the class and whether the representatives action. will adequately prosecute the See, e.g., Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharm., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181, 1189 (11th Cir. 2003). Litigants seeking certification “must show that their interests are not antagonistic to those of the putative class members and that their chosen attorneys are qualified, experienced, and generally able to conduct the litigation.” In re HealthSouth Corp. Sec. Litig., 257 F.R.D. 260, 275 (N.D. Ala. 2009) (Bowdre, K.). The court is satisfied that the named class representative, Ronnie L. Richardson, and the members of the class do not have antagonistic interests. Richardson appears to have been relevant throughout denied timely period, the Furthermore, as reclassification remained relevant employed period, explained in 10 and the is during with now discussion the ALDOT retired. of the objections conflict below, of the interest court with sees no evidence members of the of a settlement class: there have been were only two objections to the proposed settlement from class members, neither of which raised a significant concern about the fairness of the settlement. experienced Thus, the and Finally, qualified court finds a to class counsel represent sufficient the basis is class. for class treatment here with respect to all requirements of Rule 23(a). The requirements of Rule 23(b)(2) are also met. The issues involved in these claims “apply generally to the class,” such that “relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole.” Specifically, the persons identified as members of the ICR Settlement Class were all identified as due to be reclassified based on their duties, and the defendants could not effectuate that reclassification by the deadline imposed in the consent decree. To the extent that these persons were not 11 reclassified, they may be entitled to equitable relief in the form of back pay. Rule 23(b)(2) contemplates class cases seeking equitable injunctive or declaratory relief, but monetary relief does not conflict with the limitations of the rule when it is not in the nature of a claim for damages, but rather is in the nature of an equitable remedy, to be determined through the exercise of the court’s discretion. See 7AA Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 1775 (3d ed.) (“Monetary relief that may be deemed equitable declaratory in relief nature may be or ancillary allowed, to however.”) the The court finds that the remaining 213 non-black members of the ICR Settlement Class seek “make whole” equitable remedies appropriate for relief under Rule 23(b)(2). B. Settlement Approval Pursuant to Rule 23(e) As part of its review of a settlement agreement in a class-action inspect the context, proposal to the court ensure it 12 must provides carefully adequate representation of class members who did not participate in shaping the settlement. advisory committee See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e) note. In the course of this evaluative process, the court must determine whether notice to the class was adequate and must consider the comments made and objections raised by class members, as well as the opinions of class counsel. The provide court has notice of process for members the objecting preliminarily contained considered approving specific of the the settlement to it. the procedures provisionally actions taken agreement and The court’s settlement relating certified to to the order agreement notice class. to The court also reviewed and approved the proposed notice forms. The court is satisfied that the parties provided notice not only to the 213 members of the provisionally certified class, but also to every one of ALDOT’s provided current clear employees. The instructions for 13 notice those materials wishing to comment, question, or object. Counsel for the intervenors made information available on a website as well. Counsel for the intervenors reported on delivery of the notice once it was complete and on his telephone and email contact with various persons after the notice went out. He provided the court with copies of the written comments members of the he ICR received whether Settlement they Class or were not. from The intervenors and the defendants jointly reported on and responded to the objections received. On May 12, 2017, the court convened a previously scheduled and announced fairness hearing on the proposed settlement. At this hearing, the court heard from counsel for the ICR Settlement Class and counsel for the defendants, who both advocated in favor of the proposed settlement. Counsel for the plaintiffs was given an opportunity to address the court, and he did not voice any opposition 14 or objection to the settlement. The court heard from one member of the proposed settlement class, Behan Taheri, at the hearing. Taheri objected to the amount of the settlement on the basis that he had experienced discrimination at ALDOT on the basis of national origin from 1984 until 2001 and that the proposed settlement would be insufficient to compensate for the amount he was underpaid during that time.2 Taheri’s objections do not present an appropriate basis on which the court could or should reject the proposed settlement. His discrimination claims have never been properly raised in this action and are not properly before the court as a basis for any request for relief. The discrimination claims he makes are unlike the claims brought by the intervenors in the lawsuit and are unrelated to the contempt claims being settled in the proposed settlement agreement. 2. Taheri, who identified himself as white on his ALDOT employment application, had received approximately $ 9,000 as part of the settlement of the intervenors’ contempt claims in 2001. 15 While he did not appear at the fairness hearing, the court also considered the written objection Philip Morgan made to the settlement. settlement alleged as insufficient to denial past Confusingly, Morgan objected to the advancement he of also compensate claimed to for at be his ALDOT. currently experiencing discrimination on the basis of his race, although he has not worked at ALDOT for many years. Morgan was employed by ALDOT for less than nine months after the May 29, 2001, fairness hearing and resigned his position on February 20, 2002. At most, Mr. Morgan has a claim for a delayed reclassification between May 29, 2001, and his resignation date. The court finds that is the compensate proposed settlement him any for amount injury due adequate to to delayed reclassification during that time frame. Class settlement counsel agreement convincingly is a argued fair, that the adequate, and reasonable resolution to the remaining contempt claims 16 of the intervenors. intervenors expense and of This settlement will save the 213 the litigating entitlement to relief. could have contempt defendants a 213 difficulty claims of and individual Significant legal disputes that significant relief the remain bearing to on be the amount decided, and of this settlement would eliminate for both sides the risks of an adverse ruling. In addition, attorneys’ fee the award court of finds that $ 150,000.00 the for proposed Honorable Raymond Fitzpatrick, Jr., the intervenors’ counsel, is appropriate. Applying the standards set forth in Norman v. Housing Authority of City of Montgomery, 836 F.2d 1292 (11th Cir. 1988), the court finds that a lodestar hourly rate of $ 350.00 per hour is fair and reasonable experience, for an and difficulty of litigation, the attorney reputation the issues results of Fitzpatrick’s and he 17 considering addressed obtained, skill, and the in the this relative undesirability of the work. Fitzpatrick attests that he spent 1,150 hours of work on this phase of the case, which would amount to a fee of over $ 400,000.00 at the $ 350.00 hourly rate. substantial reduction, Particularly in light of this the compromised fee of $ 150,000.00 is fair and reasonable. An appropriate judgment will be entered. DONE, this the 7th day of June, 2017. /s/ Myron H. Thompson UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

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