Luker v. J. Paul Jones Hospital et al
ORDER granting 29 Motion to Approve Settlement Agreement. The settlement of plaintiff's FLSA claims is approved as fair and reasonable. Signed by Chief Judge William H. Steele on 7/16/2014. (tgw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
WILCOX HOSPITAL BOARD, et al.,
CIVIL ACTION 14-0043-WS-B
This matter comes before the Court on the parties’ Joint Motion for Approval of
Settlement Agreement and Entry of Stipulated Judgment (doc. 29).
Plaintiff, Gladys Luker, brought this action against her former employer, Wilcox Hospital
Board d/b/a J. Paul Jones Hospital (the “Hospital”), asserting multiple claims for relief under the
Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. (“FLSA”). In particular, Luker alleged that
the Hospital had failed to pay her for hours worked or overtime compensation, as required by §§
206 and 207 of the FLSA, and that the Hospital had violated the FLSA’s anti-retaliation
provision by firing her for complaining about unpaid work hours. Aside from her FLSA claims,
Luker also asserted a state-law claim against both the Hospital and Elizabeth Kennedy (the
Hospital’s administrator) for tortious interference with business relations. This claim rested on
allegations that defendants had interfered with Luker’s business relationship with a company
called Med Plus Disability Evaluations by declaring that she could not perform services for Med
Plus at the Hospital.1 For their part, defendants’ position was that Luker had been paid all wages
In addition to the FLSA and tortious interference claims joined in this lawsuit,
Luker has pursued claims of age and sex discrimination against the Hospital in an ongoing
administrative proceeding before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC
Proceeding”). The proposed settlement in this case would encompass not only the FLSA and
Alabama tort claims asserted by Luker herein, but also her claims in the EEOC Proceeding.
she was owed and that her employment at the Hospital had been terminated for legitimate nonretaliatory business reasons.
On June 19, 2014, some four months after Luker filed suit against the Hospital and
Kennedy, the parties participated in a settlement conference before Magistrate Judge Bivins.
Four days later, the parties notified Judge Bivins that they had reached a mutually agreeable
compromise to settle this action in its entirety. (See doc. 28.) As required by applicable law and
Judge Bivins’ Order, the parties followed up by filing a detailed Joint Motion for Approval of
Settlement Agreement and Entry of Stipulated Judgment.2 That Motion is now ripe.
Statutory Requirement of Judicial Approval of FLSA Settlements.
In the overwhelming majority of civil actions brought in federal court, settlements are not
subject to judicial oversight, scrutiny or approval. Congress has specified that FLSA settlements
are to be handled differently. Indeed, “Congress made the FLSA’s provisions mandatory; thus,
the provisions are not subject to negotiation or bargaining between employers and employees.”
Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350, 1352 (11th Cir. 1982); see also Hogan
v. Allstate Beverage Co., 821 F. Supp.2d 1274, 1281 (M.D. Ala. 2011) (“Settlement of an action
under the FLSA differs from settlement of other claims. … [T]he FLSA’s provisions are
mandatory and generally not subject to bargaining, waiver, or modification by contract or
settlement.”); Moreno v. Regions Bank, 729 F. Supp.2d 1346, 1348 (M.D. Fla. 2010)
(“Settlement of an action under the FLSA stands distinctly outside the practice common to, and
accepted in, other civil actions.”).
“Despite this general rule, an employer and an employee may settle a private FLSA suit
under the supervision of the district court” where there is a “bona fide dispute over FLSA
coverage.” Hogan, 821 F. Supp.2d at 1281-82. What this means is that “[w]hen employees
bring a private action for back wages under the FLSA, and present to the district court a
proposed settlement, the district court may enter a stipulated judgment after scrutinizing the
settlement for fairness.” Lynn’s Food, 679 F.2d at 1353; see also Miles v. Ruby Tuesday, Inc.,
The parties’ Motion is sufficiently detailed to discharge their “obligation of
providing sufficient information for the Court to assess the bona fides of their dispute, and the
precise contours of their resolution.” Crabtree v. Volkert, Inc., 2013 WL 593500, *2 n.1 (S.D.
Ala. Feb. 14, 2013) (citation omitted).
799 F. Supp.2d 618, 622-23 (E.D. Va. 2011) (“the reason judicial approval is required for FLSA
settlements is to ensure that a settlement of an FLSA claim does not undermine the statute’s
terms or purposes”); Burkholder v. City of Ft. Wayne, 750 F. Supp.2d 990, 994-95 (N.D. Ind.
2010) (“[s]tipulated settlements in a FLSA case must be approved by the Court … because there
is a fear that employers would coerce employees into settlement and waiver of their claims”)
(citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “If a settlement in an employee FLSA suit does
reflect a reasonable compromise over issues, such as FLSA coverage or computation of back
wages, that are actually in dispute; we allow the district court to approve the settlement in order
to promote the policy of encouraging settlement of litigation.” Lynn’s Food, 679 F.2d at 1354.3
At the core of Lynn’s Food, then, is a directive that district courts must evaluate FLSA
settlements for fairness, and must not simply rubber-stamp them as approved. The objective of
this inquiry is “to ensure that employees have received all uncontested wages due and that they
have received a fair deal regarding any additional amount that remains in controversy.” Hogan,
821 F. Supp.2d at 1282. In effect, then, courts examine whether the proposed settlement
“constitutes a fair and reasonable compromise of a bona fide FLSA dispute.” Crabtree v.
Volkert, Inc., 2013 WL 593500, *3 (S.D. Ala. Feb. 14, 2013). That said, “[i]n reviewing FLSA
settlements under Lynn’s Food, courts should be mindful of the strong presumption in favor of
finding a settlement fair.” Parker v. Chuck Stevens Chevrolet of Atmore, Inc., 2013 WL
3818886, *2 (S.D. Ala. July 23, 2013) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Such
deference is warranted because, where parties reach a pre-trial, compromise settlement in an
FLSA case, “the Court is generally not in as good a position as the parties to determine the
reasonableness of an FLSA settlement” and “[i]f the parties are represented by competent
The Eleventh Circuit has recently clarified that “the rule of Lynn’s Food applies
to settlements between former employees and employers,” not merely those between employees
and their current employers. Nall v. Mal-Motels, Inc., 723 F.3d 1304, 1307 (11th Cir. 2013)
(reasoning that “[e]nsuring that each FLSA plaintiff receives the damages, including liquidated
damages, to which she is statutorily entitled is no less important when the plaintiff is a former
employee”). As the Nall panel put it, “[t]he purposes of the FLSA are undermined whenever an
employer is allowed to escape liability for violations of the statute, regardless of whether those
who were victimized by those violations are still employees.” Id. at 1307-08. Thus, the Lynn’s
Food rule applies here, despite Luker’s status as a former (not a current) Hospital employee.
counsel in an adversary context, the settlement they reach will, almost by definition, be
reasonable.” Bonetti v. Embarq Management Co., 715 F. Supp.2d 1222, 1227 (M.D. Fla. 2009).
Fairness/Reasonableness of Settlement.
The Joint Motion reflects that the parties did, indeed, have a bona fide FLSA dispute.
Significantly, there was a good-faith factual disagreement as to whether the Hospital had paid
Luker for all hours she actually worked.4 If the finder of fact at trial were to resolve that
disputed issue in the Hospital’s favor, then Luker would recover nothing on her claims for back
wages. Likewise, there appeared to be a bona fide factual dispute as to the FLSA retaliation
claim, on the question of whether the Hospital terminated Luker’s employment for cause or in
retaliation for complaining about alleged FLSA violations.5 To be clear, the point is not whether
plaintiff would or would not ultimately have prevailed at trial; rather, the point is that plaintiff’s
FLSA claims were actually, reasonably in dispute, thereby giving rise to the possibility of a
Lynn’s Food compromise settlement of those disputed claims.
Terms of Settlement.
Against this backdrop of litigation uncertainty, the parties negotiated a compromise
settlement that would resolve Luker’s claims against the Hospital and Kennedy in their entirety.
In particular, the Hospital’s position was that the training classes for which Luker
demanded wages were undertaken without the Hospital’s authorization or consent, and that those
hours were not compensable work time under the FLSA. (Doc. 24, at 2-3.) At a minimum, the
Hospital’s argument might support a conclusion that its failure to pay Luker for those training
classes was in good faith and that it had reasonable grounds for believing that its actions did not
violate the FLSA, thereby rendering an award of liquidated damages inappropriate. See, e.g.,
Morgan v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 551 F.3d 1233, 1282-83 (11th Cir. 2008) (discussing legal
standard for FLSA liquidated damages).
On this point, the Hospital disputed whether Luker had ever complained to
Hospital officials of unpaid work hours (i.e., whether she had engaged in protected activity under
the FLSA). (Doc. 24, at 3.) The Hospital further asserted that it had terminated Luker’s
employment for a legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reason, to-wit: Luker’s alleged
failure to follow a physician’s direct order regarding a patient’s medication and her subsequent
misrepresentation of that order on the patient’s chart. (Id.) The factual dispute as to the reasons
for Luker’s discharge called into question not only the merits of plaintiff’s FLSA retaliation
claim, but also the Title VII and ADEA claims she was pursuing in the EEOC Proceedings. An
adverse factual finding to plaintiff on this question would potentially have negated all of her
retaliation and discrimination claims relating to the termination of her employment at the
Specifically, this proposed settlement contemplates that defendants would pay Luker a lump-sum
amount of $33,000, in exchange for which Luker would dismiss with prejudice both this lawsuit
and her pending EEOC Charge, and would execute a broad release, pursuant to which she would
release the Hospital, its employees and agents from all claims arising out of or connected with
Luker’s employment at the Hospital or the termination of same. (Doc. 29, Exh. A.) The
settlement proceeds would be allocated as follows: (i) payment to Luker of $10,000 in back
wages (representing Luker’s estimate of the entire amount of back wages she would receive if
she prevailed at trial); (ii) payment to Luker of an additional $8,000 for potential compensatory,
liquidated or punitive damages available on any of her claims; (iii) attorney’s fees of $14,600;
and (iv) costs of $400 for the applicable filing fee. (Doc. 29, Exh. A, § 3.1(a); doc. 29, Exh. B at
Reasonableness of Payments to Plaintiff.
In evaluating whether Luker received a fair deal for contested amounts under the FLSA,
the Court affords substantial weight to the parties’ representation that the $10,000 payment to
Luker “represents Plaintiff’s estimate of the entire amount of unpaid wages she would be able to
recover if she were to prevail at trial.” (Doc. 29, at 3.) Because plaintiff’s FLSA back wage
claim is effectively being paid in full, the Court has no reservations about accepting that aspect
of the settlement agreement as fair and reasonable. See generally Bonetti, 715 F. Supp.2d at
1226 n.6 (“If the parties submit a stipulation stating that the plaintiff’s claims will be paid in full,
without compromise, there is no need for the Court to review the settlement.”).
With regard to the additional $8,000 payment to Luker to encompass compensatory,
liquidated and punitive damages for all of her claims (other than back wages on her FLSA
claim), the Court agrees that such amount constitutes a fair and reasonable compromise of a bona
fide dispute. As discussed supra, the Hospital had plausible (and potentially formidable)
arguments that might foreclose Luker from receiving liquidated damages, and from recovering
anything on her termination-related claims. Given the substantial legal and factual obstacles that
Luker would have confronted at trial with respect to those claims, the substantial uncertainty that
she would have prevailed on any claims for liquidated damages or for termination-related relief,
and the considerable delay that plaintiff would have likely experienced in receiving payment
even if she did prevail at trial, settlement of those claims in the agreed-upon amounts appears
entirely reasonable. Stated differently, for Luker to parlay these doubtful and disputed claims
(other than her FLSA back wages claim) into a settlement of $8,000 paid to her (plus $10,000 in
back wages, plus attorney’s fees and costs) strikes the Court as unequivocally fair and
reasonable. Moreover, this conclusion is bolstered by the fact that Luker was represented and
advised at all times in the settlement negotiations by experienced, capable counsel. See
Crabtree, 2013 WL 593500, at *3 (reasonableness determination as to FLSA settlement “is
reinforced by the fact that plaintiffs were ably represented during the settlement negotiations by
capable, experienced counsel with extensive experience in complex employment law cases”).6
For all of the foregoing reasons, the Court is satisfied that the parties’ agreed-upon
settlement amount is a fair and reasonable resolution of a bona fide dispute as to Luker’s FLSA
causes of action, for purposes of Lynn’s Food and its progeny. There are no uncontested wages
remaining unpaid (because the settlement pays her 100 cents on the dollar for her claimed back
wages), and Luker plainly received a fair deal as to claims that were the subject of a bona fide
controversy between the parties.
Reasonableness of Confidentiality Clause and Release.
Determining that the settlement payments to Luker herself are fair and reasonable does
not conclude the judicial inquiry. As noted, the proposed settlement agreement includes two
features that require particular scrutiny, including a confidentiality clause and a broad release.
With regard to the former, the settlement agreement contains a provision in which all parties
would “agree that the terms and conditions of this Agreement are strictly, and shall forever
remain, confidential.” (Doc. 29, Exh. A, § 3.3.) The latter is a broad release in which Luker
would release the Hospital and its employees and agents from all claims and causes of action
(not just her FLSA claims) “arising out of or in any way connected with the employment of
Luker by the Hospital and with Luker’s separation from employment with the Hospital.” (Id., §
“[A] substantial body of authority has denounced the use of confidentiality clauses in
FLSA settlements.” Crabtree, 2013 WL 593500, at *4. Typically, these authorities “criticize
It also bears noting that the settlement was achieved in part under the watchful
eye of Magistrate Judge Bivins at a judicial settlement conference. Judge Bivins is well-versed
in the requirement that FLSA settlements be fair and reasonable under Lynn’s Food (see doc.
28), so her involvement in the negotiations lends further support to the conclusion that the parties
reached a FLSA-compliant agreement.
such provisions as (i) operating unequally to the benefit of the employer alone, and (ii)
frustrating FLSA goals by thwarting the public’s independent interest in assuring that
employees’ wages are fair.” Id. (citations and internal marks omitted). But neither of these
considerations are in play here. Indeed, the parties’ Joint Motion reflects that Luker, not
defendants, initially demanded the confidentiality clause to promote her interest in not having the
terms of settlement become common knowledge in the small town where she resides. (Doc. 29,
at 5-6.)7 Thus, there is simply no concern here that the confidentiality clause is a one-sided
provision redounding solely to the employer’s benefit. See Crabtree, 2013 WL 593500, at *5
(approving confidentiality clause in FLSA settlement where plaintiffs “were the driving force
animating the inclusion of broad confidentiality clauses in their settlement agreements … to
benefit plaintiffs in their quest to remain gainfully employed in the Right-of-Way industry”).
Furthermore, the public’s interest in assuring that employee wages are fair is “adequately
safeguarded by the disclosure in this Order of the … terms of the FLSA settlement.” Id.
Because the confidentiality provision in the settlement agreement benefits Luker and will not
block the public from gaining access to the terms of settlement via the court file, the Court finds
that the confidentiality clause in the proposed settlement agreement is not offensive to public
policy or the objectives of the FLSA. See generally Crabtree, 2013 WL 593500, at *4 (“all but
the most doctrinaire opinions on the subject acknowledge that there may be circumstances where
confidentiality provisions may be appropriate and should be accepted”) (citations omitted).
With respect to the release, this Court has adhered to the general rule that “pervasive
releases should be examined closely in FLSA cases because of the risk that an employee would
unknowingly make a valuable concession to the employer simply to recover wages that should
never have been withheld in the first place, and should be approved only where the employee has
a full understanding of what he is releasing in exchange for a settlement award.” Crabtree, 2013
WL 593500, at *6 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Here, the parties represent
that “Plaintiff has knowingly entered into the Settlement Agreement and is aware of the risks of
the release contained in” it. (Doc. 29, at 7.) They further state that “beyond the claims that
The body of the settlement agreement emphasizes that “[a]ll parties agree that this
confidentiality provision inures to each of their benefits and is desired by all parties.” (Doc. 29,
Exh. A, § 3.3.)
Plaintiff has asserted in this action, the parties are not aware of any other arguably viable claims
that Plaintiff has against any of the Defendants.” (Id.) In other words, there is no reason to
believe that by agreeing to a broad release, Luker is suffering a substantial detriment or making a
substantial concession in order to obtain compensation under the FLSA. Moreover, as
previously discussed, this is not a case in which “full compensation” was unquestionably owed
to Luker on her FLSA claims. Had she gone to trial, she might have recovered nothing. Under
these circumstances, the premise that Luker made a meaningful non-cash concession for the
Hospital’s benefit to obtain back wages that the defendant undoubtedly owed her anyway under
the FLSA has no application.
Simply put, all information before the Court is that Luker agreed to the broad release in
the settlement agreement upon the advice of her qualified counsel, with full knowledge of the
risks involved (namely, the risk that some other accrued, unknown viable claim against the
Hospital might later come to light, but that the release would render Luker powerless to
prosecute it). The court file confirms that Luker’s decision to accept those risks is a reasonable
compromise in the context of the overall settlement package, particularly given the absence of
any reason to believe that she has or may have any other viable claims against the Hospital or
Kennedy. And it does not appear that Luker’s full compensation for FLSA back wages was in
any way diluted by her voluntary agreement to enter into such a release. Accordingly, the Court
is of the opinion that Luker’s broad release of claims in defendants’ favor represents a
permissible component of a fair, knowing compromise, and in no way renders the settlement
unfair or unreasonable in a Lynn’s Food analysis.
Reasonableness of Attorney’s Fee Award.
A potentially problematic aspect of FLSA settlements occurs when the parties agree to a
lump-sum settlement, then plaintiff and her lawyer decide how to allocate that payment between
them. The FLSA’s policy objectives could be threatened by the inequitable division of
settlement proceeds between a plaintiff and her counsel; moreover, the possibility of conflicts of
interest looms large. For these reasons, “a court reviewing an FLSA settlement must review the
reasonableness of counsel’s legal fees to assure both that counsel is compensated adequately and
that no conflict of interest taints the amount the wronged employee recovers under a settlement
agreement.” Crabtree, 2013 WL 593500, at *7 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
The record before the Court establishes that the proposed fee award to plaintiff’s counsel
out of settlement proceeds is manifestly reasonable. Using a lodestar analysis, “[t]he starting
point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended
on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. … The product of these two figures is
the lodestar and there is a strong presumption that the lodestar is the reasonable sum the
attorneys deserve.” Bivins v. Wrap It Up, Inc., 548 F.3d 1348, 1350 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal
citations and quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff’s counsel is requesting an hourly rate of $220
for her services, and has made a substantial showing that such a rate is reasonable in the Mobile,
Alabama market for a lawyer of her experience and qualifications. (See Richardson Decl. (doc.
29, Exh. B), at 3-5; Brewster Decl. (doc. 29, Exh. C), at 1-2.) Additionally, plaintiff’s counsel
submits time sheets showing that she devoted 82 hours to working on this matter, yet she only
seeks compensation for 66.4 of those hours, a voluntary 19% reduction. Review of plaintiff’s
counsel’s time logs reveals that the vast majority of her claimed hours appear reasonable and
appropriate. The 19% voluntary reduction is surely sufficient to offset any adjustment that the
Court might be inclined to make for particular time entries. No further modification of the
lodestar amount appears appropriate under any of the applicable factors.
In sum, the claimed hourly rate and the claimed hours are both reasonable. There is no
information suggesting that the allocation of $15,000 of settlement proceeds for attorney’s fees
($14,600) and costs ($400) taints or undermines the fairness of the settlement amount ($18,000)
paid to Luker for her FLSA causes of action. Accordingly, the Court approves the proposed
attorney’s fees and costs as reasonable.
For all of the foregoing reasons, the Court concludes that the proposed settlement is a fair
deal for the plaintiff. On that basis, the parties’ Joint Motion for Approval of Settlement
Agreement and Entry of Stipulated Judgment (doc. 29) is granted. The settlement of plaintiff’s
FLSA claims is approved as fair and reasonable pursuant to Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United
States, 679 F.2d 1350 (11th Cir. 1982). A stipulated final judgment will be entered separately.8
DONE and ORDERED this 16th day of July, 2014.
s/ WILLIAM H. STEELE
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
An FLSA settlement agreement that is “not made under the supervision of the
Secretary of Labor … is valid only if the district court entered a ‘stipulated judgment’ approving
it.” Nall, 723 F.3d at 1308.
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