United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
C. MICHAEL HILL, Magistrate Judge.
The Court was advised that the parties reached a settlement in this case which has been conditionally certified a collective action under Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq. Accordingly, counsel filed a Joint Motion to Approve the Collective Action Settlement and Approve an Award of Attorney's Fees and Expenses. [rec. doc. 54]. Counsel has also provided a copy of the Proposed Settlement Agreement and Notice of Settlement with incorporated Release which has been signed by all sixty one collective action members except Dana Darbonne and Reginald Hardy. Mr. Hardy received Notice of the settlement and apparently approved the terms of the settlement but failed to return the Release form; Ms. Darbonne apparently did not approve the terms of the settlement and did not return the Release form. Class member Vincent Gallow will not receive any damages under the proposed Settlement Agreement because he did not work during the relevant time period. Under the proposed Settlement Agreement, all collective action members will receive the full amount of their damages under the FLSA and no collective action member's payment will be reduced by attorneys' fees and expenses.
For the following reasons, it is recommended that the Proposed Settlement be Approved and, accordingly, that the Court grant the Joint Motion to Approve the Collective Action Settlement and Approve an Award of Attorney's Fees and Expenses [rec. doc. 54] on the terms and conditions set forth in the Motion and the Proposed Settlement Agreement.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
Because this case has been conditionally certified as a collective action under the FLSA, this Court must approve the settlement before it may be finalized. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. Oneil, 324 U.S. 697 (1945); Camp v. Progressive Corp., 2004 WL 2149079 (E.D. La. 2004); Liger v. New Orleans Hornets NBA Limited Partnership. 2009 WL 2856246 (E.D. La. 2009).
Before the Court may approve a settlement in a collective action brought under the FLSA, it must first determine whether the settlement involves the resolution of a bona fide dispute over an FLSA provision and then decide whether the settlement is fair and reasonable. Camp, 2004 WL 2149079, at *4 citing Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350, 1352-55 (11th Cir. 1982), Jarrad v. Southern Shipbldg. Corp., 163 F.2d 960 (5th Cir. 1947) and Stalnaker v. Novar Corp., 293 F.Supp.2d 1260, 1263 (M.D. Ala. 2003).
The instant action presents a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions, including whether: (1) the crawfish peeler and alligator de-boner plaintiffs were not paid the statutorily mandated minimum wages and/or the statutorily mandated overtime and, if so, whether the defendants violated the minimum wage and overtime wage provisions of the FLSA; (2) the extent of regular and overtime actually worked by each plaintiff; (3) the amount of wages and overtime due each plaintiff; and (4) whether each plaintiff was entitled to liquidated damages. Because these issues are sufficient for this Court to find "that genuine uncertainty as to the outcome existed" for each side, a bona fide dispute exists in this case. See Liger, 2009 WL 2856246 at *3.
In determining whether a settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable, the Court should consider the following six factors: (1) the existence of fraud or collusion behind the settlement;
(2) the complexity, expense, and likely duration of the litigation; (3) the stage of the proceedings and the amount of discovery completed; (4) the probability of plaintiffs' success on the merits; (5) the range of possible recovery; and (6) the opinions of the class counsel, class representatives, and absent class members. Id. at *5 citing Reed v. General Motors Corp., 703 F.2d 170, 172 (5th Cir. 1983) citing Parker v. Anderson, 667 F.2d 1204, 1209 (5th Cir. 1982). When considering these factors, the court should keep in mind the "strong presumption" in favor of finding a settlement fair. Id . citing Cotton, 559 F.2d at 1331 and Henderson v. Eaton, No. 01-0138, 2002 WL 31415728, at *2 (E.D. La. 2002).
The parties have agreed to individual settlement amounts for each plaintiff who worked within the relevant time period (which are set forth in Exhibit C to the proposed Settlement Agreement), based on the extent of regular and overtime hours actually worked by each plaintiff and the amount of allegedly unpaid wages and overtime calculated to be due, as well as an equal amount in liquidated damages. For the reasons set forth below, these factors require a finding that the proposed settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable and, accordingly, should be approved by this Court.
There is no evidence of any fraud or collusion behind the settlement. This Court may presume that no fraud or collusion occurred between counsel, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. Camp, 2004 WL 2149079 at *7 citing 4 Newberg on Class Actions § 11.51 (4th ed.); Liger, 2009 WL 2856246 at *3. Moreover, since this case was filed in 2012, counsel for the parties have vigorously represented and advanced the position of their clients, engaging in discovery, and competently addressing the issues presented in this litigation. Furthermore, given the Court's active role in overseeing this litigation and the attendance by the parties at court ordered conferences on March 6, 2013, June 7, 2013, June 25, 2013, September 26, 2013, which culminated in the June, 2014 proposed Settlement Agreement, it is clear that the settlement has been arrived at by arms-length bargaining and good faith negotiations. The first factor favors approval of the settlement as fair, adequate and reasonable.
With regard to the inquiries set forth in the second factor, the complexity, expense, and likely duration of the litigation, this FLSA action presented multiple complex legal issues which have been zealously litigated by experienced counsel, at significant expense. Had a settlement not been consummated, the Court is of the opinion that this case would likely have remained in litigation for a significant amount of time, in excess of at least one additional year, causing the parties to incur significant additional expense. Following the opt-in deadline, the defendants intended to file a motion to decertify the collective action, which would have necessitated additional discovery, briefing and court appearances. Moreover, it is likely that had this case proceeded to trial, due to the transient nature of the defendants' workforce, it would have been difficult to locate class members, and to ascertain the appropriate damage awards due to each, given that the defendants did not track the numbers of hours worked by each plaintiff but, rather, apparently paid each plaintiff on a piece-meal basis, based on the number of pounds of crawfish and alligator attributable to each plaintiff. Accordingly, the second factor weighs heavily in favor of finding that the settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable.
The third factor, the stage of the proceedings and the amount of discovery completed, likewise supports a finding that the settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable and, accordingly, should be approved. This case has been pending nearly two years. During its pendency, the parties have conducted in-depth discovery, including both formal written discovery and informal discovery, focused on the present location of prospective class members for notification purposes (an arduous task given the transient nature of the defendants' work force) and the determination of regular and overtime hours worked by each (a burdensome task given the records kept by the defendants). The Court has conditionally certified a collective class of crawfish peelers and alligator de-boners and has assisted the parties and ruled on a number of issues regarding the proper procedures for locating and notifying potential class members of this lawsuit. While several substantive issues remain outstanding, including whether this collective action should be decertified, this case is ripe for settlement.
This case has been litigated by competent lawyers on each side. Accordingly, while at present, the plaintiffs enjoy a high probability of success on the merits, given the competency of defense counsel and the uncertainty of adverse rulings on the undecided decertification issue, failure on the merits remains possible. Moreover, depending on the outcome of this litigation, an appeal to the Fifth Circuit is likely. Thus, based upon the uncertainty of the eventual outcome of this ...