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Reynolds v. Alabama Department of Transportation

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

June 7, 2017

JOHNNY REYNOLDS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          MYRON H. THOMPSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the court is the final chapter in a long story for the non-black intervenors who joined this case in the 1990s. 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. As of this moment, the only remaining claims 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 intervenors and the defendants reached a proposed settlement agreement of the remaining individual contempt claims. Upon a joint motion from the intervenors and the defendants, the court considered and preliminarily approved that settlement agreement and provisionally certified the proposed settlement class. After preliminarily approving the settlement agreement and provisionally certifying the proposed settlement class, the court directed that the 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 of the settlement and the parties' motions with respect to final class 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 the intervenor-contempt-relief settlement class (the ICR Settlement Class) in full resolution of all remaining claims 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 Settlement Class members have potentially valid claims for individual-contempt 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. They also agreed that the members of the ICR Settlement Class shall be responsible for payment of all taxes and fees payable 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. DISCUSSION

         Judicial policy favors settlement. There is an overriding public interest in favor of settlement, particularly in complex, lengthy litigation such as this case. See, e.g., Cotton v. Hinton, 559 F.2d 1326, 1331 (5th Cir. 1977).[1] A class-action settlement should be approved so long as it is "fair, adequate and reasonable and is not the product of collusion between the parties." Bennett v. Behring Corp., 737 F.2d 982, 986 (11th 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, but should rely on the judgment of experienced counsel and should be hesitant to substitute its own judgment for that of counsel. Cotton, 559 F.2d at 1330.

         A. Class Certification: Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a) & (b)(2)

         The court previously granted provisional certification of a settlement class. 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 of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) are met. In addition, a class must fit within one of the types of classes described in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b). Here, the parties seek certification of a Rule 23(b) (2) class. This type of class encompasses situations in which the party opposing the class has acted or refused to 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). 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 in the intervenors' individual-contempt claims. Although the defendants no longer contest 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 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 be questions of law or fact common to the class. 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). Rule 23(a) (3) ' s requirement of typicality asks 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 Class's claims arise out of the defendants' failure to reclassify them timely under Article 15. Rule 23(a) (4) requires the court to find that the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. This analysis delves into whether conflicts of interest exist between representatives and the class and whether the representatives will adequately prosecute the action. 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 denied timely reclassification during the relevant period, remained employed with ALDOT throughout ...


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