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Hubbard v. Donahoe

United States District Court, District Circuit

July 31, 2013

BRUCE HUBBARD, et al, Plaintiffs,
v.
PATRICK R. DONAHOE, Postmaster Generaly United States Postal Service^ Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RICHARD J. LEON, United States District Judge

This is a Rehabilitation Act class action alleging that the United States Postal Service ("USPS") failed to provide reasonable accommodations to current and former deaf and hearing-impaired employees. After a decade of litigation and negotiations, the parties now seek final approval of a stipulated settlement agreement that would resolve this action as to the Proposed Settlement Classes. The Court held a faimess hearing related to the settlement, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e). The arguments and representations made on the record during the Faimess Hearing are hereby expressly incorporated and made part of this Memorandum Opinion. Having considered the parties' pleadings, the arguments and representations made and the exhibits submitted at the Faimess Hearing, the relevant statutes and caselaw, and the entire record herein, the Court grants final approval of the $4.55 million Global Settlement Agreement ("Agreement") and awards class counsel $910, 000 in attorneys' fees and $114, 216.69 in expenses from the total value of the settlement.

BACKGROUND

This class action stems from two related actions brought before the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). In late 1998, Bruce Hubbard requested EEO counseling, alleging that USPS denied him reasonable accommodations at the USPS Brentwood facility in Washington, D.C. See Third Am. Compl., Oct. 19, 2012 [Dkt #149] ¶19. After a formal mediation in early 1999, Mr. Hubbard and USPS reached an agreement in principle that reasonable accommodations would be forthcoming. See id, Mr. Hubbard filed a subsequent EEO Complaint of Discrimination on or about February 20, 2001, again alleging that USPS denied him the reasonable accommodation of a sign language interpreter. Id. ¶ 20. The case proceeded in the EEOC Washington Field Office as EEOC No. 100-A1-8026X, Agency No. 1K-201-0037-99. Id. ¶ 21. On September 27, 2002, Mr. Hubbard amended his individual complaint to assert class allegations with four other plaintiffs, namely Judy M. Schuld, Grace J. Shirk-Emmons, Lucy I. Stieglitz, and George R. Westenberger (collectively, the "Hubbard Plaintiffs"). Id. ¶ 23.

On May 14, 2003, the Hubbard Plantiffs filed this class action suit on behalf of themselves and similarly situated current and former USPS employees, alleging violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq. See Compl., May 14, 2003 [Dkt. #1]. They later filed two amended class action complaints specifically alleging violation of § 501 of the Act. See First Am. Compl., Aug. 22, 2005 [Dkt. #58]; Second Am. Compl., July 10, 2006 [Dkt. #90]. On October 24, 2011, the Hubbard Plaintiffs sought leave to file a Third Amended Complaint to add James Gralund, Daniel Tighe, Susan Tighe, Diane Whitener, and Arlen Whitsit from Tighe v. Potter, EEOC No. lE-801-0070-04 (collectively, the "Tighe Plaintiffs"), as well as Gail Walker, as named plaintiffs. See Pis.' Unopposed Mot., Oct. 24, 2011 [Dkt #140].

After litigating before the EEOC and this Court for approximately nine years, the Hubbard Plaintiffs and USPS entered settlement discussions under the mediation program sponsored by this Court in March 2009. See Pis.' Memo in Support of Unopposed Mot. [Dkt #140] at 5. The parties were unable to reach agreement at that time. Id. In March 2010, the Hubbard Plaintiffs, together with the Tighe Plaintiffs, reinitiated settlement discussions with USPS. Id. The parties engaged a private mediator for a flat success fee of $150, 000—$75, 000 to be paid by the Department of Justice ("DOJ") and $75, 000 to be paid by Covington & Burling LLP ("Covington"). See Decl. of Kenneth R. Feinberg [Dkt. #154] ¶ 5. At the close of the mediation session in late 2010, the parties reached an agreement in principle, the terms of which the parties subsequently incorporated into the proposed Agreement. See Pis.' Memo in Support of Unopposed Mot. at 5.

In late 2011, plaintiffs filed an unopposed motion for preliminary approval of the proposed settlement. On October 19, 2012, the Court (1) granted plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File a Third Amended Complaint, (2) certified the Proposed Settlement Classes, (3) appointed Class Representatives and Class Counsel, (4) granted preliminary approval of the Agreement, except for the proposed attorneys' fees and costs, (5) approved the Class Notice, and (6) approved a schedule for the final settlement approval process. See Order, Oct. 19, 2012 [Dkt. #148]. Notices were subsequently mailed to over 6, 000 potential class members.

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e), the Court held a faimess hearing to consider objections to the Agreement and whether to grant final approval. Due notice of the hearing was provided to all potential class members, and all entities that made timely objections were given an opportunity to present such objections to the Court and to be heard at the Faimess Hearing held on January 30, 2013. Two additional hearing days (February 15 and March 1, 2013) were devoted to objections to the injunctive and monetary relief proposed in the Agreement. A fourth hearing day, May 7, 2013, was devoted to the proposed attorneys' fees and costs.

LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e), final approval of the proposed settlement agreement lies within this Court's discretion. See Vista Healthplan v. Warner Holdings Co. Ill. 246 F.R.D. 349, 357 (D.D.C. 2007). "In considering whether to approve a proposed class action settlement, the Court must strike a balance between a rubber stamp approval and 'the detailed and thorough investigation that it would undertake if it were actually trying the case.'" Id. (quoting United States v. District of Columbia, 933 F.Supp. 42, 47 (D.D.C. 1996)). The Court's role is to act as a fiduciary for class members and determine whether the proposed settlement is "fair, reasonable, and adequate." Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e)(2). Courts in our Circuit have considered the following factors in making this determination: "(1) whether the settlement is the result of arm's-length negotiations; (2) the terms of the settlement in relation to the strength of Plaintiffs' case; (3) the stage of the litigation proceedings at the time of settlement; (4) the reaction of the class; and (5) the opinion of experienced counsel." Vista Healthplan, 246 F.R.D. at 360; see also In re Lorazepam & Clorazepate Antitrust Litig., No. MDL 1290 (TFH), 2003 WL 22037741, *2 (D.D.C. June 16, 2003) ("Lorazepam III) (citing numerous cases).

While Rule 23(e) does not expressly address judicial oversight of fee accords, "the [district court's] approval function has routinely been extended to embrace fees ... where . . . there is an inherent tension between the interests of the class and the interests of the lawyers." See Weinberger v. GreatK Nekoosa Corp., 925 F.2d 518, 523 (1st Cir. 1991); Piambino v. Bailey, 610 F.2d 1306, 1328 (5th Cir. 1980) (to minimize conflict between attomey and class, district court "must address the issue of attorneys' fees" before approving class action settlement). "The presence of an arms' length negotiated agreement among the parties weighs strongly in favor of approval, but such an agreement is not binding on the court." Jones v. Amalgamated Warbasse Houses, Inc., 721 F.2d 881, 884 (2d Cir. 1983) (upholding district court's downward revision of fee settlement in class action civil rights suit submitted to court for Rule 23(e) approval). "The court's role as the guarantor of fairness obligates it not to accept uncritically what lawyers self-servingly suggest is reasonable compensation for their services." Weinberger, 925 F.2d at 525.

ANALYSIS

I. Class Certification

As a preliminary matter, the Court will certify the Proposed Settlement Classes based on its finding that the classes satisfy the prerequisites of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) with respect to numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy, as well as the prerequisites of 23(b)(2) and (b)(3). The Damages Settlement Class is certified as a Rule 23(b)(3) opt-out class comprised as stated in the Court's October 19, 2012 Order. The ...


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