United States District Court, E.D. California
ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY APPROVAL OF CLASS SETTLEMENT (Doc. 256)
JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.
Santiago Rojas, Josefino Rameriz, Catalina Robles, Juan Montes, Benito Espino, and Guillermina Perez (collectively, "Plaintiffs") request preliminary approval of a class settlement reached with Defendant Sunview Vineyard of California, Inc. (Doc. 256.) Plaintiffs seek: (1) conditional certification of the settlement class; (2) preliminary approval of the settlement; (3) appointment of Plaintiffs as the class representatives; (4) appointment of the law firms of Mallison & Martinez and Kingsley & Kingsley as Class Counsel; (5) approval of the proposed class notice and related materials; (6) appointment of Rust Consulting as the Claims Administrator; (7) approval of the Settlement distribution plan; and (8) scheduling for final approval of the settlement. (Doc. 256-9 at 3-5.) Defendant does not oppose the motion for preliminary approval of the class settlement. (Doc. 258.)
The Court has considered the proposed settlement between the parties, and the proposed Notice and related forms. On February 25, 2015, the Court heard the oral arguments of counsel. For the following reasons, Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary approval of class settlement is GRANTED.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On November 9, 2005, Plaintiffs' counsel initiated an action against table grape growers based in Kern County, including Marko Zaninovich, Inc.; Sunview Vineyards of California, Inc.; Castlerock; D.M. Camp & Sons; Guimarra Vineyards Corp.; El Rancho Farms; Stevco, Inc; and FAL, Inc. See Doe v. D.M. Camp & Sons, 624 F.Supp.2d 1153 (E.D. Cal. 2008). Plaintiffs were unnamed former and current employees of the defendants. Id. at 1156.
Defendants in the Doe action, including Marko Zaninovich, Inc., and Sunview, filed motions to dismiss the operative complaint, which were granted by the Court on March 31, 2008. The motions were granted, and the Court ordered the plaintiffs to sever the action and file amended pleadings against each defendant. ( Doe, Doc. 168). The Third Amended Complaint against Marko Zaninovich, Inc. and Sunview identified Santiago Rojas and Josefino Ramirez as plaintiffs on May 29, 2008. ( Doe, Doc. 171). On March 31, 2009, the Court ordered Plaintiffs to re-file their suit in a new case number within twenty days to finalize the severance. ( Doe, Doc. 238).
On April 20, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging Sunview is liable for: violations of the Agricultural Workers Protection Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1801, et seq; failure to pay wages; failure to pay reporting time wages; failure to provide rest and meal periods; failure to pay wages of terminated or resigned employees; knowing and intentional failure to comply with itemized employee wage statement provisions; penalties under Labor Code § 2699, et seq; breach of contract; and violations of unfair competition law. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs brought the action "on behalf of Plaintiffs and members of the Plaintiff Class comprising all non-exempt agricultural, packing shed, and storage cooler employees employed, or formerly employed, by each of the Defendants within the State of California." ( Id. at 6.) On September 22, 2009, an amended complaint identified Catalina Robles, Juan Montes, Benito Espino, and Guillermina Perez as additional plaintiffs. (Doc. 18.)
Plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification on May 17, 2011, seeking to certify several classes. Initially, Plaintiffs sought to certify three classes of workers employed by Sunview: workers paid on a piece rate basis, workers employed during the harvest season, and workers employed during the off-season. (Doc. 40.) On reply, Plaintiffs amended the class definitions to seek certification of five classes: (1) workers paid a piece rate, (2) workers who purchased their own equipment for work, (3) workers who took trays home to wash in 2001-2002, (4) workers who took trays home to wash in 2003-2005; and (5) workers who performed pre-shift work. (Doc. 165.) The Court further refined the classes, dividing the first class into workers who were paid a pure piece rate and workers who were paid a subminimum hourly wage plus a piece rate. (Doc. 192 at 21-22.) The Court found certification was not proper for the Pure Piece Rate Subclass, the Reimbursement Class, and the Pre-Shift Work Class. ( See generally Doc. 192) Accordingly, the Court certified two classes, defined as:
1. Sub-Minimum Hourly Wage Plus Piece Rate Class: All workers who were paid an hourly wage less than minimum wage (but greater than $0/hour) plus piece rate from 11/9/2001 to present.
2. Tray-Washing Class: All non-supervisory harvest fieldworkers employed by Sunview during the 2001 and 2002 harvests who took trays home overnight and washed those trays without compensation.
(Doc. 201 at 26.) Plaintiffs sought review of the Court's refusal to certify the additional classes. (Doc. 203.) The Ninth Circuit declined to entertain the appeal. (Doc 210.)
Sunview filed a motion for reconsideration, which was granted in part and denied by the Court on March 29, 2013. (Docs. 202, 213.) The Court clarified the class definitions, and the claims upon which Plaintiffs were proceeding, as follows:
1. The Sub-Minimum Hourly Wage Plus Piece Rate Class is defined as "All workers who were paid an hourly wage less than minimum wage (but greater than $0/hour) plus piece rate from 11/9/2001 to present." Plaintiffs may represent this class with respect to the following claims: violation of rest period requirements (Labor Code § 226.7 and Wage Order 14), violation of the minimum wage requirements (Labor Code §§ 1194 and 1194.2 and Wage Order 14), violation of AWPA (29 U.S.C. § 1801 et seq.), waiting time penalties (Labor Code §§ 201, 202 and 203), wage statement penalties (Labor Code § 226), and violation of unfair competition law.
2. The Tray Washing Class is defined as "All non-supervisory harvest fieldworkers employed by Sunview during the 2001 and 2002 harvests who took trays home overnight and washed those trays without compensation." Plaintiffs may represent this class with respect to the following claims: violation of minimum wage requirements (Labor Code §§ 1194 and 1194.2 and Wage Order 14), violation of AWPA (29 U.S.C. § 1801 et seq.), waiting time penalties (Labor Code §§ 201, 202 and 203), wage statement penalties (Labor Code § 226), and violation of unfair competition law.
(Doc. 213 at 9.) The Court approved a notice to the class members on June 26, 2013, which was to be distributed to all field workers employed "during the 2001 harvest." (Doc. 224.)
Sunview filed objections to the class notice (Doc. 226), which was construed as a request for reconsideration pursuant to Local Rule 303. (Doc. 227.) Sunview asserted the notice was improper, because it was to be mailed to individuals whose claims were barred by the statute of limitations, and sought to limit the notice to workers from November 9, 2001 to exclude those that only worked earlier during the 2001 season. The Court noted, "In effect, Sunview [sought] to redefine the class." (Doc. 230 at 4.) The Court declined to address the issue of the statute of limitations because Sunview raised the issue for the first time related to the class notice, explaining: "Objecting to the form of class notice is not the proper venue for resolving the issue." ( Id. at 5.) Consequently, Sunview's collateral challenge to the class definitions and request for reconsideration was denied on August 6, 2013. ( Id. )
On April 7, 2014, the Court held a further scheduling conference with the parties. (Doc. 236.) The Court authorized the parties to commence merits discovery related to non-experts on June 13, 2014, or upon the service of a draft trial plan, whichever was earlier. ( Id. at 1.) Any non-expert discovery was to be completed no later than November 14, 2014. ( Id. ) In July 2014, the parties notified the Court that they agreed to mediation with Steven Vartabedian, a former Justice of the California Court of Appeal. (Doc. 237 at 4; see also Doc. 259-1 at 9.)
On September 12, 2014, the parties reported they "participated in a full-day mediation with Justice Vartabedian on September 4, 2014." (Doc. 248 at 4.) They "continue[d] to engage in meaningful settlement discussions, " and "participated in a second, in-person mediation with Justice Vartabedian on September 30, 2014." ( Id.; Doc. at 253 at 4.) The parties engaged in a third session of mediation on January 7, 2015, where they "reached an agreement to fully and completely resolve and settle the action and signed a comprehensive Settlement Agreement documenting the terms of such resolution." (Doc. 255 at 3.) Plaintiffs filed the motion for preliminary approval of the class settlement on January 28, 2015, which is now pending before the Court. (Doc. 256.)
THE PROPOSED SETTLEMENT
Pursuant to the proposed settlement ("the Settlement"), the parties agree to a "Maximum Settlement Amount" totaling $4, 550, 000. (Doc. 256-1 at 5; Doc. 259-1 at 4, Settlement § I.T.) Defendant Sunview agrees to fund the Settlement for a class including "all current and former non-exempt fieldworkers who were employed by Sunview in California at any time from November 9, 2001 through and including September 30, 2014." (Doc. 259-1 at 3, Settlement § I.E.) Within five days of the Court's order granting preliminary approval of the Settlement, Defendant will pay 20% of the settlement funds into an escrow account at Bank of America and then deposit 10% of the funds into the account every thirty days thereafter until the "Maximum Settlement Amount has been deposited or the Effective Date [is reached] whichever occurs first. (Doc. 265-1 at 2, Settlement § III.H.)
I. Payment Terms
The settlement fund will cover payments to class members with additional compensation to the Class Representatives. (Doc. 256-1 at 5; Doc. 259-1 at 10, Settlement § III.B.) In addition, the Settlement provides for payments to Class Counsel for attorneys' fees and expenses, to the Settlement Administrator, and the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency. ( Id. ) Specifically, the settlement provides for the following payments from the gross settlement amount:
The Class Representatives will receive up to $7, 500 each;
Class counsel will receive no more than 33 1/3% of the gross settlement amount for fees, and additional funds for expenses;
The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency shall receive $15, 000 from the award pursuant to PAGA; and
The Claims Administrator will receive approximately $70, 000 for fees and expenses.
(Doc. 256-1 at 5, 17; Doc. 259-1 at 10-11, Settlement § III.B.) After these payments have been made, the remaining money ("Net Settlement Fund") will be distributed as settlement shares to Class Members. (Doc. 259-1 at 12, Settlement § III.C.)
Class members are not required to submit a claim to receive a share from the Net Settlement Fund. (Doc. 256-1 at 5; Doc. 259-1 at 12-13, Settlement § III.C.) Class members' shares will be calculated with "a formula that weights shares for pre-existing certified claims at a much higher rate." (Doc. 256-1 at 5, citing Settlement § III.C.) Therefore, the class members are divided into two groups: "Funding Group A" encompasses "[a]ll Workshifts worked by persons who are within the classes certified by the Court that occurred between November 9, 2001 and July 4, 2003, " while "Funding Group B" includes "[a]ll Workshifts worked by all current and former non-exempt fieldworkers who were employed by Sunview in California that occurred between July 5, 2003 and September 30, 2014." (Doc. 259-1 at 4, Settlement § I.Q.) The Settlement explains:
The initial Settlement Distribution for each Participating Class Member will be calculated as follows: (a) the portion of the Net Settlement Amount allocated to Funding Group A shall be divided by the aggregate number of Workshifts in Funding Group A to arrive at the Funding Group A Workshift value, (b) the Participating Class Member's total number of Workshifts in Funding Period A (if any) shall be multiplied by the Funding Period A WorkShift value, (c) the portion of the Net Settlement Amount allocated to funding Period B to arrive at Funding Period B Workshift value, (d) the Participating Class Member's Total number of Workshifts in Funding Period B (if any) shall be multiplied by the Funding Period B Workshift value, (e) the sum of each calculation shall be added together to equal the Participating Class Member's initial Settlement Distribution.
(Doc. 259-1 at 12, Settlement § III.C.) Consequently, the exact amount each receives depends upon how many class members submit timely and valid claim forms and the period of time Sunview employed each class member.
The Settlement provides that Plaintiffs and Class Members, other than those who elect to participate in the Settlement, shall release Sunview from the claims arising in the class period at the time final judgment is entered. Specifically, the release for class members includes:
[A]ll federal, state, and local law claims, rights, demands, liabilities, and causes of action, whether known or unknown, arising from, or related to, the allegations that were made or reasonably could have been made based on the facts alleged in the operative Consolidated Complaint in this Action (filed on September 22, 2009), for the period from November 9, 2001 through September 30, 2014 (except for claims under Labor Code§ 203 premised upon an alleged failure to pay wages that is based upon any allegations or theories in the Consolidated Complaint, for which the release of claims shall extend through the date by which an Election Not to Participate in Settlement must be submitted to the Claims Administrator). The Released Claims include claims based on the following categories of allegations: (a) all claims for unpaid overtime pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 510, 1194, and 1198; (b) all claims for unpaid minimum wages pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 1185, 1194, 1194.2, 1197, and 1197.1; the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"); the Industrial Welfare Commission ("IWC") Wage Orders 8, 13 and 14; and 29 U.S.C. § 1832(c); (c) all claims for and related to the failure to provide meal periods and rest periods pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 226.7 and 512 and 29 U.S.C. § 1832(e); (d) all claims for failure to provide and maintain accurate and itemized wage statements pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 226, 226.3, 1174, 1175 and 29 U.S.C. § 1831(c); (e) all claims for failure to reimburse business expenses (including but not limited to reimbursement for tools) pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 1182.11, 2800 and 2802 and 29 U.S.C. § 1832(c); (f) all claims for failure to compensate split shifts pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 1197 and
1198 and California Code of Regulations Title 8, § 11070 Subdivision 4(C); (g) all claims for reporting time pay pursuant to California Code of Regulations Title 8, § 11070 Subdivision 5 and the California Labor Code §§ 1185, 1194, 1194.2, 1197 and JWC Wage Orders 8, 13 and 14 and 29 U.S.C. § 1832(c); (h) all claims for failure to timely pay wages upon termination, pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 201, 202 and 203; (i) all claims for the failure to timely or otherwise pay wages during employment pursuant to California Labor Code §§ 204, 205.5, 206, and 221; (j) all incorporated or related claims asserted pursuant to California Business and Professions Code §§ 17200, et seq.; (k) all claims for interest, penalties, attorneys, fees, costs and any other monetary relief based upon the claims described in this section and including but not limited to, claims pursuant to Labor Code §§ 210, 218.5, 218.6, 225.5, 226.3, 256, 1174.5, 1197.1, 2699(g), 2802 and Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5 and the FLSA; (l) all claims for penalties or monetary relief based upon the claims described in this section pursuant to Labor Code § 558; (m) all claims for penalties pursuant to the Private Attorneys' General Act ("PAGA"), California labor Code §§ 2698, et seq., based upon violations of any of the Labor Code sections described in this section; (n) all claims for breach of contract based upon the failure to pay wages owed and the failure to comply with the promised terms and conditions of employment, including any alleged violations of Labor Code§§ 223 and 225 and IWC Wage Orders 8, 13 and 14; and (a) all claims for actual and statutory damages, penalties, monetary or injunctive relief based upon the above-described claims pursuant to the Migrant & Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, 29 USC §§ 1801, et seq.
(Doc. 259-1 at 6-7, Settlement § I.CC.) The release Plaintiffs will sign is broader than that prepared for Class Members. Plaintiffs will release any claims that could have arisen during the course of their employment with Defendants. (Doc. 259-1 at 22-23, Settlement § III.K.1.) Specifically, Plaintiffs' release provides:
As of the date of the Judgment, Plaintiffs and their Counsel hereby fully and finally release Defendants, and their partners, owners, subsidiaries, employees, officers, directors, agents, attorneys, stockholders, fiduciaries, other service providers, and assigns, from any and all claims, known and unknown, including but not limited to claims arising from or related to their employment or claimed employment with Defendants, their compensation while employed as Defendants' employee, under federal, state and/or local law, statute, ordinance, regulation, common law, or other source of law... The Plaintiffs' Released Claims include, but are not limited to, all  federal, state and local law claims, rights, demands, liabilities, and causes of action, whether known or unknown, arising from, or related to, the allegations that were made or reasonably could have been made in the operative complaint in this Action, through the Response Deadline (the date on which opt outs must be submitted to be valid)...
( Id., emphasis added.) Thus, claims released by Plaintiffs, but not Class Members, include any claims arising under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § ...