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Lewis v. Silvertree Mohave Homeowners' Association, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. California

November 16, 2017

DOMENICA LEWIS, JEROLD LEWIS, DOMENICA LEWIS as guardian ad-litem for her minor children, and PROJECT SENTINEL, Plaintiffs,
SILVERTREE MOHAVE HOMEOWNERS' ASSOCIATION, INC., CAROL LEE ADAMS, MARILYN BLACK, ANAND BHASKARAN, and TAMELA DURANT, individually and as members of the Board of Directors, and DONALD MURPHY individually and d/b/a/ MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS, Defendants. Name Title Graduation Year (JD) Hourly Rate Law Foundation of Silicon Valley




         In this fair housing class action, plaintiffs move for final approval of a proposed settlement agreement and for attorneys' fees. The motion for final approval is Granted. The motion for attorneys' fees is Granted in Part.


         Beginning in 2000 and continuing in substantially the same form until 2015, defendant Silvertree Mohave Homeowners' Association adopted a “no sports play” rule, which prohibited any children under the age of 14 from being in the complex's common areas without adult supervision, and from engaging in any “sports activities” in the common areas. The homeowners' association board of directors enforced this rule, including by posting notice of the rule in the HOA's monthly newsletters and fining parents of children in breach of the rule. Though the “no sports play” rule was suspended for some time in 2015, the board voted to approve an emergency rule prohibiting bike and scooter riding, which was applied notwithstanding the suspension of the remainder of the rule (Dkt. No. 73 at 3-4; Dkt. No. 74 ¶¶ 9-12, 14-16).

         In June 2016, plaintiffs filed suit against the HOA, its board members, and the complex manager, Donald Murphy (d/b/a/ Management Solutions). The complaint alleged seven claims for violations of federal and state fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, and sought monetary and injunctive relief on behalf of a putative class of residents of the complex who had minor children living with them in the complex during the class period.

         In February 2017, plaintiffs filed an unopposed motion for appointment of interim class counsel in order to engage in settlement discussions. That motion observed that the plaintiffs had identified, through discovery, the scope and enforcement of the rule at issue, the likely size of the class, and the strength of class claims. Plaintiffs expressed their belief that this was the type of case in which early settlement discussions could lead to a resolution and conserve resources available to defendants for the benefit of the class (Dkt. No. 49 at 2-4).

         Due to concerns that plaintiffs' counsel may discount a recovery based upon the risk that class certification would be denied, an order directed plaintiffs to make a preliminary showing that they were likely to succeed in certifying a Rule 23 class, and to indicate any circumstances that required settlement discussions other than concerns over wasting the defendants' insurance policy (Dkt. No. 50). After considering plaintiffs' response and declarations (Dkt. Nos. 53-55) an order appointed interim counsel and permitted plaintiffs to proceed to mediation before Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Corley (Dkt. No. 56).

         While plaintiffs' motion for class certification proceeded, the parties reached a settlement agreement during a conference with Judge Corley (Dkt. No. 81). On June 15, 2017, an order preliminarily approved the proposed settlement and set a final approval hearing (Dkt. No. 84). A July 14 order conditionally approved class notice, which notice was mailed on July 21, 2017 (Dkt. No. 90).

         Plaintiffs now move for final approval of the settlement on behalf of a class defined as (Dkt. No. 83-1 ¶ 1(e)):

All persons who currently live or have lived at the Silvertree-Mohave Condominium Complex in Fremont, California, at any time from January 1, 2011, through the present, and lived there with children under the age of 14, or who were themselves minor children under the age of 14.

         The settlement provides for injunctive relief including, among other things, that defendants will permanently rescind all no-sports-play rules and will not enact any rule that prohibits children from playing in common areas in the future, that defendants will post signs in common areas making the new child-friendly policy known to residents, that defendants Carol Adams and Marilyn Black will resign from the board, that the board will receive fair housing training, and that the HOA will undertake a plan to evaluate the need for and provide play areas for children in the common areas of the complex (Dkt. No. 83 at 2-3). The settlement further provides that the class will receive $800, 000 to be divided equally among the approximately 334 class members. Additionally, lead plaintiffs the Lewis family will receive $35, 000, and lead plaintiff Project Sentinel will receive $19, 000 (id. at 4). The settlement does not provide for any award of attorneys' fees, which the parties agreed will be determined separately by the Court (id. at 5).

         In exchange, class members have agreed to release the first, second, third, fourth and seventh claims set forth in the complaint. To date, no putative class members have objected to the settlement, and the deadline for written objections has passed. Four class members have opted out (Dkt. No. 94-1 ¶ 4).[1]

         Plaintiffs counsel also moves for attorneys' fees in the amount of $468, 888, and costs in the amount of $3, 461.02 (Dkt. No. 95 at 1).

         Defendants do not oppose the settlement, or the costs sought. They do oppose the amount of attorneys' fees. This order follows full briefing and oral argument.


         1. Final Approval of Class Settlement.

         Final approval of a proposed class settlement is appropriate upon a finding that the settlement is “fair, reasonable and adequate” taking into account: “(1) the strength of the plaintiff's case; (2) the risk, expense, complexity, and likely duration of further litigation; (3) the risk of maintaining class action status throughout the trial; (4) the amount offered in settlement; (5) the extent of discovery completed and the stage of the proceedings; (6) the experience and view of counsel; (7) the presence of a governmental participant; and (8) the reaction of the class members to the proposed settlement.” FRCP 23(e); In re Online DVD-Rental Antitrust Litig., 779 F.3d 934, 944 (9th Cir. 2015).

         “[S]ettlement approval that takes place prior to formal class certification requires a higher standard of fairness.” Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011, 1026 (9th Cir. 1998). As a result, district courts are “particularly vigilant not only for explicit collusion, but also for more subtle signs that class counsel have allowed pursuit of their own self-interests and that of certain class members to infect the negotiations.” In re Bluetooth Headset Prods. Liab. Litig., 654 F.3d 935, 947 (9th Cir. 2011).

         Here, there is no intimation of collusion or self-interest on the part of class counsel. Indeed, to guard against this concern, class counsel has agreed that it will not receive any fees as part of the settlement, and instead were required to make a separate fee application, which in no way bears upon the class members' recovery.

         Moreover, settlement came after nearly a year of litigation during which time the parties had ample opportunity to take discovery and assess the merits of this action, and settlement talks were conducted under the supervision of Judge Corley. Ultimately, plaintiffs secured substantial relief for the class, including all of the injunctive relief sought as well as a monetary award of approximately $2, 335 per plaintiff (under which scheme a family ...

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