United States District Court, E.D. California
ADRIANNA WORMUTH, SCOTT WORMUTH and H.W., a minor, by and through his guardians ad litem ADRIANNA WORMUTH and SCOTT WORMUTH, Plaintiffs,
LAMMERSVILLE UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT, JAMES YEAGER, DAWN IBBS, TERESA HAUN, KIRK NICHOLAS, and KHUSHWINDER GILL, and DOES 1-30, Defendants.
H.W., a five-year old boy with a speech impediment and
special education needs, claims he was bullied and harassed
at school. His parents, on his behalf, sued the school
district and several individual district employees, citing
their inaction as a violation of H.W.'s state and federal
civil rights. First Am. Compl. (“FAC”), ECF No.
14. The parties settled, and plaintiffs now move for an order
approving the proposed settlement and settlement trust. Mot.,
ECF No. 208. The court held a hearing on this
unopposed motion on May 18, 2018. ECF No. 211. As explained
below, the court GRANTS the motion.
and another five-year-old child, A.S., were classmates in a
transitional kindergarten class at Altamont School. Ian
Hansen Decl., ECF No. 208, ¶ 3. The amended complaint,
filed on December 22, 2015, alleges A.S. physically,
emotionally, and sexually abused H.W. throughout the first
six weeks of the school year. Id. ¶¶ 3, 7;
see also First Am. Compl. (“FAC”), ECF
No. 14, ¶¶ 18-26. H.W.'s teacher reported the
abuse to the school principal, yet A.S. was allowed to remain
in the class and his behavior escalated: A.S. habitually
kicked and spat on H.W.; made fun of H.W.'s teeth; pushed
H.W. off a play structure; kicked H.W. in the head; threw
H.W.'s lunch over a fence; and inappropriately touched
H.W. in the school bathroom. See FAC ¶¶
alleges he now fears going to school and that the trauma
caused post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”),
for which he required counseling. Hansen Decl. ¶¶
7, 11. He also alleges this trauma will likely affect his
future relationships. Id. Defendants dispute the
nature and extent of the alleged harm. Id. ¶
through his parents, sued the Lammersville Union School
District and several school officials for not preventing the
bullying. Id. ¶ 4. Although the complaint never
named A.S. or A.S.'s parents (collectively
“Singhs”) as defendants, the District named them
in a third-party complaint. See id. ¶ 5;
see also ECF No. 20 (third party complaint filed
Jan. 26, 2016).
and the Singhs previously reached a settlement, which the
court approved in October 2017. Hansen Decl. ¶¶
13-15; Oct. 11, 2017 Order, ECF No. 150 (granting Singhs'
motion for Determination of Good Faith Settlement). The
Singhs agreed to pay H.W. $40, 600 in exchange for a general
release and mutual cost waiver. Hansen Decl. ¶ 13. In
March 2018, H.W. and the District defendants engaged in
private mediation, which led to a $600, 000.00 settlement
agreement. Id. ¶ 16. The parties now seek the
court's approval of a proposed settlement that combines
these sums and resolves all claims between H.W., the District
defendants and the Singhs. Id. ¶ 6. If this
motion is approved, and after deducting costs and fees, H.W.
would receive a net recovery of $381, 660.20, to be deposited
into a settlement trust. Id. ¶ 22.
courts have a duty to protect the interests of minor or
incompetent litigants. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c)(2).
This special duty requires a district court to “conduct
its own inquiry to determine whether the settlement serves
the best interests of the minor.” Robidoux v.
Rosengren, 638 F.3d 1177, 1181 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting
Dacanay v. Mendoza, 573 F.2d 1075, 1080 (9th Cir.
1978)); see also E.D. Cal. L. R. 202(b) (“No
claim by or against a minor or incompetent person may be
settled or compromised absent an order by the Court approving
the settlement or compromise.”). Specifically, district
courts must assess whether the “net amount distributed
to each minor plaintiff in the settlement is fair and
reasonable, in light of the facts of the case, the
minor's specific claim, and recovery in similar
cases.” Robidoux, 638 F.3d at 1181-82. This
fairness evaluation focuses only on what the minor plaintiff
receives, without regard to what adult plaintiffs and
attorneys might receive. Id. at 1182.
Fair and Reasonable
proposed settlement sum here is fair and reasonable.
Defendants together agree to pay H.W. $640, 600, with the
District defendants paying $600, 000 and the Singhs paying
$40, 600. Hansen Decl. ¶¶ 15, 19. The litigation
costs incurred in this case total $ 98, 789.80, which the
parties agree to deduct from H.W.'s gross recovery.
Id. ¶ 20. H.W. also agrees to pay his attorneys
25 percent of his gross recovery, or $160, 150.00.
Id. ¶ 21. If approved, H.W. would receive $381,
660.20. Id. ¶ 22. Adriana Wormuth, on
H.W.'s behalf, declares this proposed settlement is
reasonable and in H.W.'s best interest. Wormuth Decl.,
ECF No. 208 at 11.
facts of this case confirm the proposed settlement is fair
and reasonable. Throughout litigation, defendants have
consistently disputed H.W.'s claimed emotional and
psychological damages. Hansen Decl. ¶ 12.
Defendants also contend their expert witnesses would refute
the claimed damages. Id. ¶ 30. Because
H.W.'s communication challenges preclude him from
testifying on his own behalf, his case depends largely on
expert testimony. This settlement would thus avoid
plaintiff's potential difficulties of proof and avoid the
costs inherent in expert-heavy litigation.
in similar cases confirms the sum is reasonable. See
Robidoux, 638 F.3d at 1182. H.W.'s net settlement
sum is on par with several cases in the Eastern District. For
instance, in Brooks v. Fresno Unified School
District, the court approved a minor student's $303,
000 total net settlement of civil rights claims against his
teacher. See No. CV11500673-WBS-BAM, 2015 WL
9304862, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 22, 2015). There, a teacher
allegedly locked the six-year-old special needs child in a
cage repeatedly without justification, and school
administrators knew about it. Id. at *2. And in
Hugunin v. Rocklin City School District, three minor
plaintiffs alleged their teacher had abused them and the
court approved net settlement sums of $202, 677.95, $329,
731.46 and $322, 321.57. See Case No.
2:15-cv-MCE-DB, ECF Nos. 160-62.
settlement sum also is higher than several similar cases in
this district. See, e.g, D.C. ex rel. T.C. v.
Oakdale Joint Unified Sch. Dist., Civ. No. 1:11-01112
SAB, 2013 WL 275271, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 23, 2013)
(approving $30, 000 net settlement based on allegations the
school “failed to provide proper programs, services and
activities” to a child with a disability and
“used restraints and other punishments on” the
child); D.K. ex rel. G.M. v. Solano Cnty. Office of
Educ., Civ. No. 2:08-00534 MCE DAD, ECF Nos. 69, 141
(E.D. Cal. Dec. 21, 2011) (approving $200, 000 net settlement
based on allegations of frequent physical abuse); T.B. v.
Chico Unified Sch. Dist., ...