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Wormuth v. Lammersville Union School District

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 24, 2018

ADRIANNA WORMUTH, SCOTT WORMUTH and H.W., a minor, by and through his guardians ad litem ADRIANNA WORMUTH and SCOTT WORMUTH, Plaintiffs,
v.
LAMMERSVILLE UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT, JAMES YEAGER, DAWN IBBS, TERESA HAUN, KIRK NICHOLAS, and KHUSHWINDER GILL, and DOES 1-30, Defendants.

          ORDER

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         H.W. 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 ¶¶ 18-20.

         H.W. 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. ¶ 12.

         H.W., 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).

         H.W. 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.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         District 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.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Fair and Reasonable

         The 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.

         The 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.

         Recovery 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.

         H.W.'s 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., ...


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