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M.D.Fla.: Approval of Settlement Agreement That Hinged on Results of Lie Detector Test Denied
Brooke v. Administrative Maintenance Services, LLC
Generally, we post cases here that feature issues that are likely to come up in other cases. Other times we post cases simply because they involve interesting fact patterns or scenarios. This case falls in the latter category. Here, the case was before the court on the parties’ joint motion to approve their settlement. However, this was no ordinary settlement. Instead, based on concerns pertaining to plaintiff’s credibility, regarding the number of improperly compensated overtime hours claimed by plaintiff, and the defendants’ assertions that they were due various offsets based on unrelated transactions between the parties, the parties entered into a unique settlement agreement, following mediation.
In order to resolve the various issues, largely involving the credibility of the parties, the parties agreed that the plaintiff would submit to a lie detector case, the results of which would dictate what, if any, amounts of damages plaintiff would recover under the settlement.
As described by the court:
“The parties… agreed that Mr. Brooke will be asked, in a format crafted by the operator of the lie detector, whether he worked five, ten, and, finally, fifteen hours per week, on average, of overtime. If the operator concludes Mr. Brooke worked no overtime, Mr. Brooke will dismiss his case and reimburse the Defendants one-half of the lie detector administrator’s fee to the Defendants. If the operator concludes Mr. Brooke did work overtime in the brackets described above, he will be paid the greatest number of average weekly overtime he credibly answers about, per week, times $12.00 (one-half his base rate of $12.00 per hour and an equal amount in liquidated damages), times the eighty one weeks he was employed by the Defendants. If the result is inconclusive, the Defendants will pay a total of $10,000.00, including fees and costs.”
While the court noted the settlement might be fair, depending on the amounts ultimately payable to plaintiff under the agreement, the court declined to approve the settlement citing the contingency nature of the settlement and the fact that it was unclear how much plaintiff would receive. The court reasoned:
“The Court does not quarrel with the parties’ contention that this approach is quicker and cheaper than a jury. The same can be said, however, as dueling and coin flips. The standard is not whether a resolution is quick and cheap, but whether it is fair and reasonable. There is no showing here that conditioning an award based on the ability to pass a lie detector test is either of those things.
To be clear, the Court is not finding that settlement in the amounts suggested would not be fair. If the parties had presented an agreement for Defendant to pay $10,000, for example, the Court could evaluate that sum in view of all of the pertinent considerations supporting a settlement, and could issue a recommendation on same. As long as there was an agreement as to an amount rationally related to the claim, and the Court found the settlement to be voluntary and objectively fair and reasonable, it would not matter if the actual numbers were reached via lie detector test, rock-paper-scissors, or drawing straws. Here, however, the parties are not asking the Court to approve a settlement—they are asking the Court to approve a method of reaching a settlement. This is beyond the scope of the fairness finding duties set forth in Lynn’s Food.
For these reasons, it is respectfully recommended that the Court deny the motion, without prejudice to renewal, if appropriate, upon clarification of the status of the corporate Defendants and upon a presentation of terms that are consistent with the principles discussed herein.”
Click Brooke v. Administrative Maintenance Services, LLC to read the entire Report and Recommendation, which was ultimately adopted in full by the presiding District Court Judge.
E.D.Tex.: Notwithstanding Settlement Agreement Stating Plaintiffs Were Not “Prevailing Party,” Plaintiffs Were Prevailing Party, Entitled To Attorneys Fees And Costs Under FLSA
Champion v. ADT Sec. Services, Inc.
The case was before the court on Plaintiffs’ motions for attorneys fees and costs, following the settlement of their FLSA claims. The Defendant argued that Plaintiffs were not entitled to recover attorneys fees and/or costs, because the settlement agreement contained language stating that Plaintiffs were not the “prevailing party,” despite the fact that they had successfully resolved their case by settlement.
Rejecting Defendant’s argument, the court reasoned:
“The Court concludes that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties, for the purposes of the fee-shifting statute, and are thus entitled to attorney’s fees. Under the FLSA, the court may award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. Saizan, 448 F.3d at 799. “A typical formulation is that plaintiffs may be considered prevailing parties’ for attorney’s fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983) (internal quotes omitted); see also Abner v. Kansas City S. Ry. Co., 541 F.3d 372, 379 (5th Cir.2008). The Court holds that the plaintiffs are prevailing parties for these purposes because the plaintiffs succeeded in procuring a favorable settlement. ADT initially made payments for the owed overtime to seven of the named plaintiffs that totalled $11,324.48, and the settlement obtained for those seven plaintiffs totalled $48,500.00. (See P’s Reply Br., Dkt. No. 57 at 13-14.) Thus, the plaintiffs have certainly “achiev[ed] some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. In the present case, however, Defendant ADT argues Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties for two reasons: (1) this case was resolved by settlement; and (2) the settlement agreement signed by the parties states that Plaintiffs shall not be deemed a prevailing party. For the following reasons, the Court disagrees with Defendant on both points and concludes that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties.
First, settlement does not preclude Plaintiffs from being considered prevailing parties. The Supreme Court has held that settlement agreements enforced through a consent decree may serve as the basis for an award of attorney’s fees. Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129-30, 100 S.Ct. 2570, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980). “Although a consent decree does not always include an admission of liability by the defendant … it nonetheless is a court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant.” Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. +West Virg. Dep’t of Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 604, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001) (internal quotes omitted). In the present case, the Court entered a consent decree in the Court’s Order approving the settlement as a fair and reasonable compromise of the dispute under the FLSA. (Dkt. No. 50.) Therefore, the settlement does not limit Plaintiffs’ ability to be prevailing parties.
Second, regarding the settlement agreement signed by both parties and submitted to this Court, the agreement states in one part:
No Admission of Liability. The Parties agree and acknowledge this Agreement is the result of a compromise and shall not be construed as an admission of liability, responsibility, or wrongdoing as alleged in the Lawsuit. It is expressly understood by the Parties that [plaintiffs] shall not be deemed a “prevailing party” for any purpose, including any fee shifting statute, rule, or agreement. (Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ E.) Defendant argues this settlement agreement, which was signed by the parties and submitted to the Court, means the plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because the settlement agreement acknowledges that they are not prevailing parties. The Court disagrees.
As an initial matter, the settlement agreement is treated as a contract and will be interpreted under Texas law. The Texas Supreme Court has recently explained the law:
In construing [a contract], we first determine whether it is possible to enforce the contract as written, without resort to parol evidence. Deciding whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law for the court. Coker v. Coker, 650 S.W.2d 391, 394 (Tex.1983). In construing a written contract, the primary concern of the court is to ascertain the true intentions of the parties as expressed in the instrument. R & P Enters. v. LaGuarta, Gavrel & Kirk, Inc., 596 S.W.2d 517, 518 (Tex.1980); City of Pinehurst v. Spooner Addition Water Co., 432 S.W.2d 515, 518 (Tex.1968). To achieve this objective, we must examine and consider the entire writing in an effort to harmonize and give effect to all the provisions of the contract so that none will be rendered meaningless. Universal C.I.T. Credit Corp. v. Daniel, 150 Tex. 513, 243 S.W.2d 154, 158 (1951). No single provision taken alone will be given controlling effect; rather, all the provisions must be considered with reference to the whole instrument. Myers v. Gulf Coast Minerals Mgmt. Corp., 361 S.W.2d 193, 196 (Tex.1962); Citizens Nat’l Bank v. Tex. & P. Ry. Co., 136 Tex. 333, 150 S.W.2d 1003, 1006 (1941). A contract is unambiguous if it can be given a definite or certain legal meaning. Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. v. New Ulm Gas, Ltd., 940 S.W.2d 587, 589 (Tex.1996). On the other hand, if the contract is subject to two or more reasonable interpretations after applying the pertinent rules of construction, the contract is ambiguous, creating a fact issue on the parties’ intent. Id. J.M. Davidson, Inc. v. Webster, 128 S.W.3d 223, 229 (Tex.2003). Further, under Texas law, “[c]ourts interpreting unambiguous contracts are confined to the four corners of the document, and cannot look to extrinsic evidence to create an ambiguity.” Texas v. Am. Tobacco Co., 463 F.3d 399, 407 (5th Cir.2006). Parol evidence may only be used if the contract is first found to be ambiguous. Id.
Keeping these principles in mind, the Court concludes that the contract is unambiguous and the plaintiffs are entitled to attorney’s fees, or in other words, the settlement agreement does not prevent the plaintiffs from being considered prevailing parties. The Court recognizes that the settlement agreement states that the plaintiffs “shall not be deemed a prevailing party’ for any purpose, including any fee shifting statute, rule, or agreement.” (Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ E.) But the agreement also states:
The parties have made no agreement regarding the payment of Champion’s attorney fees, court costs and a portion of the mediation fees, beyond that provided for in Paragraph A above. Champion’s counsel intends to apply to the Court for an award of attorney’s fees, and ADT reserves the right to contest this application.(Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ B.) The Court concludes the contract is unambiguous when considering only the four corners of the document and attempting to “harmonize and give effect to all the provisions of the contract so that none will be rendered meaningless.” The parties agreed that there was “no agreement regarding the payment of [Plaintiffs’] attorney fees.” (Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ B.)
But on the other hand, the parties agreed that the plaintiffs shall not be “deemed” a prevailing party. (Id. at ¶ E.) In harmonizing these statements together, the Court concludes that when the agreement states that the plaintiffs shall not be “deemed” a prevailing party, the parties were agreeing that whether the plaintiffs are a prevailing party is to be determined by the Court. In other words, the parties were not deeming the plaintiffs as a prevailing party. Further, the specific language stating the plaintiffs “shall not be deemed a prevailing party” is located in the section of the agreement titled “No Admission of Liability,” which confirms the parties’ intention was merely to not admit the plaintiffs were the prevailing party. (Id.) Rather, the parties were confirming that “ADT reserves the right to contest this application” of awarding attorney’s fees. (Id. at ¶ B.)
Therefore, the Court interprets the settlement agreement as unambiguously allowing the Court to determine whether the plaintiffs are the prevailing parties and entitled to attorney’s fees. The Court concludes for the abovementioned reasons that the plaintiffs are prevailing parties for the purposes of the statute and are entitled to attorney’s fees.”
Not quoted here, the court noted that there were emails between counsel prior to the settlement agreement, wherein the parties made clear that they intended the settlement agreement to resolve the issue of damages only and not the issue of attorneys’ fees or costs.
S.D.N.Y.: Court Refuses To Allow “Settlement” That Grossly Undervalued FLSA Claims To Serve As Basis For Summary Judgment
Latacela v. Cohen
This case involved an action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., for unpaid minimum wages and unpaid overtime wages. The case was before the court on defendants motion for summary judgment and for judicial approval of a settlement allegedly reached by the parties. The plaintiff opposed the defendants’ motion on the basis that he had withdrawn support for the settlement because the sum certain agreed to by the parties was based on faulty calculations by the plaintiff. Plaintiff asserted that he had mistakenly calculated that he was owed $1,415.82 in unpaid minimum wages, rather than $14,170. This miscalculation also affected the amount the plaintiff claimed in liquidated damages, since employees are entitled to liquidated damages (in addition to back wages) equal to the amount of unpaid wages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).
Denying the defendants’ motion, the court reasoned:
” ‘There are only two ways in which back wage claims arising under the FLSA can be settled or compromised by employees. First, under [29 U.S.C. § 216(c) ], the Secretary of Labor is authorized to supervise payment to employees of unpaid wages owed to them. Second [sic] when employees bring a private action for back wages under the FLSA, and present to the district court a proposed settlement, the district court may enter a stipulated judgment after scrutinizing the settlement for fairness.’ Manning v. New York Univ., 2001 WL 963982 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 22, 2001). Even assuming that the agreement defendant presses the Court to approve remains valid, the Court is not satisfied that it is fair. Under the agreement, the plaintiff would receive approximately $28,000 less than the amount he claims he is owed not for strategic reasons, but rather because plaintiff’s counsel made an arithmetical error. Cf. Elliot v. Allstate Investigations, Inc., 2008 WL 728648, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 19, 2008) (approving settlement of less than half the amount plaintiff claims he was owed under the FLSA when the plaintiff could not support his claims through documentary evidence and the defendant could not pay more than the amount agreed to).
Accordingly, defendant’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED.”
Click Latacela v. Cohen to read the entire opinion.
W.D.Va.: Motion For Approval Of Settlement Agreement Denied, In Part, Because Of Impermissible Confidentiality Language
Poulin v. General Dynamics Shared Resources, Inc.
In a continuing trend, the Court, on the parties’ Joint Motion for approval of settlement, denied same, in part, due to the inclusion of confidentiality language in the proposed settlement agreement. Initially, the Court denied the Motion due to the parties failure to lay out the basis for Plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. However, the Court went on to add an alternative ground for its denial, citing to recent case law, as discussed here:
“Finally, the Settlement Agreement, as presently drafted, contains a confidentiality agreement. This, in pertinent part, provides that “Plaintiff agrees that he shall not disclose the fact of, and/or the terms and conditions of this Settlement Agreement and General Release except that Plaintiff may state that the Poulin action has been dismissed and may disclose the terms and conditions of this Settlement Agreement” under limited enumerated circumstances. Under the Settlement Agreement, “Plaintiff further agrees and acknowledges that confidentiality is a material term of this Agreement and any breach of the confidentiality provisions herein will be considered a material breach of the terms of this Agreement and he will be required to reimburse Defendant for any and all compensation and benefits paid to him or for his benefit under the terms of this Agreement.” Settlement Agreement and General Release, ¶ 13. Further, it provides that the Settlement Agreement, “as executed by the Parties, will be filed under seal.” Id. at ¶ 5.
The Court cannot approve these terms of the Settlement Agreement. The provision that “confidentiality is a material term of [the] Agreement” is in conflict with the Court’s opinions dated March 26, 2010 (docket no. 20) and April 23, 2010 (docket no. 23), which held that the parties had not identified significant interests to outweigh the public interest in access to judicial records, and required the proposed Settlement Agreement be made publicly available on the docket. Furthermore, a confidentiality provision in an FLSA settlement agreement undermines the purposes of the Act, for the same reasons that compelled the Court to deny the parties’ motion to seal their Settlement Agreement. See e.g., Valdez v. T.A.S. O. Prop., Inc., No. 8:09-cv-2250, 2010 WL 1730700, at *1 (M .D.Fla. Apr. 28, 2010); Dees v. Hydradry, Inc., — F.Supp.2d —-, 2010 WL 1539813, at *9 (M.D.Fla.2010) (“A confidentiality provision in an FLSA settlement agreement both contravenes the legislative purpose of the FLSA and undermines the Department of Labor’s regulatory effort to notify employees of their FLSA rights.”). Finally, the confidentiality provisions are likely unenforceable in light of the public filing of the Settlement Agreement. See e.g., Head v. v. & L Services III, Inc., No. 6:08-cv-917, 2009 WL 3582133, at *3 (M.D.Fla. Oct. 27, 2009) (noting that “the settlement agreements contain terms that this Court would not approve, such as the confidentiality provisions, which are partially unenforceable in light of the public filing of the agreements”). The Court cannot approve of a settlement agreement which includes these terms.”
It appears that the public policy grounds behind disallowing confidential settlement agreements in FLSA cases is beginning to pick up speed.