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Mateo-Evangelio v. Triple J Produce, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division

April 6, 2018

MANUEL MATEO-EVANGELIO, JAIME TREJO-CARDONA, GILBERTO CERVANTES-VEGA, REYNALDO VILLALOBOS-MARTINEZ, EMILIO REYES, MARIA DE LOS ANGELES GONZALEZ-ROMAN, RAMIRO CERVANTES-VEGA, FRANCISCO CARMELO MATIAS-CASTRO, PABLO GONZALEZ-ROMAN, BENIGNO VILLA-GOMEZ, and SERGIO NARCISO LOPEZ-JUAREZ Plaintiffs,
v.
TRIPLE J PRODUCE, INC.; HOCUTT BROTHERS, INC.; HOCUTT FARMS, INC., JUDY HOCUTT; JOEY M. HOCUTT; JAMES MICHAEL HOCUTT; and M. JAY HOCUTT Defendants.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on plaintiffs' renewed motion for award of attorney's fees and costs (DE 132), and the parties' joint final report (DE 131), pursuant to consent order entered August 1, 2017. For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is granted to the extent set forth herein, and the court directs final distribution of settlement funds.

         BACKGROUND

         The background of this case, as pertinent to the instant motion, may be summarized as follows. The first two named plaintiffs in this action filed suit on December 31, 2014, asserting violations of federal and state fair labor standards laws, based on alleged conduct by defendants in not paying properly wages for overtime work packaging sweet potatoes and other agricultural commodities. Plaintiffs amended their complaint several times, most recently on October 7, 2015, with a third amended complaint (the “complaint”) brought by all of the above-named plaintiffs against the above-named settling defendants, asserting the following claims:

1) Two class action claims for failure to pay the promised wage under the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act (“NCWHA”), N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 95-25.1 et seq. (3rd. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 104-109).
2) One collective action claim for minimum wage and overtime violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. (except plaintiff Sergio Narciso Lopez-Juarez). (3rd Am. Compl. ¶¶ 110-112).
3) One class action claim failure to pay sufficient wages in violation of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (“AWPA”). 29 U.S.C. §§ 1801, et seq. (3rd Am. Compl. ¶¶ 113-115).
4) Individual claims for wrongful discharge by plaintiff Jaime Trejo-Cardona and for retaliation by nine of eleven named plaintiffs. (Id. ¶¶ 116-132).

         The complaint seeks declaratory, injunctive, and compensatory relief, including unpaid back wages, liquidated damages, and statutory damages in the full amount authorized by the AWPA ($500.00 per plaintiff per violation, or up to $500, 000.00 upon class certification).

         On September 1, 2015, the parties executed a settlement agreement resolving all claims. (See DE 62-1, 75-1). The settlement agreement provides for settlement payments totaling $328, 920.00, by defendants to the named plaintiffs and to class members based on the class action and collective action claims asserted in the complaint, divided as follows:

1) Payments to named plaintiffs ranging from $9, 000.00 to $20, 800.00 each, totaling $159, 400.00. (DE 62-1 ¶1).
2) Payment of $20, 480.00 to a class of “former packing house employees” who have “overtime claims, ” corresponding to the FLSA collective action claim (hereinafter the “FLSA fund”) (Id. ¶ 2).
3) Payment of $20, 400.00 to a class of “former packing house employees” who have “corresponding employment claims, ” corresponding to one of the NCWHA class action claims (hereinafter the “NCWHA fund”) (Id. ¶ 2).
4) Payment of $128, 640.00 into a settlement fund for the benefit of “a class of plaintiffs” including plaintiff Sergio Narciso Lopez-Juarez (the “Sergio Class”), corresponding to the AWPA class action claim (hereinafter the “AWPA fund”). “Upon proof of their work, each [class member] is eligible to a distribution of $350.00 per season, for a maximum of three seasons, ” or up to $1, 050.00 per class member. (Id. ¶3).

         On January 14, 2016, the court preliminarily approved settlement of all claims, granted class and collective action certification, and approved settlement notices. (See Orders, DE 66, 67, 69, 71). The court held a fairness hearing on June 6, 2016, at which no persons appeared with objections or comments concerning the settlement. (See DE 74).

         The court granted final approval of the settlement and final class notice on September 15, 2016. (See Orders, DE 85, 86, with claim forms at ¶ 81). In support of final approval, plaintiff noted that as of September 2, 2016, notices had been mailed to 306 potential class members. (See claims summary, DE 80-6). At that time, the total number of claims submitted were as follows:

1) NCWHA: 3 individuals.
2) AWPA: 21 individuals, of which 11 had been determined “Invalid” by the class action settlement administrator, Simpluris.
3) FLSA: 4 individuals. (DE 80-6).

         The parties then filed motions regarding cy pres and reversion of unpaid settlement funds on October 17, 2016. Pursuant to supplemental briefing ordered December 22, 2016, the parties submitted supplemental filings updating what further claims had been received, as well as the parties' positions on using Student Action With Farmworkers (SAF) as a cy pres recipient.

         Plaintiffs' counsel filed a report of class counsel, as corrected, on June 8, 2017, which provided an update as to claims submitted and disputes then between the parties regarding the same. (DE 110). The court held hearing on the motions and disputes then pending, wherein the court reached decision regarding certain issues raised and tasked the parties with developing consent order regarding terms and procedures for processing of remaining outstanding claims. Consent order entered August 1, 2017, set a schedule for submission of documentation to claims administrator Simpluris, Inc., for its review and analysis and final determination of valid settlement claims, and directed the parties to file joint report within 30 days of receipt of report by Simpluris, Inc., of such claims, including invoice of fees of Simpluris and whether the unpaid remainder of NCWHA and FLSA funds is sufficient to satisfy such fees. (DE 129).

         By text order entered September 29, 2017, the court denied without prejudice plaintiffs' then-pending motion for attorney's fees, where further developments with final claims accounting could impact the court's consideration of attorney's fees, and the court directed plaintiffs to refile an updated and final motion for attorney's fees and costs at the time of filing of the joint final report pursuant to the consent order.

         The parties filed their joint final report on November 27, 2017, and plaintiffs filed the instant renewed motion for attorney's fees and costs that same date. Included with the final report is a report by Simpluris, Inc., in accordance with the consent order, listing the final accounting of individual members of the NCWHA and AWPA classes, and the FLSA collective action as follows:

1) NCWHA: 3 individuals (out of a fund of $20, 400.00).
2) AWPA: 19 individuals (out of a fund of $128, 640.00).
3) FLSA: 5 individuals (out of a fund of $20, 480.00).

(DE 131-1). Although not specified in either the joint final report or the report by Simpluris, Inc., the parties are in accord that the amount due to be paid to such class and collective action members totals $14, 476.00, to be divided between 19 individuals, where all members of the NCWHA and FLSA classes are also members of the AWPA class. (See Def's Resp. (DE 134) at 4; Pl's Reply (DE 135) at 9; DE 131-1 at 2-5).

         In sum, out of settlement award totaling $328, 920.00, $159, 400.00 was awarded and has been paid already to named plaintiffs. This leaves for determination funds to be paid out of remaining $169, 520.00 in settlement funds designated for members of class and collective actions. As noted, based upon the report by Simpluris, Inc., the parties have agreed that $14, 476.00 is due to be paid to designated class members, meaning that a total of $173, 876.00 has been paid or is due to be paid to farmworkers as a result of this action. This will leave $155, 044.00 of settlement funds remaining for distribution as cy pres award.

         However, the parties have stipulated in their joint final report that the Simpluris, Inc., fees are allocated as follows:

1) $19, 009.83 of Simpluris, Inc., fees shall be paid by defendants.
2) The remaining balance of $1, 855.17 of Simpluris, Inc., fees shall be paid out of the unpaid remainder of the NCWHA and FLSA funds.

         Based upon this information provided to the court, this reduces the remainder available for cy pres award, after distribution to designated class members and fees to Simpluris, Inc., to $153, 188.83.

         In sum, in the event Simpluris, Inc., distributes funds to all claimants as specified, a balance of $155, 044.00 remains from the aggregate $169, 520.00 of the class settlement funds, of which $1, 855.17 shall be paid to Simpluris, Inc., and the remainder $153, 188.83 shall be paid as cy pres award to SAF.

         In support of the instant motion for attorney's fees and costs plaintiffs rely upon a declaration of class counsel (DE 133-1) and declarations of four local practitioners. (See Affidavit of M. Travis Payne (DE 92-11); Declaration of Eric L. Doggett (DE 92-10); Declaration of Gilda A. Hernandez (DE 92-9); Declaration of Carol Brooke (DE 133-2)). Following defendants' response in opposition, plaintiffs filed a reply, relying upon a supplemental declaration of class counsel (DE 135-1) and supplemental declaration of legal assistant Yoana Caceres (DE 135-2). As adjusted ...


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