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Haas v. Burlington County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 31, 2019

TAMMY MARIE HAAS and CONRAD SZCZPANIAK, individually and on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals, Plaintiffs,
v.
BURLINGTON COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          CARL D. POPLAR, CARL D. POPLAR, P.A., WILLIAM A. RIBACK WILLIAM RIBACK, LLC, DAVID J. NOVACK, BUDD LARNER, PC, Attorneys for Plaintiffs Tammy Marie Haas and Conrad Szczpaniak, individually and on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals.

          EVAN H.C. CROOK CAPEHART & SCATCHARD, P.A., Attorneys for Defendants Burlington County, Burlington County Correctional Facility, and Ronald Cox.

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case concerns a class action for constitutional and statutory harms suffered as a result of strip searches conducted at the Burlington County Correctional Facility (“BCCF”). Presently before the Court are four motions: (1) a Motion for Final Approval of the Class Action Settlement (“Motion for Final Settlement Approval”), (2) a Motion for Incentive Award on Behalf of Class Representative Tammy Marie Haas (“Motion for Haas Incentive Award Approval”), (3) a Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Expenses for Class Counsel Poplar and Riback (“Motion for Poplar and Riback Fee Approval”), (4) a Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Expenses for Class Counsel Lask, Goldman, and Novack (“Motion for Lask, Goldman, and Novack Fee Approval”). For the reasons explained herein, this Court will grant the Motion for Final Settlement Approval, grant the Motion for Haas Incentive Award Approval, and refer all counsel's attorneys' fees (and expenses) requests for further mediation before the assigned Magistrate Judge.

         BAKCGROUND

         Plaintiffs claim BCCF and Burlington County had an unconstitutional and illegal policy of strip-searching all individuals entering their facilities without first establishing reasonable suspicion. Specifically, Plaintiffs Haas and Szczpaniak brought claims on behalf of individuals being detained on non-indictable offenses who were subject to this alleged policy. The claims were brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”). Plaintiff Haas filed her class action complaint in this Court in February 2008. Plaintiff Szczpaniak filed his class action complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Burlington County in December 2009. Plaintiff Szczpaniak's complaint was removed to this Court shortly thereafter.

         On November 24, 2009, both of these class action complaints were stayed pending the outcome of Florence v. Burlington County, which determined with finality a similar, but different, federal claim (but no state claim under the NJCRA). The stay was lifted in March 2011. By September 2012, Plaintiff Szczpaniak's class action complaint was consolidated with Plaintiff Haas's case in this Court. Discovery ensued thereafter, involving significant document production, an inspection of BCCF, and a number of depositions. Motions for summary judgment and class certification were filed and refiled between October 2013 and April 2014. Oral argument was held by this Court in January 2015 on these motions.

         As a result, the Court instructed the parties to focus briefing on the pending state law claims under the NJCRA. Oral argument was again held in March 2015. Decision was reserved, but the Court did request additional briefing on class definition for the class certification motion. Shortly thereafter, the Court ordered the parties to begin mediation before the able Magistrate Judge John Hughes (Ret.). Mediation occurred between June 2014 and February 2016, but was ultimately stalled because a dispute arose between Defendants and their insurance carrier concerning coverage.

         The equally able Magistrate Judge presently assigned to the matter, the Hon. Joel Schneider, instructed the parties in March 2017 that settlement discussions would continue under his supervision. After resolving the dispute between Defendants and their insurance carrier, Judge Schneider was successful in bringing the parties together on settlement terms. A memorandum of understanding was drafted in June 2017, and a settlement agreement was executed on October 4, 2017.

         That same day, Plaintiffs filed a motion to certify the class for preliminary approval. After extensive briefing, the Court held a hearing on this motion on January 31, 2018. During that hearing, this Court appointed Carl D. Poplar and David J. Novack as co-class counsel. The Court also appointed Strategic Claim Services (“SCS”) to act as the class claims administrator. Finally, the Court certified the settlement class for purposes of settlement, preliminarily approved the settlement, and ordered notice to be sent to all putative class members. A formal Order was entered on April 20, 2018. Notice was sent in accordance with this Order and claims were received by SCS. In December 2018, the instant motions described supra were filed. These motions are fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. A final fairness hearing was conducted on January 16, 2019 and oral argument heard on the motions before the Court.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Settlement Agreement

         The settlement agreement under review in this case was executed on October 4, 2017 (the “Settlement Agreement”). The Court granted preliminary approval of the Settlement Agreement and certified the settlement class on April 20, 2018. Now, considering notice to class members has been completed, it is time for the Court to consider whether the terms of the Settlement Agreement meet the standard under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e). Before engaging in the legal analysis required, this Court lays out the terms of the settlement agreement.

         a. The Settlement Class

         The members of the settlement class (the “Class” or “Class Members”) include:

All persons who were placed into the custody of the Burlington County Correctional Facility as a result of non-indictable matters and were strip searched upon their entry into Burlington County Correctional Facility pursuant to the policy, custom and practice of the County of Burlington during the period of February 26, 2006 and extending until February 28, 2013.

         b. The Settlement's Value

         Class Members are entitled to a share of the settlement's value. A settlement fund has been established in the amount of $1, 475, 000, paid into by both Burlington County and its insurer. Class Members are eligible to receive up to $400 per claim. If the Class Members exceed 3, 487, the amount per claim will be reduced on a pro-rata basis. If the settlement fund is not entirely exhausted by claimants, the remaining funds will revert back to Defendants and their insurance carrier.

         In addition to monetary relief, the Settlement Agreement also discloses that Burlington County has revised its strip search policies effective February 28, 2013. The new policies prohibit strip searches of all non-indictable pretrial detainees in the absence of reasonable suspicion. The officers who will be implementing this policy have been appropriately trained. The new policy, according to the parties, is in accord with statutory and constitutional obligations, state and federal.

         c. Provision for Late Claims

         The Settlement Agreement - and this Court's Order - required all putative class members to submit their claims by October 15, 2018. Notice was sent in the manner described - and previously approved by the Court - infra. In addition to the notice requirements set by the Court and at some point after October 15, 2018, SCS sent an email to putative class members - at the direction of Plaintiffs' counsel - informing them that the claims period had closed but that Plaintiffs' counsel would petition for the inclusion of any individuals who submitted late claims.

         While the Court will examine the legal basis for accepting these claims infra, it notes here a specific provision of the Settlement Agreement pertaining to procedures for late claimants. That provision, III.C.2., states:

The Parties anticipate that late claims may be filed subsequent to the end of the Claims Period. Late claims may be allowed, if submitted on or before the date of the Final Approval Hearing. All late claims will be subject to approval of the Court prior to being paid as part of the distribution of the Settlement.

         As a result of the email sent by SCS after the claims period closed in this case, there were numerous claimants who filed late claims.

         d. Dismissal of Action and Release of Claims

         In exchange for the above benefits, the settlement provides for the dismissal with prejudice of the claims asserted in this action, and that all Class Members will fully release Defendants from all federal and state law claims that could have been asserted in this action, including those claims relating to the practice of unlawful strip searches during the class period. Any Class Members who opt-out of the settlement within the time period prescribed in the agreement will not receive an award and do not release any related claims they may possess.

         e. Attorneys' Fees, Incentive Awards, and Administrative Fee

         In addition to the $1, 475, 000, Defendants also agree to pay $900, 000 in attorneys' fees and $25, 000 in costs. The attorneys' fees, although paid into the general settlement fund, do not reduce funds available to the class members. Out of the $1, 475, 000 fund for class members, however, the Settlement Agreement directs that $80, 000 will be paid to the class representatives as an incentive award. Plaintiff Haas is slated to receive $50, 000 and Plaintiff Szczpaniak agreed to receive $30, 000. In addition to the Settlement Agreement, the class representatives Haas and Szczpaniak signed a separate agreement reflecting that they would receive the above amounts in consideration for the release of all claims they may have against Defendants, among other things. (See ECF No. 350.)

         In addition to the attorneys' fees and class incentive fees described supra, the parties have also agreed to pay, at most, $300, 000 to the settlement administrator, SCS. This amount is intended to compensate SCS for the work it has done and will do on behalf of the Class, including providing notice, maintaining and updating the website which is used to provide information to Class Members, receiving and processing claims, and fielding Class Member questions.

         f. Class Notice

         After preliminary approval by this Court, notice was published in accordance with the Settlement Agreement. The Settlement Agreement required the settlement administrator, SCS, to mail notices approved by the Court to each putative class member and publish advertisements for the settlement in print, online through various websites, and via a news release. SCS also maintains a website to provide information about the settlement to Class Members. Putative class members, totaling almost 14, 000 individuals, were given constitutionally adequate notice within the time prescribed in the Settlement Agreement. Additionally, as described supra, some Class Members also received an email from SCS which was sent after the class period had closed.

         As of January 16, 2019, Plaintiffs have received 2, 429 claims.[1] (See ECF No. 381.) Those claims can be broken down into the following categories:

• 1, 778 claims from putative class members that all parties agree have a valid claim;
• 541 claims from putative class members that the parties dispute have a valid claim;
• 72 claims from putative class members who were unidentified by the parties, being neither on their list of agreed upon or disputed claimants;
• 3 putative class members who opted out of the settlement.

         g. Objections

         One objection[2] was received by the parties and reviewed by the Court. The objection stated:

While I agree that a strip search for a Child Support Warrant is a tad bit excessive, to know the initial client will received [sic] 1, 000 times more than ...

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