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Bryant v. United Furniture Industries, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

February 16, 2017




         In this action, former and current employees of United Furniture Industries, Inc. (“UFI”) collectively pursued claims against UFI for violations of the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Pending before the Court is the Parties Joint Motion for Settlement Approval of FLSA claims [229], Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs [230], and Defendant's Motion for Joinder for Attorney's Fees and Costs [232].

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In late 2013, factory workers at UFI plants sought recovery for unpaid minimum wage and overtime compensation, as well as certification as a collective action under Section 216(b) of FLSA. Approximately 1, 320 individuals filed consents to opt-in to this action. Plaintiffs' claims were subsequently limited to workers in Defendant's Mississippi factory locations. After dismissal of claims of workers barred by the statute of limitations and those who did not otherwise fit within the class definition, 553 Opt-in Plaintiffs remained.

         Both parties served and responded to extensive discovery, including the disclosure of thousands of pages of documents, including pay and time records, and responses to over a hundred total interrogatories. The parties ultimately came to a settlement agreement on August 5, 2016. Thereafter, Plaintiffs motioned to Certify the Class, and Defendant joined. The Court granted the motion, ordering that the final Class be defined as follows:

All persons employed by the defendant from January 1, 2010 until December 30, 2013 as employees paid on a production basis as furniture manufacturers in the operation of the defendant's furniture manufacturing plants in the State of Mississippi who worked off the clock and were not paid for overtime wages under the FLSA, and whose claims are not time barred, with the exception of those persons who previously “opted in” to the lawsuit Carothers v. United Furniture Ind., Inc., No. 1:13-cv-00203-DAS and reached a settlement of their claims in its course.

         The Terms of the Settlement

         As set out in greater detail within the Settlement Agreement, a settlement fund of $400, 000.00 will pay claims of the class, litigation, settlement costs and attorney's fees. Rachel Brown Heffernan Bryant and Kenny Bryant thoroughly assisted Class Counsel and staff throughout the suit and settlement conferences, serving as liaisons with the group. Therefore, as class representatives, they will receive $10, 000.00 in the form of a Class Representative Incentive Award. The remainder of the named plaintiff class representatives, Anthony Brown, David L. Franks, Allie Everett, and Eric Thomas will each receive a $1, 000.00 award as named plaintiffs.[1]

         Members of the Settlement Class will receive $79, 334.57 on an equal pro-rata basis as income for unpaid overtime benefits. The Settlement Class will also receive $79, 334.57 in the form of liquidated damages. Checks issued to a Settlement Class member that remain uncashed for more than 90 days shall become null and void. Finally, Class Counsel, W. Howard Gunn will receive $160, 000 in the form of attorney's fees and $57, 330.86 for expenses.

         Settlement Approval

         The FLSA provides that a suit may be instituted by “one or more employees for and on behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated” to recover unpaid minimum wages, overtime compensation, and liquidated damages from employers who violate the statute's provisions. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). This type of collective action follows an “opt-in” procedure in which “[n]o employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.”[2] Id.

         In the absence of supervision by the Department of Labor or scrutiny from a court, a settlement of an FLSA claim is generally prohibited. Bodle v. TXL Mortg. Corp., 788 F.3d 159, 164 (5th Cir. 2015). In order to approve a settlement proposed by an employer and employees of a suit brought under the FLSA and enter a stipulated judgment, a court must determine that the settlement is a “fair and reasonable resolution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions.” Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. U.S. By & Through U.S. Dep't of Labor, Employment Standards Admin., Wage & Hour Div., 679 F.2d 1350, 1352 (11th Cir. 1982); Camp v. Progressive Corp., 2004 WL 2149079 (E.D. La. Sept. 23, 2004).

         Bona Fide Dispute

         In essence, the Court must ensure that the parties are not, via settlement of the plaintiffs' claims, negotiating around the clear FLSA requirements of compensation for all hours worked, minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime. 29 U.S.C. §§ 206, 207; see also Lynn's Food Stores, Inc., 679 F.2d at 1352 (FLSA provisions are mandatory; the “provisions are not subject to negotiation or bargaining between employer and employee”). If no question exists that the plaintiffs are entitled under the statute to the compensation they seek (and therefore to liquidated damages, as well), then any settlement of such claims would allow the employer to negotiate around the statute's mandatory requirements. Without a bona fide dispute, no settlement could be fair and ...

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