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Melanie K. v. Horton

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

April 15, 2015

MELANIE K., LARRY WESTON, TAMARA J., and DANNY GENTRY, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
KEITH HORTON, in his official capacity as the Commissioner for the Georgia Department of Human Services, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

WILLIAM S. DUFFEY, Jr., District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the Parties' Consent Motion to Preliminarily Approve the Stipulation and Order of Settlement [55] (the "Motion").

I. BACKGROUND

This is a class action brought by four named representatives, Melanie K., Larry Weston, Tamara J. and Danny Gentry (the "Plaintiffs") on their behalf, and on behalf of a class of similarly situated people. The Complaint alleges that Defendant Keith Horton, Commissioner for the Georgia Department of Human Services ("DHS"), failed to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("SNAP") benefits ("Food Stamps") to eligible households who filed initial, or renewal, applications within the time required by federal law. Plaintiffs claim the failure to timely provide benefits resulted from policies and practices at DHS that (1) unlawfully denied applicants the opportunity to comply with application procedures resulting in denial of their applications, and (2) unlawfully delayed processing of applications resulting in eligibility decisions being made after federally required time limits. The Complaint [1] alleges further that Defendant failed to send notices denying applications, including to renew, without providing adequate notice of the specific reason for the denial.

On March 6, 2015, the Parties filed their Consent Motion to Certify the Class for Settlement Purposes [50] ("Consent Motion to Certify Class"), in which the parties agreed to certify the following Settlement Class:

All Georgia residents who, since January 1, 2013, have applied, are applying, or will apply for Food Stamps through a completed initial and/or renewal application and whose applications or renewals have not been or will not be timely processed in accordance with the requirements of the Food Stamp Act and its implementing regulations.

(Consent Motion to Certify Class at 3-4). Plaintiffs also filed their Motion to Appoint Class Counsel [51]] ("Motion to Appoint Class Counsel"), seeking an order appointing David Webster, National Center for Law and Economic Justice ("NCLEJ"), specifically attorneys Marc Cohan, Mary R. Mannix and Petra T. Tasheff (collectively, the "NCLEJ Lawyers"), and DLA Piper attorney Mark E. Grantham, as Co-Class Counsel. On March 23, 2015, the Parties filed their Proposed Consent Order [52], requesting that the Court preliminarily approve the settlement between the Parties, and to approve the Notice to be sent to the proposed settlement class members.

On March 23, 2015, the Court granted the Parties Consent Motion to Certify Class and Plaintiff's Motion to Appoint Class Counsel. (March 23, 2015, Order [53]). The Court certified the Settlement Class as:

All Georgia residents who, since January 1, 2013, have applied, are applying, or will apply for Food Stamps through a completed initial or renewal application and whose applications or renewals have not been or will not be timely processed in accordance with the requirements of the Food Stamp Act and its implementing regulations.

On March 24, 2015, the Court held a telephone conference (the "March 24th Conference") to discuss the Parties proposed Notice and preliminary approval of the proposed settlement. At the March 24th Conference, the Court approved the Parties' Notice, subject to the changes discussed at the March 24th Conference. The Court also ordered the Parties to file a motion seeking preliminary approval of the settlement.

On April 1, 2015, the Parties filed their Motion, seeking approval of their proposed Stipulation and Order of Settlement [45] (the "Settlement"). The Parties assert that the Settlement was the product of arm's-length negotiation over a period of many months, and that the Settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate, providing significant immediate and long-term benefit to the settlement class.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

Under Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a class-action settlement may be approved if the settlement is "fair, reasonable, and adequate." Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e)(2). "Approval is generally a two-step process in which a preliminary determination on the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the proposed settlement terms' is reached. Holman v. Student Loan Xpress, Inc., No. 8:08-CV-305-T23MAP, 2009 WL 4015573, at *4 (M.D. Fla. Nov. 19, 2009) (quoting David F. Herr, Annotated Manual for Complex Litigation ยง 21.632 (4th ed. 2008)). "The factors considered are (1) the influence of fraud or collusion on the parties' reaching a settlement, (2) the likelihood of success at trial, ' (3) the range of possible recovery, ' (4) the complexity, expense[, ] and duration of litigation, ' (5) the substance and amount of opposition to the settlement, ' and (6) the stage of proceedings at which the settlement was achieved.'" Id. (quoting Bennet v. Behring Corp., 737 F.2d 982, 986 (11th Cir. 1984)).

B. Analysis

In considering the Bennet factors, the Court first notes that there is not any evidence of fraud or collusion influencing the Parties reaching a settlement. The Parties have stated that the Settlement was the product of arm's-length negotiation over a period of many months and with the advice of experienced and qualified counsel.[1] Success at trial is uncertain because DHS possesses legal and factual defenses to the Plaintiffs' claims.[2] The range of the possible benefit and recovery under the proposed settlement is substantial, including (1) DHS's obligation to initially screen applicant households to determine if they are eligible for expedited service of their Food Stamp applications; (2) the provision of expedited service where warranted; (3) a requirement that DHS allow eligible households to participate in the Food Stamp program no later than thirty (30) calendar days following the date the application was filed; and (4) DHS's obligation to provide retroactive benefits to Georgia households who at any time during the period beginning on October 1, 2014, and ending on December 31, 2014, applied for Food Stamps, were denied, then reapplied, and were approved within sixty (60) days of the denial. (Settlement at 6-10).

The Court notes further that litigation of this case would be lengthy, expensive, and uncertain. Plaintiffs' Complaint noted, according to date from the Food and Nutrition Service at the United States Department of Agriculture, that on average, almost two million individuals in Georgia participated in the Food Stamp program in Fiscal Year 2013. In light of the number of class members, the significant stakes involved, and the public interest in this litigation, the Parties will be highly motivated to aggressively litigate this case if a settlement was not approved. The Court notes further that, at this stage, there is no apparent opposition to the Settlement.

Upon consideration of the Bennet factors, the Court preliminarily approves the Settlement as a "fair, reasonable, and adequate" compromise of Plaintiffs' claims.

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons,

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Parties Consent Motion to Preliminarily Approve the Stipulation and Order of Settlement [55] is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that a hearing pursuant to Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure shall be conducted to determine whether the proposed Settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate, and whether it should be approved by the Court. The hearing shall be held on Wednesday, July 22, 2015, at 9:30 a.m. EST before the Honorable William S. Duffey, Jr., Courtroom 1705, 75 Spring Street, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia XXXXX-XXXX (the "Settlement Hearing"). The hearing may, if required, be adjourned or continued from time to time with notice to be published on the Court's internet website and the NCLEJ's website.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendants shall cause the approved Notice, attached hereto, to be published, in English and Spanish, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution; The Augusta Chronicle; Savannah Morning News; Columbus Ledger Enquirer; The Telegraph (Macon); Albany Herald; The Valdosta Daily Times; and The Daily Citizen (Dalton) once a week for two consecutive weeks, and posted, in English and Spanish, on the Georgia Department of Human Service ("DHS") website at dcfs.dhs.georgia.gov/food-stamps, and posted, in English and Spanish, in the public waiting room of each of DHS's offices at which persons may apply for or seek information about Food Stamps, Medicaid, and cash public assistance, including each county office of Defendant's Division of Children and Family Services. The Notice posted in DHS's offices shall be of comparable size to other notices posted by Defendant. The two, once-per-week consecutive publications shall be made at least twenty-five (25) days prior to the Settlement Hearing. At least (25) days prior to the Settlement Hearing, Defendant shall also mail the Notice, in English and in Spanish, to the organizations identified in "Exhibit A" of the Proposed Consent Order [52-2] requesting that each organization post the Notice in English and Spanish in its public waiting room or any other conspicuous location.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that any member of the Settlement Class may appear at the Settlement Hearing, in person or by counsel. They may, at the Settlement Hearing, object to the Settlement or give reasons why the proposed Settlement should not be approved as fair, reasonable, and adequate. Any member of the Settlement Class may also object to or comment on the Settlement by submitting objections in writing to the Court at the address listed in the Notice. Objections or comments must be post-marked on or before Friday, July 10, 2015.

SO ORDERED.

NOTICE OF PROPOSED SETTLEMENT OF CLASS ACTION CONCERNING THE PROCESSING OF FOOD STAMP APPLICATIONS

This notice gives you information about the proposed settlement of a lawsuit regarding the processing of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as Food Stamp applications.

Background

In 2014, a class action lawsuit was brought alleging that the Georgia Department of Human Services ("DHS") fails to timely provide Food Stamp benefits, incorrectly denies certain applications, and does not provide adequate notice of denials as required by law. The class representatives and DHS have agreed to settle the claims (the "Settlement").

Proposed Settlement

You can see the entire proposed settlement at the web site for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, www.nclej.org. Below is a summary of the basic terms of the settlement.

1. Class. A class was certified consisting of all Georgia residents who, since January 1, 2013, applied, are applying, or will apply for Food Stamps through a completed initial or renewal application and whose applications or renewals were not or will not be timely processed in accordance with the requirements of the Food Stamp Act and its implementing regulations.

2. Timely Processing. DHS will process applications and renewals for Food Stamps and decide eligibility within the time required by law.

3. Interviews. DHS will schedule interviews to ensure eligible households receive Food Stamp benefits within the time required by law

4. Notices. DHS will provide each applicant with notices required by law, including notices of missed interviews, verification requirements, and DHS's obligation to assist in obtaining verification, expiration of the certification period, and notice of the right to a fair hearing.

5. Retroactive Benefit Payments. Subject to the approval of the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), DHS will identify all households who at any time between October 1, 2013, and December 31, 2014, applied for Food Stamps and were denied them, who failed to provide verification or failed to keep an interview, who then reapplied, and were approved within sixty (60) days. DHS will provide a retroactive benefit to such households in an amount equal to two (2) times the average monthly household benefit for the number of persons in the household. Subject to USDA approval, DHS also will identify all households whose Food Stamp benefits were terminated on or after October 1, 2013, and on or before December 31, 2014, for failing to attend an interview, submit a renewal application, or provide verification. DHS will provide a retroactive benefit to such households in an amount equal to one (1) month's average household benefit for the number of persons in the household.

6. Reporting and Training. DHS will provide monthly reports to the plaintiffs' attorneys sufficient to show how long it took to process initial and renewal applications all previous months beginning with the first day of the month after final approval of this settlement. DHS will also, as necessary, train employees to ensure compliance with the Food Stamp Act, its implementing regulations, and the settlement terms.

7. Informal Review Process. DHS will develop a process to allow plaintiffs' counsel to report to DHS those instances in which a Food Stamps application was not processed as required. DHS will investigate the reported failure and report the investigation results to plaintiffs' counsel, within three (3) days.

8. Enforcement. Required improvements in DHS's timely processing of Food Stamp applications will be determined and reported to Plaintiffs' counsel each quarter. Plaintiffs retain the right to return to Court to enforce the settlement if DHS fails to meet the improvement results upon which the parties agreed. Unless otherwise extended by the court, Plaintiffs' right to enforce the settlement ends after DHS achieves and maintains an average monthly processing performance of 96% for six (6) out of seven (7) quarters.

Approval Hearing and Right to Object

On April 15, 2015, the Court entered its order of Preliminary Approval of the Settlement and will conduct a hearing to determine whether to grant final approval of the Settlement. The Court has set a final approval hearing on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. at the following address:

The purpose of the hearing is to consider the fairness of the Settlement proposal and to consider any objections to the settlement. If you want to object to the Settlement you may do so by attending the hearing. You may also object to the Settlement by writing a letter to the Court. The letter must be post-marked by Friday, July 10, 2015. It shall be sent to the Court at the address listed above.

If you have any questions about this notice or the proposed Settlement, you may call the attorneys listed below, who have represented the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.


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