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Adams v. Sentinel Offender Services, LLC

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

May 10, 2018

STACEY ADAMS and JERRY SAINT VIL, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
SENTINEL OFFENDER SERVICES, LLC; MARK CONTESTABILE, Chief Business Development Officer, Sentinel Offender Services, LLC; TIM LEWIS, Vice President of Georgia Services, Sentinel Offender Services, LLC; and STEVE QUEEN, Director of Services, Sentinel Offender Services, LLC; Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM S. DUFFEY, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Motion for Conditional Certification of Settlement Class [21] (“Original Joint Motion”) and the parties' First Amended Joint Motion for Conditional Certification of Settlement Class [25] (“Amended Joint Motion”).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Nature of the Action[1]

         This is a class action brought by two named representatives, Stacey Adams and Jerry Saint Vil (the “Plaintiffs”) on their behalf and on behalf of a class of similarly situated people, against Defendant Sentinel Offender Services, LLC (“Sentinel”), and individuals employed by Sentinel. Sentinel provides probation supervision services in non-felony probation cases for courts throughout the State of Georgia. From 2006 to 2017, Sentinel had a contract with the City of Atlanta, Georgia, to provide probation services for probationers sentenced by the Municipal Court of Atlanta, including general probation supervision, fine collection services, counseling, and other probation services. Defendants Mark Contestabile, Tim Lewis and Steve Queen were at various relevant times employed by Sentinel with managerial responsibilities related to the administration of the probation services provided by Sentinel to the Municipal Court of Atlanta.

         The Amended Complaint [5] alleges that Defendants illegally collected excessive or unauthorized fees that were not ordered by any court, permitted by statute, or authorized by Sentinel's contract with the Municipal Court of Atlanta. Plaintiffs specifically allege that fees collected by Defendants in certain instances violated O.C.G.A. § 42-8-103(b). As of July 1, 2015, that statute provided:

“When pay-only probation is imposed, the probation supervision fees shall be capped so as not to exceed three months of ordinary probation supervision fees notwithstanding the number of cases for which a fine and statutory surcharge were imposed or that the defendant was sentenced to serve consecutive sentences . . . .”

O.C.G.A. § 42-8-103(b).

         Pay-only probationers sentenced in the Municipal Court of Atlanta were generally required to pay Sentinel a fee of $20 during the first month of Sentinel's services. In the event a pay-only probationer paid off their fines within the first 30 days of probation, Sentinel would not charge additional fees for services. In the event a pay-only probationer did not pay off fines within the first 30 days of probation, Sentinel would charge the probationer $27 for supervision fees up to an additional three (3) times.

         Plaintiff Stacey Adams was sentenced by the Municipal Court of Atlanta in July 2015 to pay a fine and fees totaling $215.25. Plaintiff Adams did not pay her fine and fees at the time of her sentencing and was sentenced to pay-only probation. Plaintiff Adams was charged by Sentinel a $20 “enrollment” fee in the first month of her probation and three (3) supervision fees each in the amount of $27.

         Plaintiff Jerry Saint Vil was sentenced for traffic violations by the Municipal Court of Atlanta on three (3) occasions. On each occasion, Plaintiff Saint Vil did not pay his fines and fees at the time of his sentencing and was sentenced to pay- only probation. For the first sentence, Plaintiff Saint Vil was charged a $20 enrollment fee. For the second sentence, Plaintiff Saint Vil was charged three (3) supervision fees of $27 each. For the third sentence, Plaintiff Saint Vil was charged a $20 enrollment fee in the first month of his probation and two (2) supervision fees of $27 in each of the following months.

         Plaintiffs filed suit against Defendants on July 31, 2017. In their amended complaint, Plaintiffs assert claims under the United States Constitution and the laws of the State of Georgia. Plaintiffs seek equitable relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney's fees. Plaintiffs also seek to certify a class consisting of “all persons who (1) were sentenced by the Atlanta Municipal Court to pay-only probation under the supervision of Sentinel Offender Services after July 25, 2013; (2) were unable to pay off their court-ordered fines within 30 days of having been sentenced; and (3) were nevertheless required to pay a $20 ‘enrollment fee.'” ([25.1] at 5).

         Defendants contend that all fees charged were authorized by Sentinel's contract with the City of Atlanta, were not in excess of any statutorily imposed restrictions and were specifically authorized by the orders sentencing pay-only probationers. Defendants further contend that the relevant portion of the statute at issue, O.C.G.A. § 42-8-103(b), became effective on July 1, 2015, and that claims for alleged unauthorized fees charged for sentences before July 15, 2015, should be excluded from this action.

         B. The Proposed Settlement

         On November 30, 2017, the parties attended a mediation session. During the mediation, the parties agreed to a framework by which the claims asserted in this case could be resolved. The parties used this framework to structure a settlement agreement attached to the Original Joint Motion as Exhibit A. ([21.1] at 33-61).

         The Court reviewed the proposed settlement agreement and scheduled a teleconference with the parties to discuss its terms. During the teleconference, the Court expressed concerns regarding the creation and funding of the settlement fund and the stipulation of attorney's fees as provided in the settlement agreement. ([24]).

         In response, the parties filed an Amended Joint Motion [25] and attached a revised settlement agreement as Exhibit A (“the Settlement Agreement”). ([25.1] at 33-63). The Settlement Agreement requires the parties to move the Court to certify a class of persons (“the Class”) consisting of each individual who meets the following requirements: (1) the person was sentenced to “pay only” probation as defined by O.C.G.A. § 42-8-103 by the Municipal Court of Atlanta, Georgia on or after July 1, 2015; and (2) the person was subsequently charged and paid to Defendant Sentinel Offender Services, LLC at least one enrollment or administrative fee of $20 and supervision fees of at least $81 for a single sentencing event (defined as a single sentencing order whether said order references multiple cases or imposes consecutive sentences). ([25.1] at 34 ¶ 2). The parties believe, based on a review of documents and files by Plaintiffs, Defendants, and their attorneys, that the Class will consist of no more than 2352 potential members. The Settlement Agreement provides that each member of the Class will be notified of the terms of the Settlement Agreement and his or her right to opt out of the Class. ([25.1 at 46-59 (“Notice of Class Action, Proposed Settlement and Final Approval/Fairness Hearing”); [25.1] at 60-63 (“Response Form”)).

         The Settlement Agreement further provides that Defendants will make available a “Class Fund” to reimburse and compensate all Class Members who timely submit claim forms. Each member of the Class who completes and submits a claim form within the designated time period is presumptively entitled to receive: (1) a refund of $23 for fees previously paid by the Class Member to Defendant Sentinel (“the Restitution Amount”); and (2) additional damages of $30 per Class Member (“the Damages Amount”). The Settlement Agreement states that Defendants shall pay 50% of the potential Total Damages Amount plus the anticipated compensation/settlement amounts of $5, 000.00 to each of the representative Plaintiffs ($53.00 x 2352 potential Class Members = $124, 656.00 x 50% = $62, 328.00 $10, 000.00 = $72, 328.00) to attorneys for the Class within 23 days of the Court's preliminary approval of the settlement to be deposited in a trust account pending final approval and distribution. ([25.1] at 39-40). This amount will be treated as a deposit or credit towards the Total Damages Amount and anticipated settlements with the representative plaintiffs, but will not increase or decrease the final calculation of the Total Damages Amount to be calculated as set forth above. To address a concern raised by the Court regarding Defendants' ability to fund 100% of the potential Total Damages Amount, the Settlement Agreement states Defendants have provided Plaintiffs evidence of Defendant Sentinel Offender Services, LLC's creditworthiness and represent to the Court that said Defendant is financially capable of funding up to the potential Total Damages Amount. (Id.)

         The Settlement Agreement also states that:

. Defendants will pay Plaintiffs' counsel's attorney fees and costs in the amount of $30, 000, subject to approval by the Court;
. Plaintiffs' counsel will be responsible for the administration of the settlement with respect to mutually agreeable notification to the potential class members and distribution of settlement checks to properly responding Class Members;
. Defendant Sentinel will reimburse Plaintiffs' counsel for up to $8, 000 of the actual expenses (publication, postage and copying) of the administration of the settlement within 30 days of receipt of documentation of the expenses incurred; and
. The individual claims of Plaintiffs Adams and Saint Vil will be resolved by each receiving $5, 000 as payment for their services as class representatives and for the resolution all claims asserted or which could be asserted in this lawsuit.

         As required by Local Rule 23.1(C)(2), the parties have conferred and agree that Plaintiffs' attorneys may contact class members as set forth in the Settlement Agreement.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Amended Joint Motion requests the Court to certify a class for settlement purposes, appoint class counsel, preliminarily approve the proposed Settlement Agreement, direct that notice shall be issued to the class, and schedule a final fairness hearing.

         A. Conditional Certification of Settlement Class

         The parties move for certification of the following class for the purposes of settling this action:

Individuals who meet the following criteria: (1) the person was sentenced to “pay only” probation as defined by O.C.G.A. § 42-8-103 by the Municipal Court of Atlanta, Georgia on or after July 1, 2015; and (2) the person was subsequently charged and paid to Defendant Sentinel Offender Services, LLC at least one enrollment fee of $20 and subsequent supervision fees of at least $81 for a single sentencing event (defined as a single sentencing order whether said order references multiple cases or imposes consecutive sentences).

([25.1] at 5-6). A plaintiff seeking to certify a settlement class must first satisfy the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a), and at least one of the requirements of Rule 23(b). See Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)-(b); Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 621 (1997) (Rule 23(e), which provides for settlement of a class action, “was designed to function as an additional requirement, not a superseding direction, for the ‘class action' to which Rule 23(e) refers is one qualified for certification under Rule 23(a) and (b).”).

         1. Rule 23(a)

         Rule ...


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