Munoz v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (Greenwell, objector) provides much-needed words of restraint concerning Kullar

Since Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc., 168 Cal. App. 4th 116 (2008) (Kullar) and Clark v. American Residential Services LLC, 175 Cal. App. 4th 785 (2009) (Clark) were decided, trial courts and settling parties in class actions have been looking over their shoulder at every settlement, concerned about the amount of information necessary to meet the Kullar/Clark standard for adequate settlement review.  For example, the Los Angeles Superior Court appears to be utilizing some form of checklist derived, in part, from Kullar to analyze proposed class action settlements.  Fortunately, in Munoz v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (ord. pub. July 2, 2010) (Greenwell, objector), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight) explains that much of the angst over Kullar/Clark is overblown because their requirements have been overstated and/or misconstrued.

Plaintiffs in Munoz filed a class action lawsuit against BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (BCI), alleging unpaid overtime wages, missed meal and rest period wages, and other Labor Code violations and unfair business practices. The proposed class consisted of production supervisors and merchandising supervisors who were allegedly misclassified as exempt.  After mediation, the parties agreed to settle the matter for $1.1 million. Notice of the proposed settlement elicited one objection. Two of the 188 class members opted out.  The average net payment to each class member would be about $4,300. The trial court found the settlement fair and reasonable. The objector, Greenwell, appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in approving the settlement, principally because the parties did not provide the court with the information necessary to make a finding that the settlement was reasonable and fair.

The Court of Appeal summarized the obligation of a trial court evaluating a class action settlement:

Some cases state that a presumption of fairness exists “where: (1) the settlement is reached through arm's-length bargaining; (2) investigation and discovery are sufficient to allow counsel and the court to act intelligently; (3) counsel is experienced in similar litigation; and (4) the percentage of objectors is small.” (Dunk, supra, 48 Cal.App.4th at p. 1802.) Kullar emphasizes that this is only an initial presumption; a trial court's approval of a class action settlement will be vacated if the court “is not provided with basic information about the nature and magnitude of the claims in question and the basis for concluding that the consideration being paid for the release of those claims represents a reasonable compromise.” (Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at pp. 130, 133.) In short, the trial court may not determine the adequacy of a class action settlement “without independently satisfying itself that the consideration being received for the release of the class members' claims is reasonable in light of the strengths and weaknesses of the claims and the risks of the particular litigation.” (Id. at p. 129.)

Slip op., at 10.  However, after explaining that the objector complained "that the record before the trial court contained no evidence of 'the potential value of the claims,'" the Court went on to explain that Kullar is misunderstood:

Greenwell misunderstands Kullar, apparently interpreting it to require the record in all cases to contain evidence in the form of an explicit statement of the maximum amount the plaintiff class could recover if it prevailed on all its claims--a number which appears nowhere in the record of this case. But Kullar does not, as Greenwell claims, require any such explicit statement of value; it requires a record which allows “an understanding of the amount that is in controversy and the realistic range of outcomes of the litigation.”

Slip op., at 11.  Continuing, the Court noted, "Indeed, the standard list of factors a trial court should consider in determining whether a settlement is fair and reasonable does not expressly include specification of the maximum amount of recoverable damages (see Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at p. 128), and Kullar is clear that the most important factor '"'is the strength of the case for plaintiffs on the merits, balanced against the amount offered in settlement.'"' (Id. at p. 130.)"  Slip op., at 11, n. 6.

The Court itemized the information available to the trial court in the case before it:

The information before the court included the size of the class (188) and the payroll data on all class members during the class period (including total amounts of salaries paid during the class period). It also included declarations from 30 class members (15 percent of the class) indicating the number of hours worked per week and per day (and the significant differences in those numbers): e.g., 70 hours per week, 48 hours per week, 60 hours per week, 42-44 hours per week, 55 hours per week, “no more than 50 hours per week,” 45 hours per week in winter and 50-60 hours per week at other times of the year, eight to nine hours per day, 45 hours per week, and so on. These declarations also showed significant variations....

Slip op., at 11.  In other words, the trial court had more than enough information to evaluate the "strength of the case" and compare that to the amount offered in settlement.

As an additional measure of assistance, the Court highlighted the facts from Kullar and Clark that undermined those settlements:

As a final observation on this topic, we note that the evidentiary records in Kullar and Clark, upon which Greenwell relies so heavily, are significantly different from this case. In Kullar (which did not involve the misclassification of exempt employees), there was no discovery at all on meal period claims that were added in an amended complaint and were the focal point of the objections to the settlement. (Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at pp. 121-122.) While Kullar class counsel argued that the relevant information had been exchanged informally and during mediation (id. at p. 126), nothing was presented to the court--no discovery, no declarations, no time records, no payroll data, nothing (id. at pp. 128-129, 132)--to allow the court to evaluate the claim. And in Clark, the problem was that the trial court was not given sufficient information on a core legal issue affecting the strength of the plaintiffs' case on the merits, and therefore could not assess the reasonableness of the settlement terms. (Clark, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 798.) The record in this case contains neither of the flaws that doomed the Kullar and Clark settlements.

Slip op, at 13.

Munoz v. BCI clearly holds that there is no obligation on parties seeking approval of a class action settlement to state a specific sum that would represent the maximum possible recovery if the class prevailed on all theories.  Rather, the Court must have information that permits it to evaluate the strength of the claims compared to the amount offered in settlement.  This showing ought to be satisfied by a discussion of the specific risk factors associated with the various theories, along with data about such things as the size of the class.  In other words, if a trial court can roughly approximate the magnitude of the claims and the likelihood of recovery, it can fashion the necessary metric.

In addressing other arguments, the Court rejected a challenge to the $5,000 incentive awards approved by the trial court.