MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.
Plaintiffs Tyrell Jackson, Randall Chapman, and Mable Estes filed this class action asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for declaratory and injunctive relief against Defendant Donald Ash, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Wyandotte County, Kansas. Plaintiffs, individually and respectively on behalf of other inmates or their outside correspondents similarly situated, allege that Defendant's postcard-only mail policy violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Court preliminarily approved the parties' proposed Settlement Agreement and Consent Decree ("the Agreement") (Doc. 43-1). After notice to class members and a fairness hearing, the Court now considers the Agreement for final approval and entry. Because the Court finds that the Agreement is fair, reasonable, and adequate, it adopts and enters the Agreement.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
The parties notified the Court of settlement in October 2014. The following month, they submitted their proposed settlement terms to the Court in the Agreement. The Agreement identifies two settlement classes: (1) the "Inmate Correspondent Class,"
The Court reviewed and preliminarily approved these terms, with instruction to give notice to both settlement classes. Notice included a brief explanation of the lawsuit, a description of the proposed terms of the Agreement, and instruction for objecting. Members of the Inmate Correspondent Class received notice by a posting in each pod and visitation area. Inmates not housed within a dormitory setting received individual notice. Members of the Outside Correspondent Class received notice by publication in the Kansas City Star. Class members were given 60 days to object. The Court received two objections. Following the end of the objection period on February 3, 2015, the Court held a fairness hearing under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e)(2). The Court considered the submitted objections, with argument from the parties.
A. Settlement Approval Factors Support the Agreement
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e) authorizes a court to approve a class action settlement after notice, a hearing, and "on finding that [the settlement] is fair, reasonable, and adequate." Tenth Circuit courts determine whether a proposed settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate by considering:
These inquiries do not require the court to "conduct a foray into the wilderness in search of evidence that might undermine the conclusion that the settlement is fair."
The evidence presented this Court supports adoption of the Agreement. First, the Court is without reason to believe that the parties failed to fairly and honestly negotiate the Agreement's terms. Instead, the record demonstrates that the Agreement represents the cooperative and good faith result of arms'-length negotiation by skilled counsel. Both parties' counsel are familiar with litigating inmates' rights. The parties engaged in a time-consuming discovery process. They exchanged and reviewed hundreds of documents. They aggressively litigated the issue of certification. They also undertook several mediation sessions, spanning two months. Simply put, a review of this litigation demonstrates that the Agreement is the product, not of collusion or other impropriety, but of both parties' deliberate consideration of the action's merits and uncertainties. The Court is convinced that this factor favors approving the Agreement.
Second, the parties appropriately estimate that serious legal and factual uncertainties obscure the ultimate outcome of this action. Both parties possess valid legal arguments and a large body of favorable evidence. As both parties' counsel indicated at the February 3, 2015 fairness hearing, authority does not definitively resolve the constitutionality of Defendant's postcard-only policy. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the Tenth Circuit has directly addressed the issue. Federal district courts also rarely directly address the issue.
Third, perhaps most significantly, the Agreement provides meaningful, immediate recovery to all class members that might otherwise be unrecoverable after a decision on the merits. The Agreement addresses the two core concerns of all class members—privacy and length of correspondence. Plaintiffs allege that the Defendant's postcard-only policy unconstitutionally limits the content and amount of their speech to the material that one can comfortably and legibly disclose on the exposed back of a postcard. Plaintiffs further allege that this policy has so effectively restricted their ability to communicate meaningfully that the policy interferes with their fundamental right to free speech. By permitting envelope correspondence of a single, two-sided page, the Agreement enhances the privacy and length of communications between class members. As such, the Plaintiffs acknowledge—and the Court agrees—that the additional privacy and length represent a substantial gain for the class members. This gain is augmented by the Agreement's qualified prohibition against restricting the content or volume of correspondence, as well as Defendant's undertaking to provide certain correspondence materials to indigent inmates.
Further, the Court finds that immediately securing these gains is worth forgoing the expense and uncertainty of further litigation. "The value of the settlement must be weighed against `the possibility of some greater relief at a later time, taking into consideration the additional risks and costs that go hand in hand with protracted litigation.'"
Fourth, both parties endorse the Agreement as justly resolving Plaintiffs' claim. In addition to saving both parties the expense and efforts of further litigation, the Agreement represents a compromise of both parties' interests. As discussed, the Agreement reforms the detention center's mail policy to accommodate class members' demands for more private and lengthy correspondence. But the Agreement also advances the detention center's security interests. The Agreement restricts envelope correspondence to a single page. Otherwise Defendant insists that the detention center cannot adequately screen the high volumes of mail for contraband and content without diverting necessary resources from more essential duties. By limiting additional resource demand, the one-page limit allegedly enables the detention center to satisfy its remaining safety obligations. The parties genuinely believe that these compromises confer fair and reasonable benefits to both parties that might be lost in the absence of settlement. Because the Court agrees, the fourth factor also supports the Agreement.
B. Objections by Class Members Overruled
Finding that the evidence presented supports approval of the settlement, the Court now considers whether filed objections otherwise require disapproval. The Court received only two written objections, both from the Inmate Correspondent Class.
It is not this Court's duty to resolve the precise constitutional issue raised by these objections.
C. The Agreement Complies with the Prison Litigation Reform Act
The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that prior to approving a class settlement in a prison conditions case the court must find that the proposed relief "is narrowly drawn."
Whereas the following four cases indicate that postcard-only mail policies may violate the First Amendment: Cox v. Denning, 2014 WL 4843951 (D. Kan. Sept. 29, 2014); Prison Legal News v. County of Ventura, 2014 WL 2736103 (C.D. Cal. June 16, 2014); American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan v. Livingston County, 23 F.Supp.3d 834 (E.D. Mich. 2014); and Prison Legal News v. Columbia County, 942 F.Supp.2d 1068 (D. Or. 2013).
These objections exceed the scope of Plaintiffs' action. They do not relate specifically to the postcard-only policy's effect on class members' free expression. They seek damages and other relief beyond the nominal and equitable relief that Plaintiffs' request. The Court is unaware of any precise constitutional harm caused by the criticized circumstances. But, more importantly, the proposed settlement does address and thus does not bar objectors from independently bringing these claims. Accordingly, the Court overrules these objections.