RULING ON JOINT MOTION FOR FINAL APPROVAL OF SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT AND ORDER
HOLLY B. FITZSIMMONS, Magistrate Judge.
Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e), the parties, including the plaintiff classes of women who are or who in the future will be confined in Connecticut's correctional institution for women and the plaintiff class of children of these women (hereinafter "plaintiffs") and the Defendant Commissioner of the Department of Correction ("DOC"), jointly move for the final approval of the Stipulation preliminarily approved by the Court on July 5, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the parties' Joint Motion for Final Approval of Settlement Agreement
The 1989 Consent Decree
This action was filed in 1983 as a class action pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23. A consent decree, entered on October 13, 1988, and approved by the Court on January 9, 1989, included a provision on page 66, Section IX, paragraph 2 stating in part: "Defendants shall provide for a full-time attorney to represent CCIN inmates in family matters, such as divorces, child custody, DCYS proceedings, and other civil matters. This attorney shall be present at CCIN at least one day or its equivalent per week." [Doc. #175 at 66, §IX, ¶2].
Motion to Terminate
On March 31, 2017, Defendant Commissioner of Correction filed a Motion to Terminate Prospective Injunctive Relief [Doc. #491], seeking to terminate Section IX, paragraph 2 of the 1989 consent decree, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. §3626(b)(2).
On June 30, 2017, the parties entered into a private settlement agreement whereby plaintiffs agreed not to oppose defendant's pending motion to terminate and defendant agreed to certain steps to make family law information available to DOC inmates, through family law seminars and access to CTLawhelp.org materials. [Doc. #538 ¶3(a); Doc. #520-1 ¶(1)]. "As consideration for the plaintiffs' relinquishment of their rights to oppose the motion, the defendant shall, as set forth in this Agreement, arrange for provision on a gender neutral basis of civil legal assistance to  inmates incarcerated in correctional institutions...."
Counsel for the parties jointly moved the Court, pursuant to Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for preliminary approval of the proposed Stipulation, for a hearing, and for authorization of notice of the hearing to be provided to members of the plaintiff class on June 30, 2017. [Doc. #520].
On July 5, 2017, the Court preliminarily approved the proposed Stipulation and set a hearing pursuant to Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for the purpose of determining whether the proposed Stipulation is fair, reasonable, and adequate. Notice of Proposed Settlement of Class Action Regarding Court Access in Family Matters was issued to the plaintiff class. A fairness hearing was held on August 2, 2017, which offered any objector an opportunity to be heard. [Doc. ##523, 524, 525, 538].
The Consent Judgment, approved and adopted on January 9, 1989, identifies the plaintiff class as follows,
[Doc. #175 §I ("General Provisions"), ¶1]. Section I, paragraph 7(d) further states "`Inmate' shall mean the plaintiff class comprised of women who are or in the future will be confined in the Connecticut Correctional institution at Niantic whether in pretrial or sentenced status."
APPROVAL OF THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
The Court hereby grants the Motion for Final Approval in accordance with the terms set forth in the Settlement Agreement.
Rule 23(e) requires court approval for a class action settlement to insure that it is procedurally and substantively "fair, reasonable and adequate." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e). Approval of a settlement under Rule 23 will only be disturbed upon a "clear showing" of abuse of discretion.
To determine procedural fairness, courts examine the "negotiating process leading to the settlement."
To determine substantive fairness, courts consider the nine factors set forth in
495 F.2d 448, 463 (2d Cir. 1974), (citations omitted),
Procedural Fairness: The Negotiation Process
"A court reviewing a proposed settlement must pay close attention to the negotiating process, to ensure that the settlement resulted from `arm's-length negotiations and that plaintiffs' counsel have possessed the experience and ability, and have engaged in the discovery, necessary to effective representation of the class's interests."
This Court is familiar with the history of this case, with counsel and the legal entities that represent the Plaintiff Classes.
With respect to the parties' request to approve the Settlement Agreement, the Court finds that the interests of the Plaintiff Classes have been well represented by skilled and experienced counsel who effectively represented the classes' interests. Counsel for the Plaintiff Class of children represented that "[t]he parties engaged in lengthy negotiations, involving several in-person meetings and phone conferences, and including the Defendant's current contract attorneys who provide legal assistance to inmates in family matters." [Doc. #538-1 Cochran Decl. ¶6]. As set forth at the hearing, the Assistant Attorney General represented that informal discovery was conducted to ascertain the cost of providing legal services to all inmates of both genders. The parties agreed that the cost factor was prohibitive and a financial impossibility during the current state budgetary crisis. Counsel for defendant represented that this compromise will not cost the state additional money and, by reallocating the funds, these services are now available to inmates of both genders. The parties represent and the Court finds that "[t]his settlement agreement, a private settlement agreement with the meaning of 18 U.S.C. §3626(c)(2), is the product of these negotiations."
At the fairness hearing, counsel from Inmate Legal Services reported that they have held three to four well-received workshops on family issues at York CI, the women's facility which replaced Niantic. In June, two attorneys from ILAP held their first workshop at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, a facility that houses male inmates. Approximately forty-two inmates attended this seminar, which lasted about two hours. Each inmate was provided with an information packet containing forms, and judicial self-help booklets were made available. The first hour consisted of a presentation by counsel on family issues including divorce, custody and visitation, followed by a question and answer period when inmates asked questions at a microphone and the attorneys responded to the whole group. As per the proposed Settlement Agreement, similar workshops will be held at "each DOC facility once each year for such trainings and seminars." [Doc. #520, Settl. Agree. (1)(a)]. Moreover, no inmate is precluded from accessing and using the services offered to
The agreement to resolve the defendant's Motion to Terminate Prospective Injunctive Relief was reached after informal discovery through arms-length negotiations conducted by experienced counsel, knowledgeable of the issues and interests of the Plaintiff Classes.
The Court finds that adequate notice was provided to the Plaintiff Classes. Pursuant to the Court's July 5, 2017 Order, the following steps were taken to disseminate the Notice to the plaintiff classes by Greater Hartford Legal Aid, Department of Correction, York Correctional Institution, and the Department of Family Services.
Counsel for the plaintiff class of children, Attorney Cochrane of Greater Hartford Legal Aid, averred that
[Doc. #538-1, Cochran Decl. ¶¶3(a)-(c), 4].
Attorney Nicole Anker for the Department of Corrections averred that she "caused copies of the Class Notice, in English and Spanish, as well as a copy of the Stipulation, to be posted prominently on the Department of Correction (DOC) website."
Warden Antonio Santiago, York Correctional Institution ("York CI"), averred that he arranged for the Class Notice, in English and Spanish, to be posted in common areas of the inmate housing units and in the visiting room of York CI for no less than 15 days until the date of the fairness hearing by this Court.
Similarly, Attorney Barbara Claire of the Department of Children and Families ("DCF") averred that the Class Notice, in English and Spanish, was posted in the DCF offices.
Accordingly, the Court finds that adequate notice was provided to the Plaintiff Classes pursuant to the Court's July 5, 2017 Order.
As a preliminary matter, not all the
Complexity, Expense and Likely Duration of the Litigation
Soon after defendants filed their Motion to Terminate the parties began discussions to resolve by agreement the termination of Section IX, paragraph 2 of the 1989 Consent Decree.
The parties believe, and the Court finds, "that resolution of this matter through negotiation, rather than through further lengthy and expensive adversarial litigation is in the best interests of both the Defendant and Plaintiff classes."
Reaction of the Class to the Settlement Agreement
Inmate James Harnage participated in the fairness hearing by phone. The parties opposed Harnage's Motion to Intervene on the grounds that he does not have standing as a class member. As pointed out by counsel for the Plaintiff Class of female inmates, Mr. Harnage is neither female or transitioning to become a female. Moreover, Mr. Harnage is currently litigating an equal protection challenge to Section IX, Paragraph 2 of the 1989 Consent Judgment in at least three separate actions.
The Court finds that the Plaintiff Class implicitly approved the parties' Settlement Agreement as they filed no objections to the settlement and this weighs in favor of settlement approval. The Court also notes that the parties carefully considered Mr. Harnage's proposed amendments and objections in fashioning their agreement.
The Settlement was Fair, Reasonable and Adequate
For the reasons set forth above, the Court finds that the parties have worked out a meaningful agreement for defendant to contract/arrange for attorneys or paralegals to conduct trainings and seminars on legal proceedings and remedies in civil family court, and facilitate access to legal self-help materials and forms on CTLawhelp.org that will benefit all inmates regardless of gender.
Accordingly, the Court approves the parties' Settlement Agreement.
ORDER OF FINAL APPROVAL OF PRIVATE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
The parties' proposed Settlement Agreement having been preliminarily approved by this Court on July 5, 2017 [Doc. #523]; adequate notice having been made to the class members; and the parties having appeared through counsel at a fairness hearing pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e) on August 2, 2017, this Court hereby finds that the settlement in the above-captioned matter is fair, reasonable and adequate.
The parties agree that the word "indigent" is to be stricken from paragraph 1 of the Stipulation. Accordingly, the Settlement Agreement is APPROVED under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, provided that the parties conform their agreement to this Order of Final Approval by removing the word "indigent" from paragraph 1.
Accordingly, the parties' Joint Motion for Final Approval of Settlement Agreement
This is not a Recommended Ruling. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge with appeal to the Court of Appeals on the record during the hearing on August 2, 2017, for a ruling on the Joint Motion for Final Approval of Settlement Agreement and entry of related orders. Fed. R. Civ. P. 73(b)-(c).