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Cochran v. Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

September 18, 2017

CHERRI BECKHART et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS BOARD OF EDUCATION et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Greg N. Stivers, Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion to Certify Class and Appoint Class Counsel (DN 57), and Plaintiffs' Motion for Oral Argument (DN 76). The motions are ripe for decision. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiffs' Motion to Certify Class and Appoint Class Counsel is GRANTED, and Plaintiffs' Motion for Oral Argument is DENIED.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND CLAIMS

         Effective June 25, 2012, the Jefferson County Board of Education and the Jefferson County Association of Educational Support Personnel American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on behalf of Local 4011 entered into a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). (Verified Compl. Ex. A, DN 1-2). Under the CBA, Defendants American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (“AFSCME”), AFSCME Indiana-Kentucky Organizing Committee 962 (“Council 962”), and Jefferson County Association of Educational Support Personnel, AFSCME, Local 4011 (“Local 4011”) can collect a “fair share fee” from non-members employed in the Jefferson County Public Schools (“JCPS”). (Verified Compl. Ex. A, at 7-8).

         In 2014 and 2015, Council 962 provided written notice to all fair share fee payers as required by the CBA. (Verified Compl. Exs. A-B, DN 1-3 to 1-4). On September 23, 2015, Plaintiffs-who are fair-share-paying non-members of the union-filed this action on behalf of themselves and others alleging the CBA and its enforcement are violations of their rights to free speech and association protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments which give rise to claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Verified Compl. ¶¶ 72-92).

         Plaintiffs have moved to certify a class of plaintiffs and for appointment of class counsel, which Defendants emphatically oppose. (Pls.' Mot. Class Certification & Appointment Class Counsel, DN 57; Defs.' Resp. Pls.' Mot. Class Certification & Appointment Class Counsel, DN 69). Plaintiffs also request oral argument on the motion. (Pls.' Mot. Oral Argument, DN 76).

         II. JURISDICTION

         This Court has subject-matter jurisdiction of this matter based upon federal question jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to Certify Class & for Appointment of Class Counsel

         As outlined in the First Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs have defined the class as follows:

The class consists of all union nonmember employees who, at any time since September 23, 2014 (and while this action is pending), are or were employed in the Job Family 1A job classification and salary schedule for Jefferson County Public Schools and are, were or will be required to pay a compulsory fee to Defendants Local 4011, Council 962, and/or AFSCME pursuant to a compulsory unionism agreement between the Unions and the Board.

(1st Am. Compl. ¶ 13). In determining whether to certify the proposed class, the Court must consider whether Plaintiffs have satisfied the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a) and (b).

         1. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)

         While this Court has broad discretion in certifying a class action, “it must exercise that discretion within the framework of Rule 23.” Coleman v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 296 F.3d 443, 446 (6th Cir. 2002) (citing Cross v. Nat'l Tr. Life Ins. Co., 553 F.2d 1026, 1029 (6th Cir. 1977)). In relevant part, Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a) sets forth the prerequisites for certifying a class and provides:

One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all members only if:
(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable;
(2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class;
(3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and
(4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

         Thus, as the moving party, Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof to “satisfy Rule 23(a)'s requirements of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation.” In re Am. Med. Sys., Inc., 75 F.3d 1069, 1079 (6th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted); Coleman, 296 F.3d at 446 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)). This Court may not certify a class unless all four requirements are met, and Plaintiffs “must demonstrate that the class fits under one of the three subdivisions of Rule 23(b).” Coleman, 296 F.3d at 446.

         a. Numerosity

         The numerosity requirement mandates that a class be “so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable . . . .” The Sixth Circuit has held that “[t]here is no strict numerical test for determining impracticability of joinder.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)(1); In re Am. Med. Sys., Inc., 75 F.3d at 1079 (citation omitted). Rather, “[t]he numerosity requirement requires examination of the specific facts of each case and imposes no absolute limitations.” Gen. Tel. Co. of Nw., Inc. v. EEOC, 446 U.S. 318, 330 (1980). The “sheer number of potential litigants in a class, especially if it is more than several hundred, can be the only factor needed to satisfy Rule 23(a)(1).” Bacon v. Honda of Am. Mfg., Inc., 370 F.3d 565, 570 (6th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). The Court may also consider the following factors in determining numerosity:

(1) judicial economy arising from the avoidance of a multiplicity of actions; (2) the geographic dispersion of class members; (3) the financial resources of class members; (4) the ability of claimants to institute individual lawsuits; (5) the amount of each member's individual claim; (6) knowledge of the names and existence of the potential class members; and (7) whether potential class members have already joined other actions.

Powell v. Tosh, 280 F.R.D. 296, 303 (W.D. Ky. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Primavera Familienstiftung v. Askin, 178 F.R.D. 405, 410 (S.D.N.Y. 1998)).

         In their motion, Plaintiffs estimate that the proposed class includes approximately 900 non-members, and Defendants have previously admitted that “the number of persons in the class exceeds 700 persons for the 2014-15 and subsequent school years.” (Pls.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Class Certification & Appointment Class Counsel 9; Defs.' Answer ¶ 14, DN 55). Thus, the likely size of the proposed class would satisfy the numerosity requirement. See Bacon, 370 F.3d at 570.

         The geographical dispersion of the potential class members, however, weighs against numerosity. All of JCPS employees likely live in the area. (Pls.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Class Certification & Appointment Class Counsel 10). Thus, the close proximity of the potential class members would make joinder practical.

         The financial resources factor weighs in favor of numerosity. As this Court has noted:

One of the basic reasons for promulgating Rule 23 was to provide small claimants with a method of obtaining redress for claims which would otherwise be too small to warrant individual litigation. Therefore, when the size of each claim is significant, and each proposed class member therefore possesses the ability to assert an individual claim, the goal of obtaining redress can be accomplished without the use of the class action device.

Powell, 280 F.R.D. at 304 (internal quotation marks omitted) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Primavera Familienstiftung, 178 F.R.D. at 411). The record developed thus far reflects that the “fair share” fees at issue per relevant fee year are as follows: $79 (September through December 2014); $239 (2015), and $212 (2016). (1st Am. Compl. Ex. D; Cochran Decl. ¶ 7, DN 57-2; Diemer Decl. ¶ 7, DN 57-3; Shina Decl. ¶ 7, DN 57-4; Thomas Decl. ¶ 7, DN 57-5; Thomas Decl. Ex. 1, 57-6). Due to the relatively small amount potentially owed to each class member, it would likely be cost-prohibitive for each member to pursue the claims individually.

         In addition, it would appear to be relatively straightforward to identify the names and existence of the class members. This information should be readily available in Defendants' records. Thus, this factor would weigh against finding that the numerosity requirement has been met. See Powell, 280 F.R.D. at 304.

         Finally, allowing these claims to proceed together as a class would be beneficial to judicial economy. Having more than 700 separate lawsuits involving the same issues and facts would be extremely inefficient, which supports allowing this matter to proceed with the proposed class.

         After considering all of the factors, the Court concludes that the class of putative plaintiffs would meet the numerosity requirement of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a). While the proposed class members are in close geographical proximity, the sheer number of potential class members would make joinder impractical.

         b. Commonality

         Plaintiffs must also satisfy the commonality requirement, which requires that “there [be] questions of law or fact common to the class . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)(2). In general, this requirement may be satisfied if there is a “single issue common to all members of the class.” In re Am. Med. Sys., 75 F.3d at 1080 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citation omitted). As the Supreme Court has stated, “[c]ommonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members ‘have suffered the same injury . . . .'” Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 349-50 (2011) (quoting Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 157 (1982)). As this Court has stated:

The claims of the class members must depend upon a common contention; additionally, that common contention “must be of such a nature that it is capable of class[-]wide resolution-which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.”

Powell, 280 F.R.D. at 305 (alteration in original) (quoting Dukes, 564 U.S. ...


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