Trial courts must determine the fairness of a class action settlement agreement based upon admissible evidence presented to the court during the approval process. Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc. (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 116.
Objector Crystal Echeverria and two other objectors appeal from a judgment approving the terms of a settlement agreement entered in this class action against defendant Foot Locker Retail, Inc. (Foot Locker). They contend the trial court erred in finding the terms of the settlement to be fair, reasonable and adequate without any evidence of the amount to which class members would be entitled if they prevailed in the litigation, and without any basis to evaluate the reasonableness of the agreed recovery. The settlement was reached in arms-length negotiations between competent counsel with the assistance of an experienced mediator and may well, in fact, be entirely reasonable in view of the strength of the claims and defenses and the cost and risks of further litigation. Nonetheless, we agree with objectors that the court bears the ultimate responsibility to ensure the reasonableness of the settlement terms. Although many factors must be considered in making this determination, and the court is not required to decide the ultimate merits of the class members’ claims before approving a proposed settlement, an informed evaluation cannot be made without an understanding of the amount that is in controversy and the realistic range of outcomes of the litigation. It is possible that the data necessary to make such an evaluation in this case was given to the trial court during informal discussions with counsel, but no such information appears in the record. Therefore, we must vacate the order approving the settlement and remand the matter to permit the trial court to reconsider the fairness and adequacy of the settlement in light of such additional information as the parties may present concerning the value of the class members’ claims should they prevail in the litigation and the likelihood of their so prevailing.
The approval was reversed on appeal because the trial court and the objectors were not given sufficient information with which to evaluate the fairness of the settlement.
More fundamentally, neither Dunk, 7-Eleven, nor any other case suggests that the court may 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. The court undoubtedly should give considerable weight to the competency and integrity of counsel and the involvement of a neutral mediator in assuring itself that a settlement agreement represents an arm’s length transaction entered without self-dealing or other potential misconduct. While an agreement reached under these circumstances presumably will be fair to all concerned, particularly when few of the affected class members express objections, in the final analysis it is the court that bears the responsibility to ensure that the recovery represents a reasonable compromise, given the magnitude and apparent merit of the claims being released, discounted by the risks and expenses of attempting to establish and collect on those claims by pursuing the litigation. “The court has a fiduciary responsibility as guardians of the rights of the absentee class members when deciding whether to approve a settlement agreement.” (4 Newberg on Class Actions, supra, § 11.41 at p. 118; 7-Eleven, supra, 85 Cal.App.4th at p. 1151.) “The courts are supposed to be the guardians of the class.” (Dickerson, Class Actions: The Law of 50 States (2008 ed.) § 9.02, p. 9-6.)
On remand, the settling parties shall have the opportunity to supplement their showing in support of the settlement; the objectors will be permitted to renew their discovery requests, "which should not be denied simply because the requested information was disclosed during the mediation leading to the proposed settlement." The trial court will limit discovery in view of the context in which it is being requested, namely, to provide sufficient information to permit an intelligent evaluation of the terms on which the case is proposed to be settled. "The objecting parties should not be permitted to frustrate the mutual interest of the class members and the defendant to resolve the litigation promptly by conducting extended or unnecessary discovery." Thereafter, the trial court shall redetermine whether the proposed settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable.
The court may and undoubtedly should continue to place reliance on the competence and integrity of counsel, the involvement of a qualified mediator, and the paucity of objectors to the settlement. But the court must also receive and consider enough information about the nature and magnitude of the claims being settled, as well as the impediments to recovery, to make an independent assessment of the reasonableness of the terms to which the parties have agreed. We do not suggest that the court should attempt to decide the merits of the case or to substitute its evaluation of the most appropriate settlement for that of the attorneys. However, as the court does when it approves a settlement as in good faith under Code of Civil Procedure section 877.6, the court must at least satisfy itself that the class settlement is within the “ballpark” of reasonableness. (See Tech-Bilt, Inc. v. Woodward-Clyde & Associates (1985) 38 Cal.3d 488, 499-500.)
By remanding we do not suggest that the proposed settlement ultimately may not pass muster. We hold only that the trial court may not finally approve the settlement agreement until provided with sufficient information to assure itself that the terms of the agreement are indeed fair, adequate and reasonable.
We've seen Superior Court judges compare the "good faith settlement" standards under Tech-Bilt with the fairness analysis under Dunk v. Ford Motor Co. (1996) 48 Cal.App.4th 1794. After Kullar, we'll probably see more of that. The mediator in this case, by the way, was Mark Rudy.
A request for depublication has been filed with the Supreme Court.