The Sixth Circuit has approved a class action settlement in an interesting toxic tort case. Moulton v. U.S. Steel Corp., 2009 WL 2997921 (6th Cir., 9/22/09).

This class action was filed in 2004 by neighbors of a steel mill operated by defendant U.S. Steel, and alleged various claims arising from “metal-like dust and flakes” allegedly falling on plaintiffs’ property. The district court in Michigan certified the class in 2006, and the parties eventually agreed on a settlement for $4.45 million in 2008.

As is not unheard of, some class members and at least one plaintiffs’ lawyer objected to the settlement. They argued that the settlement agreement was not “fair, reasonable, and adequate” under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e)(2).  Specifically, they argued (1) that the agreement dis-serves the “public interest” due to the broad scope of the release, (2) that alleged “collusion” between Class Counsel and U.S. Steel tarnished the agreement and (3) that the agreement improperly prioritizes the distribution of the settlement proceeds. The district court rejected all such objections, and the court of appeals reviewed the district court’s conclusions for abuse of discretion.

To determine whether a settlement agreement satisfies Rule 23’s fairness standard,  courts consider:  (1) the risk of fraud or collusion;  (2) the complexity, expense and likely duration of the litigation;  (3) the amount of discovery engaged in by the parties;  (4) the likelihood of success on the merits;  (5) the opinions of class counsel and class representatives;  (6) the reaction of absent class members; and (7) the public interest. UAW v. Gen. Motors Corp., 497 F.3d 615, 631 (6th Cir.2007).

On the issue of the scope of the release, the release of the continuing nuisance claims was held not unfair, because, contrary to the objections, it did not go“well beyond the claims plead in the complaint.”  Since 2005, every version of the plaintiffs’ complaint included a claim for “continuing private nuisance.”  As class members, the objectors are the last individuals in a position to claim lack of notice that this claim was on the table at the settlement talks. And the bar on future continuing nuisance claims applies only to claims arising out of conditions that existed prior to the settlement. It does not preclude future continuing nuisance claims based on emissions from new equipment installed after the date of settlement. Nor does it bar future claims based on old equipment, so long as the continuing nuisance is a “new” one.

Neither did the objectors make the case that the agreement was a product of collusion. See Williams v. Vukovich, 720 F.2d 909, 921 (6th Cir.1983). The duration and complexity of the litigation undermined the objectors’ suspicions. The parties litigated for almost four years before reaching a settlement agreement. The court fielded numerous contested pretrial motions. Class Counsel pursued multiple avenues to gather evidence; and the agreement itself was a product of months of supervised negotiations, two facilitated mediations and a settlement conference with the court.

Third, there was the challenge to the $4.45 million settlement, which the agreement distributed as follows: $300 to each covered member of the class, limited to one award per household; $10,000 to the seven class representatives; and $1.335 million in attorney’s fees (30%) and $622,279.86 in costs to class counsel. Any residual goes to local public schools. Because class counsel received 4,026 class-member claims, roughly $1.21 million will go to the claimants and roughly $1.28 million will go to the schools. The appeals court noted that the district court should have been more expansive in its explanation of the approval of the award as reasonable.  However, that claimants will in the aggregate receive less than Class Counsel does not automatically invalidate the agreement. That the public schools will receive $1.28 million in unclaimed funds does not reflect on the settlement’s fairness.

Finally, a plaintiffs’ lawyer purporting to represent multiple class members insisted that the court improperly shut him out of the case. In what the appeals court called a “sideshow” to the main case, the attorney reportedly contacted an unknown number of class members after the class certification advising them to opt out because those who opt out “always get a much higher settlement than … the general population.”  The 6th Circuit found that the district court also did not err by corralling the extent of this counsel’s involvement in the case. Rule 23 gives the district court broad discretion in handling class actions, authorizing orders that impose conditions on the representative parties or on intervenors. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(d)(1)(C).  In view of the questionable communications with litigants, unannounced solicitation of opt outs, and apparent guarantee to individuals who opted out, the district court appropriately exercised its discretion, said the Circuit.