A California federal judge said Friday she will likely approve a settlement requiring Perdue to pay $1.77 million to settle break and wage claims for about 2,000 poultry processing plant workers but wanted a few fixes first to the deal’s order and notice.
“I’m not going to have an order signed approving this settlement today,” U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney said. “I can tell you that I’m inclined to approve it.”
At the start of Friday’s hearing, the judge also asked the attorney representing the lead plaintiff and proposed class why the time frame on the claims came with varying start dates.
"We have a lot to do, starting with the strange way the classes are defined in this case," Judge Chesney said. "Have you ever done this before, defined classes by the particular claims?"
Jose Patino Jr. of Setareh Law Group explained that the relative time periods for each claim had to be adjusted because some of the claims had been released for certain dates in two earlier settlements in class actions against Perdue.
"I figured that's the motivation. I had just not seen this before," the judge said, noting that the claim for failure to provide rest periods goes back to October 2015, the failure to provide meal periods claim goes back to May 2019, and a claim alleging accurate written wage statements weren't provided starts much later, in July 2020.
The motion for preliminary approval was filed on behalf of former Perdue employee Ronnie Williams and other workers for the food and agricultural products company. According to the motion, workers were unable to take uninterrupted meal and rest breaks, were shortchanged on breaks because they had to spend unpaid time donning and doffing their uniforms, were required to perform off-the-clock work, were not paid for all the work they were directed and encouraged to do, and incurred fees when using pay cards at a bank not affiliated with the card provided by Perdue.
The workers were frequently unable to take uninterrupted breaks because sometimes they were not scheduled, according to the motion. Also, managers were "chronically understaffing each work shift" and "imposing so much work on each employee such that it made it unlikely that an employee would be able to take their breaks if they wanted to finish their work on time," the motion said.
There was also a formal written meal and rest period policy that encouraged employees to take breaks, according to the motion, which stated that the Perdue companies "generally denied all of plaintiff's allegations."
Under the deal reached, Perdue and four subsidiaries — Perdue Foods LLC, Petaluma Acquisition LLC, Coleman Natural Products Inc. and Coleman Natural Foods LLC — will pay out a maximum $1,775,000 for some 2,023 poultry processing plant workers.
Of that, $443,750 would be carved out for attorney fees, up to $25,000 would go toward litigation costs, another $20,000 would cover administration costs, $75,000 would be sent to the state Labor & Workforce Development Agency, and Williams would get $7,500 as class representative, according to the motion.
That would leave $1,203,750 for the class members, making their average estimated settlement share about $595 each.
Williams's counsel told the court this is an "excellent result" since the value of the claims if the case succeeded at trial comes to more than $5,223,000 — meaning the settlement amount is about 34% of the maximum recovery.
At Friday's hearing, Judge Chesney corrected that math, saying the attorney fees should be taken out of the equation.
"You come up with a much higher figure than actually would seem to be appropriate," the judge said. "What they're actually getting is going to be at least ten percent lower. It doesn't mean the class is going to fail because of that, but I think it's an improper comparison."
Patino asked for clarity on the judge's remark.
"This case is not being brought on behalf of lawyers, it's on behalf of a class," the judge said. "The class is not getting 34 percent of their total recovery because a chunk of the money is being paid to somebody else."
The judge also told Patino that she felt the amount for Williams might be a little high.
"If you really want to claim that for your class representatives, be ready to explain why he should be making essentially that much money," the judge said.
The checks issued to class members would be valid for 180 days after the date they are issued, the motion stated, with a reminder notice sent from the settlement administrator to those who have not cashed their checks after 120 days. The settlement administrator will also look for alternate addresses when checks come back due to an outdated address, the motion stated.
The judge asked if the settlement administrator could reach out to the workers by email.
An attorney for Perdue, Michael Nader of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC, said the workers might not have email addresses.
"This is a largely employee force that's transitory," he said. "They're processing poultry."
The judge said emails should be considered if many of the checks bounce back.
Unclaimed money will go to the California State Controller's Office's unclaimed property fund in the name of class members who do not cash their checks, according to the motion.
The class action complaint was first filed by Williams in October 2019 in California state court and moved to federal court one month later, according to the motion for preliminary approval. The settlement was reached in March 2021 with an agreement inked in August.
At the end of Friday's hearing, Judge Chesney asked the parties to make fixes to the order and class notice that were discussed, saying she hoped to get revisions by Feb. 10 so she could consider approval on the next day.