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Allison Cooper, et al v. Southeastern Pennsylvania

September 6, 2011

ALLISON COOPER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Slomsky, J.

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion to Approve Settlement and Enter Judgment or, in the alternative, for Leave to Amend the Complaint (Doc. No. 129). On December 3, 2010, the parties informed the Court they had agreed to a settlement in this case. In the ensuing weeks, however, it became clear that a dispute remained over the terms of a release and waiver of claims. Unable to reconcile their differences, Plaintiffs filed the instant Motion, seeking to enforce the alleged settlement agreement. For reasons that follow, the Court will deny Plaintiffs' Motion.

II. SUMMARY OF THE FACTS

A. Background

On February 28, 2006, Allison Cooper, a ten-year veteran bus driver with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of her fellow drivers against SEPTA, alleging SEPTA required bus drivers to perform pre-trip inspections of their buses without pay in violation of, among other things, the Fair Labor Standards Act.*fn1 (Doc. No. 1.) SEPTA is a mass transit authority that serves the region surrounding Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with its principal office located at 1234 Market Street in Philadelphia. (Id. at ¶ 11.)

In this case, two classes of bus drivers have potential claims against SEPTA: "straight run" drivers and "swing run" drivers. Straight run drivers work a single eight-hour shift from start to finish. (Id. at ¶ 16.) Swing run drivers work a morning shift and an afternoon shift, with an unpaid break of varying lengths in between. (Id.) SEPTA requires all bus drivers to perform safety inspections on their vehicles before each "run," whether in the morning or afternoon. (Id. at ¶ 4.) Plaintiffs allege that SEPTA did not pay its swing run drivers for inspections before their afternoon run. (Id.) Plaintiffs also allege that SEPTA underpaid both swing run and straight run drivers for morning inspections. (Id. at ¶ 5.)

The initial Complaint alleged five counts: (1) Violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.; (2) Violation of Pennsylvania's Minimum Wage Law, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 333.104; (3) Breach of Contract; (4) Unjust Enrichment; and (5) Violation of Pennsylvania's Wage Payment and Collection Law, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 260.1 et seq. The claim in Count One was brought on behalf of Cooper "and all others similarly situated." (Id. at ¶ 37--42.) The claims in Counts Two through Five were brought on behalf of two putative classes: the "swing shift class" and the "morning pre-trip class."*fn2 (Id. at 9--13.)

On May 27, 2009, a First Amended Complaint was filed, listing dozens of named Plaintiffs. (Doc. No. 42.) It consisted of only a single class of "swing run" drivers, whose "weekly work time routinely equaled or exceed[ed] 40 hours . . . [and who] performed daily pre-trip inspections before each run, morning and afternoon, though they were not paid for their afternoon inspections." (Id. at ¶ 6.) The First Amended Complaint alleged only a violation of FLSA.

On June 10, 2009, a Second Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 43) was filed. On July 15, 2009, SEPTA filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 48), arguing that as a semi-governmental body, SEPTA possessed sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. (Doc. No. 129-1 at 4.) On March 17, 2010, Judge Golden denied the Motion. (Doc. No. 62.) On May 3, 2010, Plaintiffs filed a Third Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 75). The Third Amended Complaint named over six hundred Plaintiffs and made two significant changes.

First, a claim for uncompensated "shuttle time" was added. The shuttle time claim sought compensation for swing run drivers who ended their morning shift and were then required to make a trip, sometimes as long as thirty-five minutes, from a "relief point" back to the depot to begin an afternoon shift, or the reverse, from the depot to a relief point. (Id. at ¶ 3.) In the past, SEPTA did not pay drivers for their shuttle time.

Second, the Third Amended Complaint only covered "second trip inspections" (uncompensated pre-trip inspections performed before the second swing shift in the afternoon), and "shuttle time." (Id. at ¶ 5.) These claims pertain to any swing run employee whose "total compensated and uncompensated work time exceeds forty hours." (Id.) The Third Amended Complaint also contains the following language: "Plaintiffs and opt-ins in this case do not seek additional compensation for the morning in-depot inspection despite the inadequate time allotted by SEPTA for its performance."*fn3 (Id. at ¶ 20.)

B. Mediation and Settlement Negotiations

As noted, on August 11, 2010, the case was reassigned from Judge Golden to this Court. (Doc. No. 86.) About that time, the parties began settlement discussions. In addition, on September 24, 2010, the Court conditionally certified the class of Plaintiffs, and class members were notified. (Doc. No. 99.) Opt-in forms were distributed to the class members. (Doc. No. 129-1 at 5.) By November 19, 2010, the date the opt-in period ended, approximately 1,300 bus drivers had opted into the lawsuit. (Id.) The dispute was mediated on December 1 and December 2, 2010. (Doc. No. 135 at 6.) During the mediation, SEPTA's counsel stated that SEPTA wanted to include a waiver and release of the morning inspection claim. (Doc. No. 137 at 4). Plaintiffs rejected this proposal. (Id.) Plaintiffs claim that SEPTA suggested that language describing the procedural history of Plaintiffs' complaints could be listed instead, which Plaintiffs agreed to. (Id.) SEPTA disputes this claim. On December 2, 2010, SEPTA offered to pay $1.75 million to settle the matter, and emailed a "term sheet" with the basic, broadly defined terms of the agreement. (Doc. No. 135 at 6; Id. at Ex. B.) The term sheet provided as follows:

A. Stipulated Judgment to be Submitted to Court Recitations, including language discussed by counsel re: allegations of Complaint and failure to pursue morning pre-trip, attached as Exhibit A Reference to procedures regarding notification to class - stipulated notice to potential class members, approval by court, 30-day period in which to opt-in, etc, - fair and adequate notice process and reasonable opportunity to join procedure Mutually agreeable resolution to avoid cost of litigation Non-Admission Clause Settlement Amount Attorney's fees and costs amount Release/Waiver of claims ...


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