Underwood v. Menfre, 2014 WL 67644 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 8, 2014).

Aggrieved by her inability to write letters to her husband with sensitive, personal information, and send him inter alia photographs, drawings, and newspaper clippings, the plaintiff, whose husband was an inmate at the Flagler County Jail, Florida, brought an action challenging two policies of the Jail’s Sheriff regarding incoming and outgoing mails.  While one policy required all incoming mail to Jail inmates, except legal or privileged mail, to be in postcard form, another policy prohibited Jail inmates from sending outgoing letters that exceeded two sheets of paper and all outgoing mail that contained obscene language.  The plaintiff alleged that these policies violated her First Amendment free speech rights to communicate in a complete and meaningful way with her inmate husband.

The parties agreed to a resolve the disputes through the Court’s entry of a Consent Decree & Order, after which the District Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for class certification, and the parties’ joint motion to approve the consent decree.

The consent decree asserted that the challenged policies were unconstitutional, and that the Sheriff would repeal them.  Further, the Jail inmates would be able to receive correspondence in envelopes, and the Sheriff could remove any stamps or labels, prior to delivering such mail.  Subject to certain circumstances such as to preserve internal order, the parties agreed that there would be no restriction on the amount of mail an inmate could send or receive, the number of pages or items included in the envelope correspondence, or the length, language, content, recipient or source of the correspondence.  Specifically, unlike most settlements, neither the plaintiff nor any class member would receive any monetary benefit or additional relief.

The plaintiff’s proposed class was comprised of all Florida residents who were current and future friends, family, or non-privileged correspondents of inmates incarcerated or detained in the Flagler County, Florida Jail.

The District Court noted that the numerosity requirement of Rule 23 (a) was satisfied because the average daily population of the Jail was 140 inmates, and because the Jail was a county detention facility in Florida, it was possible that a large percentage of the individuals corresponding with the inmates were Florida residents.  Commonality was also satisfied because the policies and the reasons supporting those policies were common facts applicable to the claims of all class members, and the constitutionality of these policies was a question capable of class-wide resolution.  Also, the District Court observed that the claims of the named plaintiffs and class members arose from the same mail policies, and were all premised on the alleged violation of the First Amendment, thus, demonstrating typicality.

Further, the Sheriff did not dispute the plaintiff’s ability to diligently prosecute this action nor the qualification, experience or competence of her counsel.  Based upon a review of the filings, and the representations of the plaintiff’s counsel regarding their resources and experience in similar cases, the District Court opined that the plaintiff was acting through competent, qualified and experienced counsel, and that the adequacy of representation requirement was also met.

Next, the District Court noted that the plaintiff sought class certification under Rule 23(b)(2) which permits class certification where the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief is appropriate, respecting the class as a whole.

Here, the enforcement of the policies at issue applied generally to the proposed class, and if the plaintiff were to succeed in her challenges, the injunctive and declaratory relief sought would be appropriate with respect to all members.  Accordingly, the District Court granted certification to the plaintiff’s class.

Next, the District Court observed that the settlement was reached after extensive, arm’s-length negotiations between experienced counsel, who asserted that the proposed settlement balanced the constitutional rights of the class and the legitimate security concerns of the Sheriff’s correctional officials, and was in the best interests of their respective clients and the class as a whole.  Accordingly, the District Court opined that consent decree was fair, reasonable, and adequate.

Finally, the District Court noted that the proposed notice adequately advised class members inter alia of the nature of the lawsuit, the terms of the proposed settlement, and the binding effect of the settlement on Class Members.

Additionally, the District Court noted that CAFA imposes additional notice requirements on defendants in class action lawsuits such that a defendant must serve upon the appropriate State official of each State in which a class member resides and the appropriate Federal official-

(1) a copy of the complaint and any materials filed with the complaint and any amended complaints;
(2) notice of any scheduled judicial hearing in the class action;
(3) any proposed or final notification to class members of—
(A)     (i) the members’ rights to request exclusion from the class action; or
(ii) if no right to request exclusion exists, a statement that no such right exists; and
(B) a proposed settlement of a class action;
(4) any proposed or final class action settlement;
(5) any settlement or other agreement contemporaneously made between class counsel and counsel for the defendants;
(6) any final judgment or notice of dismissal;
(7)     (A) if feasible, the names of class members who reside in each State and the estimated proportionate share of the claims of such members to the entire settlement to that State’s appropriate State official; or
(B) if the provision of information under subparagraph (A) is not feasible, a reasonable estimate of the number of class members residing in each State and the estimated proportionate share of the claims of such members to the entire settlement; and
(8) any written judicial opinion relating to the materials described under subparagraphs (3) through (6).

Here, because the Sheriff filed a Notice of filing copy of letter to Attorney General of Florida and to the United States Attorney General, the District Court opined that the Sheriff satisfied the CAFA notice requirements.  Accordingly, the District Court preliminarily approved the consent decree.