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January 2017

Cross-Office Team Succeeds on Motion to Decertify Class Action in the Middle District of Florida

When Gordon & Rees was asked to substitute in as counsel for Clear Springs Farming nearly three years after litigation began and less than two months before the start of a federal class action trial, Tampa partner Amy Darby quickly assembled a cross-office team of partners and associates from Gordon & Rees's Tampa, Miami and Atlanta offices to formulate a defense strategy.  The team consisted of partners Chad Shultz from Atlanta and Jose Leon from Miami, along with associates Maura Lally from Tampa, and Andrew Schindler from Miami, and paralegal, Kelly Kelly.  In Shelene Jean-Louise, et al. v. Clear Springs Farming, LLC No. 13-3084 (M.D. Fla. Dec.  6, 2016), the Middle District of Florida certified a class of 125 Haitian blueberry pickers, who asserted Title VII discrimination claims after they allegedly were not hired during the blueberry harvest at the defendant’s farm because of their race and/or national origin. The plaintiffs sought back pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages in excess of $2 million dollars.

The team filed a Motion to Decertify the class based on the highly individualized issues pertaining to damages (such as emotional distress and the failure to mitigate) and the absence of a common theory of injury. Less than 24 hours after it was filed, Judge Moody of the Middle District of Florida wasted no time filing a denial, without explaining his opinion.  However, days later, after Amy Darby and Chad Schultz appeared at the final pre-trial conference and explained their intent to subpoena 125 class members to preserve their client’s due process rights, Judge Moody changed his mind and issued an Order decertifying the class.  The published Order adopted in its entirety the arguments raised by Gordon & Rees, on behalf of Clear Springs, that the class members’ compensatory damages were too individualized for class treatment.

Judge Moody’s Order recognized that the plaintiffs’ claims for compensatory and punitive damages would require the Court to conduct an overwhelming number of mini-trials to determine highly individualized issues pertaining each of the 125 plaintiffs. Clear Springs contended that the eight to 10 day trial would not afford it the opportunity to fully try the issue of individualized damages, and such circumstances would violate its due process rights.   

The day after Judge Moody decertified the class, the case resolved in a favorable settlement to the firm's client Clear Springs.  Both Clear Springs and its insurer Zurich were extremely complimentary of the Gordon & Rees team and their ability to achieve such a monumental result only a few weeks after jumping into the case.

Jose I. Leon
Andrew R. Schindler
Chad A. Shultz