Authored by Simon L. Yang

Final approval of a class action settlement sometimes isn’t so final.

At least that’s what the Ninth Circuit reminded Labor Ready Southwest, Inc. and a class of current and former employees earlier this week. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit vacated an order granting final approval of their class settlement of FLSA and California Labor Code claims and asked the Central District of California for a redo.

The Ninth Circuit on several occasions made clear that it was expressing no opinion on the ultimate fairness of the class settlement negotiated by the parties. So what was the issue?

Acknowledging that a district court has to engage in a “difficult balancing act” when considering both the strong judicial policy in favor of settlements and the district court’s fiduciary duty owed to absent class members, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case based on the “high procedural standard” for settlements that occur without a certified class.

The Ninth Circuit said the district court provided inadequate assurance that it considered the fairness of the settlement, by failing to sufficiently inquire about certain aspects of the settlement: (i) defendant agreed to a “clear sailing” arrangement (where it would not object to a certain fee request), (ii) class counsel would “receive a disproportionate distribution of the settlement,” and (iii) unclaimed settlement funds would revert back to the defendant.

Again, the Ninth Circuit reiterated that the existence of any one (or even all three) of the above-identified settlement terms “does not mean the settlement cannot still be fair, reasonable, or adequate” but that it “required the district court to examine them, and adequately to develop the record to support its final approval decision.”

So, next time you have a final approval hearing, consider whether you might want to slow down to ensure there’s no doubt about either the fairness—or finality—of your settlement.