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Hizer v. Pulaski County

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

September 11, 2017

EMILY HIZER, on behalf of herself and on behalf of a class of those similarly situated, Plaintiff,



         This matter is before the Court on a Motion for Class Certification filed by Plaintiff Emily Hizer (“Plaintiff”). [DE 4] Defendant Pulaski County (“Defendant”) does not oppose certification of the Plaintiff's proposed class. [DE 20] Also pending is Plaintiff's Motion to Submit Evidentiary Material in support of her Motion for Class Certification. [DE 23] Plaintiff's Motion to Submit Evidentiary Material is granted as unopposed. As to the Motion for Class Certification, for the reasons stated herein, the Court will grant the Motion, approve the Proposed Class, and appoint class counsel. The Court will lastly direct the parties to submit a proposed notice to class members for review and approval.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff presents a claims on her own behalf, and on the behalf of those similarly situated, for a violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131, et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. [DE 1 ¶¶ 1, 89] The Pulaski County Courthouse is a three-story building located in the county seat of Winamac, Indiana. [DE 1 ¶¶ 24-25] The first floor of the Courthouse includes the offices of the County Assessor and County Surveyor, the second floor of the Courthouse holds the offices of the County Auditor, County Treasurer, and the Clerk of the Courts, and the third floor of the Courthouse houses the Pulaski Circuit Court, including its offices and the courtroom. Id. ¶¶ 25-26, 29. The Pulaski County Commissioners also meet several times per month on the third floor of the Courthouse. Id. ¶¶ 27-28.

         The floors of the Pulaski County Courthouse are connected by a stairway as well as an elevator. Id. ¶ 30. The elevator's dimensions measure approximately 3 feet by 4 feet, and it requires manual operation by way of holding a button to make it move up or down. Id. ¶¶ 37, 41. The elevator does not contain an automatic door and instead must be opened manually. Id. ¶ 33.

         The Courthouse's public restrooms are located on the first floor. Id. ¶ 58. Plaintiff alleges that the entrances to these restrooms are not wide enough for a person in a wheelchair to be able to enter them, nor are the stalls in the restrooms large enough for a person with a physical disability to maneuver within. Id. ¶¶ 59, 61.

         Plaintiff allegedly lives in Winamac, Indiana, and has multiple sclerosis, which requires her to use a motorized scooter for mobility. Id. ¶¶ 63, 65-66. For various reasons, Plaintiff alleges that she is frequently required to visit the Courthouse: she works as a legal assistant for her father, which necessitates her access to the Clerk's office and other parts of the Courthouse; and she sits on the ADA Board, which meets regularly on the first floor of the Courthouse. Id. ¶¶ 67-71. Based on her physical condition and the structural characteristics of the Courthouse's elevator and public restrooms, Plaintiff alleges that she has great difficulty in accessing the government services provided at the Courthouse and that other persons with physical disabilities experience the same issue. Id. ¶ 1.

         This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the certification of class actions in federal court. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2548, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011). Rule 23(a) ensures that the named plaintiffs are appropriate representatives of the class whose claims they wish to litigate. Id. at 2550. Rule 23(a)'s four requirements- numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy-effectively limit the class claims to those fairly encompassed by the named plaintiff's claims. Id. (citations and internal quotations omitted). If all of these prerequisites are met, a court must also find that at least one of the subsections of Rule 23(b) is satisfied. In this case, Plaintiff seeks class certification under Rule 23(b)(2). Rule 23(b)(2) applies when “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.”

         “Failure to meet any of the Rule's requirements precludes class certification.” Arreola v. Godinez, 546 F.3d 788, 794 (7th Cir. 2008). The Plaintiff, as the party seeking class certification, assumes the burden of demonstrating that certification is appropriate. Trotter v. Klincar, 748 F.2d 1177, 1184 (7th Cir. 1984); Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2551 (“A party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with the Rule-that is, he must be prepared to prove that there are in fact sufficiently numerous parties, common questions of law or fact, etc.”).

         A district court has broad discretion to determine whether certification of a class action lawsuit is appropriate. Arreola, 546 F.3d at 794. The United States Supreme Court has made clear, however, that the district court is to perform a “rigorous analysis” to determine that the prerequisites of Rule 23 are satisfied when a class is to be certified because actual, not presumed, conformance with Rule 23(a) remains indispensable. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2551-52 (citing Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 160-61 (1982)). Frequently, that “rigorous analysis” will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's underlying claim, and this cannot be helped. Id. (noting that sometimes Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 177 (1974), is mistakenly cited for the proposition that the merits of the claims for relief may not be considered in adjudicating the motion for class certification, and clarifying that such a proposition is “the purest dictum and is contradicted by other cases”). The purpose of the “rigorous analysis” is not to test the merits of the claim, however, but to determine whether the claim meets the requirements of Rule 23(a). See Szabo v. Bridgeport Machs., Inc., 249 F.3d 672, 677 (7th Cir. 2001). “In conducting this analysis, the court should not turn the class certification proceedings into a dress rehearsal for the trial on the merits.” Messner v. Northshore Univ. Healthsys., 669 F.3d 802, 811 (7th Cir. 2012). However, “[i]f there are material factual disputes, the court must ‘receive evidence . . . and resolve the disputes before deciding whether to certify the class.'” Id. (alteration in original) (citing Szabo, 249 F.3d at 676).

         Importantly, a district court must conduct its own independent inquiry under the “rigorous analysis” standard even where, as here, neither party opposes certification. See Wallace B. Roderick Revocable Living Trust v. XTO Energy, Inc., 725 F.3d 1213, 1217, 1219 (10th Cir. 2013) (district court has independent obligation to conduct rigorous analysis to determine whether requirements of both Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a) and (b) have been met); Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharms., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181, 1188 (11th Cir. 2003) (district court abused its discretion when it failed to make complete independent inquiry, and wrongly certified class after finding only that defendants had “not seriously contested” that plaintiff had met requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)).

         A. Standing

         The Rule 23 analysis is distinct from the issue of standing, however. “That a suit may be a class action … adds nothing to the question of standing, for even named plaintiffs who represent a class ‘must allege and show that they personally have been injured, not that injury has been suffered by other, unidentified members of the class to which they belong.'” Simon v. Eastern Ky. Welfare Rights Organization, 426 U.S. 26, 40 n. 20, 96 S.Ct. 1917, 48 L.Ed.2d 450 (1976) (quoting Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 502, 95 S.Ct. 2197 (1975)); see also Herbert Newberg et al., Newberg on Class Actions § 3:15 (5th ed. 2012) (“[S]tanding is one of the keys necessary to open the door to the federal courthouse. Rule 23 merely provides a procedural doorstop which holds the door open for qualified class members, once it has been opened by the person or persons initially seeking entry.”) (citations omitted). But, while standing is a prerequisite for the named Plaintiff, the passive class action members (once the lawsuit is certified as such), “need not make any individual showing of standing because the standing issue focuses on whether the named plaintiff is properly before the court, not whether represented parties or absent class members are properly before the Court.” Newberg § 2:3.

         Just like any other individual, a class representative's standing is measured by the test articulated in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992). Plaintiff must demonstrate that she (1) has suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Id., at 560-61, 112 S.Ct. 2130. Here, Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged standing. Plaintiff suffers from a physical disability. Her job as a legal assistant and her involvement on the County's ADA Board require her to frequently visit the Courthouse, and she is therefore repeatedly subjected to embarrassment and an enhanced burden when having to manage the Courthouse's allegedly inaccessible features, namely the elevator and public restrooms. [DE 1 ¶¶ 65-72]

         Because Plaintiff has standing to sue, the Court now turns to the issue of certification.

         B. Class ...

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