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Nearly 200 members of a class action race discrimination suit against Coca-Cola Co. have petitioned a federal judge in Atlanta to delay settlement of the case. The petition was delivered Wednesday to U.S. District Court Judge Richard W. Story. It had been signed by 198 African Americans who are current or former Coke employees and eligible for part of the company’s proposed $192.5 million settlement. The 198 constitute about 10 percent of the estimated 2,000 class members eligible to participate in the settlement. The action comes just five days before the “opt-out date,” the deadline when each class member must notify the court whether he or she will participate in the settlement or will pursue individual litigation. The petition asks Story to delay the settlement’s official Monday opt-out date until the fairness hearing, now scheduled for May 29. It also asks Story to order lead class counsel Cyrus Mehri of the Washington firm Mehri, Malkin & Ross to meet with the signers to answer questions they have about the settlement agreement. “We are concerned that we are asked to surrender our rights for a monetary award that will not be disclosed until after we have elected to participate in the settlement,” the letter states. “In essence, we are being asked to make a decision with virtually no information at all … “ In a separate, four page brief, the class members describe the settlement agreement as “fraught with legal jargon too complex to be fully comprehended by the average person with little or no legal experience.” Class members who have contacted Mehri or his co-counsel at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore have “received little, if any assistance or clarification,” according to the brief. Atlanta attorney Jeffrey O. Bramlett, a Bondurant partner, says class attorneys have talked with several hundred class members who have contacted them. “We have, at all times, been and remain ready to confer with any class member who has questions or concerns about the settlement,” he says. “If there are ways for it be improved, we’d like to have that input. … While I think we’ve done a good job, we don’t claim to be perfect. If people can specify what we can do to improve it, we’re ready to listen.” But he says class attorneys were not invited to a meeting last month that prompted the letter to Story, although they had received word that a petition was circulating. “It would be more helpful if we knew precisely what the individuals are concerned about.” Coke spokesman Ben Deutsch would not comment on the petition, although he says he is aware of it. 200 THE MAGIC NUMBER? The number of class members who signed the letter to the judge is significant. In the proposed settlement, Coca-Cola retains the option of canceling the agreement if 200 or more class members decline to participate. However, Deutsch has said previously that Coke would honor the settlement regardless of how many class members participated. Story may not approve the requests. Last week, the judge rejected a similar request made by Florida attorney Willie E. Gary on behalf of two class members: Wanda Williams, a current Coke employee, and Stephanie Fain. Fain filed a separate race discrimination suit against Coke after she was laid off with nearly 6,000 other employees last year. In that order, Story sharply disagreed with allegations that class members received insufficient information in a class notice mailed in January. The class notice includes a formula that permits class members to calculate compensatory damages. But back pay awards — a mix of cash and stock options, some of which have strike prices that are currently higher than Coke’s stock price — are derived from mathematical formulas not available to the class. “It is not uncommon for class members to have to elect whether to remain in a class before they know if there will be any recovery,” Story said. Coke class members who accept the settlement are already guaranteed a cash award. The letter was written after some eligible Coke employees met last month seeking more information about the settlement, says Gregory A. Clark, a Coke security guard who was one of the original plaintiffs. Clark says he helped organize the meeting where the letter was circulated. That meeting, he says, “came about because the answers that African Americans got when calling the attorneys were so vague and so general.” The letter clearly reflects those concerns. “We all have so many questions and have received so few answers,” it states. “Nevertheless, through it all we have respected and adhered to the orders of the court and have remained extremely patient with the legal representation of the class. We are saddened and ashamed of the manner in which the Mehri Group of attorneys has represented the class.” Last year, before Story certified the case as a class action, Clark and two others were jettisoned as name plaintiffs in the suit by their lawyers, who claimed they were not acting in the best interests of the class. After the settlement agreement was announced in November, Story appointed those lawyers, including Mehri, to represent the class. Clark didn’t sign the letter to Story, although he is a class member, because he says his attorneys advised him not to do so. Since last April, he has been represented by Gary and Los Angeles attorney Johnnie E. Cochran Jr. Clark says he will not participate in the settlement but will pursue litigation independently against Coke.

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