170 F.3d 217 (1st Cir. 1999), 98-1718, Malave v. Carney Hosp.

Docket Nº:98-1718.
Citation:170 F.3d 217
Party Name:Marie M. MALAVE, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. CARNEY HOSPITAL, et al., Defendants, Appellees.
Case Date:March 09, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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170 F.3d 217 (1st Cir. 1999)

Marie M. MALAVE, Plaintiff, Appellant,


CARNEY HOSPITAL, et al., Defendants, Appellees.

No. 98-1718.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 9, 1999

Heard Feb. 4, 1999.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Robert LeRoux Hernandez for appellant.

Michael F.X. Dolan, Jr., with whom Robert H. Morsilli and Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane were on brief, for appellees.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, BOWNES, Senior Circuit Judge, and LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal stems from a discrimination suit filed by plaintiff-appellant Marie M. Malave against her quondam employer, Carney Hospital (the Hospital). 1 In the underlying case, Malave alleged disparate treatment on the basis of disability, race, and national origin. In the midst of discovery, the opposing lawyers agreed to a $15,000 settlement. Nevertheless, when the Hospital's counsel forwarded a proposed settlement agreement, the appellant refused to execute it, claiming that she had never authorized her attorney to settle the case for less than $30,000.

The Hospital asked the district court to enforce the purported settlement. The court granted the motion without holding an evidentiary hearing. This appeal followed. 2

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A party to a settlement agreement may seek to enforce the agreement's terms when the other party reneges. If, at the time of the claimed breach, the court case already has been dismissed, the aggrieved party may bring an independent action for breach of contract. See Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 381-82, 114 S.Ct. 1673, 128 L.Ed.2d 391 (1994). If, however, the settlement collapses before the original suit is dismissed, the party who seeks to keep the settlement intact may file a motion for enforcement. See United States v. Hardage, 982 F.2d 1491, 1496 (10th Cir.1993) ("A trial court has the power to summarily enforce a settlement agreement entered into by the litigants while the litigation is pending before it.") (citations omitted); Mathewson Corp. v. Allied Marine Indus., Inc., 827 F.2d 850, 852-53 (1st Cir.1987) (similar). In a federal court, such a motion--at least when the underlying cause of action is federal in nature--is determined in accordance with federal law. See Michaud v. Michaud, 932 F.2d 77, 80 n. 3 (1st Cir.1991); Fennell v. TLB Kent Co., 865 F.2d 498, 501 (2d Cir.1989); Mid-South Towing Co. v. Har-Win, Inc., 733 F.2d 386, 389 (5th Cir.1984); Gamewell Mfg., Inc. v. HVAC Supply, Inc., 715 F.2d 112, 115-16 (4th Cir.1983).

As a general rule, a trial court may not summarily enforce a purported settlement agreement if there is a genuinely disputed question of material fact regarding the existence or terms of that agreement. In such circumstances, the cases consentingly hold that the court instead must take evidence to resolve the contested issues of fact. See Murchison v. Grand Cypress Hotel Corp., 13 F.3d 1483, 1486 (11th Cir.1994); TCBY Systems, Inc. v. EGB Associates, Inc., 2 F.3d 288, 291 (8th Cir.1993) (per curiam); Hardage, 982 F.2d at 1496; Bamerilease Capital Corp. v. Nearburg, 958 F.2d 150, 153 (6th Cir.1992); Tiernan v. Devoe, 923 F.2d 1024, 1031 (3d Cir.1991); Petty v. Timken Corp., 849 F.2d 130, 132 (4th Cir.1988); Callie v. Near, 829 F.2d 888, 890 (9th Cir.1987); Mid-South Towing, 733 F.2d at 390; Autera v. Robinson, 419 F.2d 1197, 1203 (D.C.Cir.1969). It is against this backdrop that we assess the record here.

When the Hospital filed its motion to enforce, it tendered an unsigned copy of a draft settlement agreement and its counsel's affidavit explaining its version of the attendant circumstances. The lawyer, Michael F.X. Dolan, Jr., recounted "back and forth" conversations with his opposite number, Matthew Cobb, during which Cobb made a settlement demand of $15,000. Dolan stated that he agreed to pay the demanded sum in return for a stipulation of dismissal and a general release. He then transmitted a proposed agreement to Cobb both by facsimile and by mail. 3 Though the agreement seems prolix and covers a multitude of subjects (e.g., a waiver of any right to reemployment; a covenant not to comment on the payment or to speak ill of the releasees), the Hospital takes the position that it was boilerplate.

There is no way that these materials, standing alone, would justify summarily enforcing a settlement agreement. Evidence supplied by one side to the dispute, especially nontestimonial evidence not subject to cross-examination, ordinarily will not suffice to ground enforcement of an ostensible settlement. See Hardage, 982 F.2d at 1497; Callie, 829 F.2d at 891. But the district court had before it more than this one submission. Four days after the Hospital served its motion, Cobb filed a response. 4 It is evident from even a cursory glance that this pleading did not purport to represent the appellant's views, protect her interests, or advance her position. To the contrary, its contents made manifest that Cobb (who wished to consummate the settlement) and his client (who wished the litigation to proceed) were at swords' point.

Even though the document that Cobb filed declared that he had received authority from Malave to effectuate a $15,000 settlement, it

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went on to state that Malave's son, on Malave's behalf, had called Cobb within a day or two to make sure that Cobb understood that he did not have authority to settle the case for that sum. This recitation ought to have alerted the district court that something had gone awry, and that the extent of Cobb's authority was open to question. We cannot conceive of a more fundamental dispute concerning the existence vel non of a settlement agreement than occurs when a litigant and her lawyer wrangle over whether the former imbued the latter with authority to settle.

Moreover, this was not an instance in which the existence of the settlement had somehow been conceded previously by both parties or in which the court had been able to acquire personal knowledge through, for example, a settlement conference or a hearing. See Murchison, 13 F.3d at 1487; Petty, 849 F.2d at 132-33; Autera, 419 F.2d at 1200. Prudence dictates that a trial court, confronted with so tenebrous a record, should withhold summary enforcement and instead probe for better evidence on which to base an informed determination as to whether the parties had in fact reached a binding agreement. This is all the more true where, as here, the motion papers clearly contemplated that an evidentiary hearing would be held, and the response to the motion explicitly requested such a hearing. 5

Setting the nature and quality of the requisite evidence to one side, the Hospital argues that the...

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