419 F.2d 1197 (D.C. Cir. 1969), 21802, Autera v. Robinson

Docket Nº:21802, 21847.
Citation:419 F.2d 1197
Party Name:Teodore Dorotee AUTERA, Appellant, v. Manuel Dudley ROBINSON et al., Appellees. Anthony C. AUTERA, Appellant, v. Manuel Dudley ROBINSON et al., Appellees.
Case Date:June 30, 1969
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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Page 1197

419 F.2d 1197 (D.C. Cir. 1969)

Teodore Dorotee AUTERA, Appellant,

v.

Manuel Dudley ROBINSON et al., Appellees.

Anthony C. AUTERA, Appellant,

v.

Manuel Dudley ROBINSON et al., Appellees.

Nos. 21802, 21847.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

June 30, 1969

Argued Jan. 22, 1969.

Page 1198

Mr. Rufus W. Peckham, Jr., Washington, D.C., with whom Mr. Carl L. Shipley, Washington, D.C., was on the brief, for appellants.

Mr. Bond L. Holford, Washington, D.C., with whom Mr. Donald J. Caulfield, Washington, D.C., was on the brief, for appellees.

Before WRIGHT, LEVENTHAL and ROBINSON, Circuit Judges.

SPOTTSWOOD W. ROBINSON, III, Circuit Judge:

In an action for negligence brought by appellants, husband and wife, against appellees, the District Court entered a judgment for $4, 000 in appellants' favor on appellees' motion alleging an oral agreement to settle the case at that amount. 1 The negligence claim, never itself litigated, was simultaneously dismissed with prejudice. Appellants assail this disposition on the grounds that the parties never made a legally binding bargain, and that the attorney who then represented appellants 2 had no authority to commit them to such an arrangement.

On the night of December 19, 1963, an automobile operated by appellee Manuel Dudley Robinson and owned by appellee Catherine Pierce struck appellant Teodore Dorotee Autera while she was crossing an icy street. Mrs. Autera averred that she sustained permanent bodily injuries, and pressed for consequential damages of $30, 000. Her husband sought damages of $10, 000 for loss of services and consortium and for out-of-pocket medical expenses. Appellees denied negligence, asserting that Mrs. Autera's injuries resulted from an unavoidable accident. Appellants joined in a demand for a jury trial of the issues thus framed.

Subsequently, appellees submitted a verified 'Motion for Entry of Judgment in Accordance with the Agreement of the Parties' alleging that on June 5, 1967, appellants' then attorney had orally accepted appellees' oral offer to compromise all claims for $4, 000, payable upon the execution of releases and dismissal of the suit with prejudice. The motion further alleged that both appellants had authorized the attorney to accept the proposal, and that Mrs. Autera had signed a release. Appellants, by new counsel, 3 filed a statement in opposition to the motion, asserting that no agreement on settlement had ever been reached, and supported the motion by affidavits from each appellant. One affidavit stated in substance that Mrs. Autera did not understand the purport of the offer, and the other that Mr. Autera never accepted or authorized an acceptance. 4

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A hearing on the motion was convened, the presentations at which consisted of brief remarks by counsel for the parties and by the supplanted attorney who accepted the offer on appellants' behalf. There was no cross-examination by any party's counsel of anyone else who spoke, and no testimony in the sense of statements under oath. The five-minute proceeding 5 was climaxed by the representations of appellants' original attorney:

We had Mrs. Autera in our office on several occasions explaining the settlement to her, and she is a very learned woman. * * * She agreed to it. We mailed her the authorization and she signed it. * * * Her husband was contacted by phone in New York and he said, 'Sure, go ahead, do anything my wife wants.' Mr. and Mrs. Autera were separated at that time and were not speaking to each other, and he said he didn't want to have anything to do with it. He said anything she wanted he would agree to.

The attorney stated further that he mailed the release and praecipes of dismissal to Mr. Autera who 'then called us the next day and decided that he did not want to sign them and he would not return them to us.'

Without further ado, the District Judge granted appellees' motion and entered a $4, 000 judgment for appellants on the basis that the parties had agreed to settle at that figure. 6 After the denial of appellants' motion for reconsideration and vacation of the judgment, this appeal in forma pauperis brought the case to us.

I

Voluntary settlement of civil controversies is in high judicial favor. 7 Judges and lawyers alike strive assiduously to promote amicable adjustments of matters in dispute, as for the most wholesome of reasons they certainly should. When the effort is successful, the parties avoid the expense and delay incidental to litigation of the issues; the court is spared the burdens of a trial, and the preparation and proceedings that must forerun it. 8 By the same token, there is everything to be gained by encouraging methodology that facilitates compromise.

That vast numbers of cases are annually terminated without trial is a tribute to both the trial bench and the practicing bar. As is inevitable, problems concerning settlement do arise in particular instances, but in overwhelming part they are readily accommodated by nonlitigative processes. For the most part, they are thrashed out by counsel themselves; and trial attorneys as a group are aware of the readiness of the courts to lend a helping hand, and of the role that judges, if need be, can play in the resolution of the difficulties. We ourselves could hardly afford to do less than nurture the conditions that for so many years have fostered the machinery of compromise as we know it today.

Occasionally, however, a dispute over settlement reaches such a degree of intensity that informal, ad hoc procedures are inadequate to cope with it. Even in these relatively few instances, the litigants may dispense with a good deal of the conventionality normally demanded

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in the judicial system. In many federal courts, the practice has developed, in lieu of a full-dressed proceeding to compel observance of a settlement agreement, of bringing the dispute on less formally for handling by the trial judge. It is now well established that the trial court has power to summarily enforce on motion a settlement agreement entered into by the litigants while the litigation is pending before it. 9 Quite obviously, so simple and speedy a remedy serves well the policy favoring compromise, which in turn has made a major contribution to its popularity. 10

Yet it is apparent that the summary procedure for enforcement of unperformed settlement contracts is not a panacea for the myriad types of problems that may arise. The summary procedure is admirably suited to situations where, for example, a binding settlement bargain is conceded or shown, and the excuse for nonperformance is comparatively unsubstantial. 11 On the other hand, it is ill-suited to situations presenting complex factual issues related either to the formation or the consummation of the contract, which only testimonial exploration in a more plenary proceeding is apt to satisfactorily resolve. We commend the summary practice for use in connection with problems capable of precise resolution without attendant hazard to the interests of the parties. At the same time, it is evident that beyond that point the convenience of the summary procedure must yield to the exigencies of safeguarding all legally protected rights that are involved.

II

It was not clear that appellants and appellees were in mutual accord on settlement of their controversy, nor did the hearing on the motion do much to clarify that matter. The District Judge seems to have relied, quite understandably, upon the statement of the attorney who represented appellants during the settlement negotiations. But substantial issues of a factual nature, material to the validity of any agreement on settlement, were raised in the affidavits appellants presented to the court. Just what consideration the judge may have given to this facet of the situation is not at all apparent.

Mrs. Autera maintained in her affidavit that she acceded to the compromise and signed the release while in a distraught frame of mind occasioned by the combination of her injuries and her financially destitute condition. 12 She averred, too, that she did not understand that from the $4, 000 to be remitted on settlement all past and future medical

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expenses and attorney's fees had to be paid. 13 At the hearing on the motion, the representations her then counsel made to the court tended strongly to buttress these claims. She does not speak English well, 14 she was badly injured in the accident, 15 and her evergrowing special damages almost exceeded the sum offered in settlement. 16 The only statements that came close to contradicting her contentions were those of her former attorney to the effect that he explained the settlement to her, that she signed a settlement authorization and a release, and that she 'is a very learned woman.' 17 The conflicting indications as to Mrs. Autera's understanding of the transactions and the reality of her ostensible acceptance of the amount tendered in settlement-- and, of course, the consequent authority of her attorney to accept the offer in her behalf 18 -- raised a substantial issue for appropriate determination.

The hearing also developed sharply conflicting versions as to the extent and character of Mr. Autera's participation in the settlement transaction. According to his former attorney, Mr. Autera, when contacted by long-distance telephone, 19 said 'Sure, go ahead, do anything my wife wants, ' adding that 'he didn't want to have anything to do with it. He said that anything she wanted he would agree to.' The releases and praecipes for dismissal were mailed to him, but 'he then called us the next day and decided that he did not want to sign them and he would not return them to us.' On the other hand, Mr. Autera avows in his affidavit 'that at no time did he authorize anyone to settle his or his wife's claim in the pending action for $4, 000.00, ' and 'that he...

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