Hallock v. State

Decision Date27 December 1984
Citation474 N.E.2d 1178,64 N.Y.2d 224,485 N.Y.S.2d 510
Parties, 474 N.E.2d 1178 Carlton G. HALLOCK et al., Respondents, v. STATE of New York et al., Defendants, and Power Authority of State of New York, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
Charles M. Pratt, Stephen L. Baum and John Lamberski, New York City, for appellant

KAYE, Judge.

A stipulation of settlement made by counsel in open court may bind his clients even where it exceeds his actual authority.

Plaintiffs, Carlton Hallock and Seeley Phillips, in 1968 purchased a 67.7-acre tract of land in Schoharie County, about two miles from the proposed site of a dam to be built by the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY). Plaintiffs intended to sell sand and gravel from their land to PASNY for use in construction of the dam, but the State, on behalf of PASNY, in 1969 appropriated the entire tract in fee. Plaintiffs filed a claim for damages in the Court of Claims and commenced a declaratory judgment action in Supreme Court against defendants, PASNY and the State, to challenge their legal right to take by eminent domain a full fee interest rather than simply an easement, contending that only a small portion of the sand and gravel on the land was actually required for the dam. In Hallock v. State of New York, 32 N.Y.2d 599, 347 N.Y.S.2d 60, 300 N.E.2d 430, we held that this issue could not be resolved as a matter of law on the record then before us and remitted the case for trial.

Trial was to begin on April 22, 1975, preceded by a pretrial conference that morning. Court rules required that attorneys attending pretrial conferences have authority to enter into binding settlements on behalf of their clients (22 NYCRR 861.17). Plaintiffs were represented by Anthony Quartararo, who had served as their counsel throughout the five-year life of the litigation and had engaged in prior settlement discussions with defendants. Defendants had offered to settle by reconveying the land to plaintiffs and allowing them to keep the advance they had received, but plaintiffs advised Quartararo that they did not like that offer and wanted the matter to go before the Judge.

Hallock was ill on April 22 and did not attend the pretrial conference. Phillips, however, was present with his long-time attorney, Henry Whitbeck, who had represented plaintiffs in their acquisition of the land. After discussion, counsel entered into a stipulation of settlement whereby Quartararo, for plaintiffs, agreed to accept reconveyance of the land and retention of the advance. The terms of the agreement were dictated into the record. The Trial Judge asked the attorneys for each side separately if they agreed to the settlement, and obtained their assents. He then observed that according to court rules the settlement "finalized the case," and the case was removed from the Trial Calendar. Throughout these proceedings, Phillips remained silent, as did Whitbeck; Hallock learned of the settlement later that day.

More than two months elapsed before plaintiffs voiced any objection. In mid-July 1975, Hallock expressed his dissatisfaction with the settlement, and plaintiffs thereafter moved to vacate the stipulation, relief which the trial court granted. The Appellate Division, however, ruled that a plenary action was required to set aside a stipulation of settlement (58 A.D.2d 67, 396 N.Y.S.2d 486, app. dsmd. 43 N.Y.2d 892, 403 N.Y.S.2d 498, 374 N.E.2d 395), 1 and the present lawsuit followed. After trial, the court directed specific performance of the settlement stipulation, finding that Phillips was bound by the stipulation in view of his presence at the conference, and that Hallock was also bound because he had conferred authority upon Quartararo to negotiate and settle the case and had ratified the settlement. The court concluded that good cause for relief from the stipulation had not been shown.

A divided Appellate Division reversed, the three-Justice majority concluding that Quartararo had no authority to settle the case on the terms embodied in the stipulation, rendering the settlement a nullity, and restored plaintiffs' actions to their respective calendars. 2 The dissenting Justice found Phillips foreclosed from challenging the settlement because of his silence during the pretrial conference, and Hallock bound because he had clothed Quartararo with apparent, if not actual, authority to settle the case. We now reverse and reinstate the judgment of Supreme Court, Schoharie County, specifically enforcing the settlement agreement.

Stipulations of settlement are favored by the courts and not lightly cast aside (see Matter of Galasso, 35 N.Y.2d 319, 321, 361 N.Y.S.2d 871, 320 N.E.2d 618). This is all the more so in the case of "open court" stipulations (Matter of Dolgin Eldert Corp., 31 N.Y.2d 1, 10, 334 N.Y.S.2d 833, 286 N.E.2d 228) within CPLR 2104, where strict enforcement not only serves the interest of efficient dispute resolution but also is essential to the management of court calendars and integrity of the litigation process. Only where there is cause sufficient to invalidate a contract, such as fraud, collusion, mistake or accident, will a party be relieved from the consequences of a stipulation made during litigation (Matter of Frutiger, 29 N.Y.2d 143, 149-150, 324 N.Y.S.2d 36, 272 N.E.2d 543). Neither court below found fraud collusion, mistake or accident; nor can we conclude as a matter of law that such a showing was made. What plaintiffs must then demonstrate in order to sustain their position is that their agent, Quartararo, was without authority of any sort to enter into the settlement, and therefore no contract ever came into being.

From the nature of the attorney-client relationship itself, an attorney derives authority to manage the conduct of litigation on behalf of a client, including the authority to make certain procedural or tactical decisions (see Code of Professional Responsibility, EC 7-7; Gorham v. Gale, 7 Cow. 739, 744; Gaillard v. Smart, 6 Cow. 385, 388). But that authority is hardly unbounded. Equally rooted in the law is the principle that, without a grant of authority from the client, an attorney cannot compromise or settle a claim (see Kellogg v. Gilbert, 10 Johns. 220; Jackson v. Bartlett, 8 Johns. 361), and settlements negotiated by attorneys without authority from their clients have not been binding (see Countryman v. Breen, 241 App.Div. 392, 271 N.Y.S. 744, affd. 268 N.Y. 643, 198 N.E. 536; Spisto v. Thompson, 39 A.D.2d 598, 331 N.Y.S.2d 818; Leslie v. Van Vranken, 24 A.D.2d 658, 261 N.Y.S.2d 103; Mazzella v. American Home Constr. Co., 12 A.D.2d 910, 211 N.Y.S.2d 131).

Quartararo unquestionably had authority from plaintiffs to conduct settlement negotiations with defendants as he had done with plaintiffs' knowledge and assent during the weeks prior to April 22, 1975. At most, on April 22 he exceeded the authority plaintiffs urge had been limited shortly before by their injunction to negotiate a better deal. The question raised by this appeal, then, is whether it should be plaintiffs, or defendants, who bear the responsibility for Quartararo's misfeasance in accepting the settlement they claim had been rejected. We conclude that plaintiffs must bear that responsibility, and are relegated to relief against their former attorney for any damages which his conduct may have caused them (see Fox v. Wiener iLaces, 105 Misc.2d 672, 676, 432 N.Y.S.2d 811; Gaillard v. Smart, 6 Cow. 385, 388, supra; Jackson v. Stewart, 6 Johns. 34, 37). 3

Phillips cannot be heard to challenge the settlement. He was in court during the entire pretrial conference. At no time...

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