Natale v. E. Coast Salon Servs., Inc., Civil Action No. 13-1254 (NLH/JS)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtHILLMAN, District Judge
PartiesCAROL E. NATALE, Plaintiff, v. EAST COAST SALON SERVICES, INC., Defendant.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 13-1254 (NLH/JS)
Decision Date17 February 2016

CAROL E. NATALE, Plaintiff,

Civil Action No. 13-1254 (NLH/JS)


February 17, 2016



On behalf of plaintiff

On behalf of defendant

HILLMAN, District Judge

Presently before the Court is the motion1 of defendant to enforce the settlement agreement, which, on the eve of trial,

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resolved plaintiff's claims against her former employer for alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.2 The settlement issue in dispute concerns whether the settlement funds were to be paid to plaintiff pursuant to a Form 1099-MISC or a Form W-2. Defendant argues that during the settlement discussions at the pre-trial conference, plaintiff and defendant had a meeting of the minds that plaintiff would be paid via a 1099 form. Plaintiff counters that the vehicle for payment of the settlement funds was not agreed to at the conference. When a draft of the settlement agreement was provided to plaintiff's counsel, and plaintiff's counsel requested that plaintiff be paid by a W-2 based upon advice from an accountant, plaintiff argues that her request is not barred by any prior agreement that she be paid by 1099. She also argues that the method of payment is a non-essential term of the agreement.

The method of payment is a sticking point between the parties because if plaintiff is paid by W-2, defendant is obligated to deduct applicable taxes, as well as withholdings for Social Security and Medicare, and pay its employer tax. If

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plaintiff is paid by 1099, she is responsible for all of these taxes. Defendant argues that having to pay plaintiff by W-2 would constitute a windfall beyond the agreed-upon settlement amount. Plaintiff argues that defendant is required by the tax code to pay her by W-2 because ADEA damages can only be classified as wages.3

As will be explained more below, the Court finds the following: (1) the record suggests that the settlement entered into at the pre-trial conference, to be memorialized later in a formal written settlement agreement, did not specifically contemplate whether the funds should be paid by 1099 or W-2, although the record also suggests that payment by 1099 was

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presumed by counsel for both sides until plaintiff met with her accountant; (2) there is no uniform consensus on the proper payment of such settlement funds in courts throughout the country or in the legal literature; and (3) it appears that the IRS views that that settlement payments that constitute "wages" paid by an employer to an employee must be paid by the employer in the form of a W-2.

As a primary matter, the law governing the enforcement of a settlement agreement holds that a settlement agreement between parties to a lawsuit is a contract like any other contract. Peskin v. Peskin, 638 A.2d 849, 857 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1994) (citing Nolan v. Lee Ho, 577 A.2d 143, 146 (N.J. 1990)). A contract is formed where there is offer and acceptance and terms sufficiently definite that the performance to be rendered by each party can be ascertained with reasonable certainty. U.S. v. Lightman, 988 F. Supp. 448, 458 (D.N.J. 1997) (citing Weichert Co. Realtors v. Ryan, 128 N.J. 427, 435, 608 A.2d 280 (1992)). That contract is enforceable if the parties agree on essential terms, and manifest an intention to be bound by those terms. Id. Where the parties do not agree on one or more essential terms, however, courts generally hold that the agreement is unenforceable. Id. The party seeking to enforce the alleged settlement agreement has the burden of proving the existence of the agreement under contract law. Id. (citations

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omitted). Courts treat a motion to enforce settlement under the same standard as a motion for summary judgment because the central issue is whether there is any disputed issue of material fact as to the validity of the settlement agreement. Washington v. Klem, 388 F. App'x 84, 85 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Tiernan v. Devoe, 923 F.2d 1024, 1031 (3d Cir. 1991)).

The mechanics of the payment of settlement funds typically constitutes a non-essential term of the settlement contract. See, e.g., McDonnell v. Engine Distributors, No. CIV.A. 03-1999, 2007 WL 2814628, at *8 (D.N.J. Sept. 24, 2007), aff'd, 314 F. App'x 509 (3d Cir. 2009) ("The disputed terms - concerning the scope of the release, ensuring payment, tax treatment, indemnification, and the scope of confidentiality - all speak to the settlement's implementation. They are not, however, essentials of the settlement."); Josifovich v. Secure Computing Corp., No. CIV. 07-5469FLW, 2009 WL 2390611, at *2 (D.N.J. July 31, 2009) (observing that "terms relating to the tax treatment of a settlement agreement are not considered essential, but rather are part of the implementation of the settlement agreement").

In this case, the Court finds that the precise method of payment was not a term the parties agreed upon before announcing their settlement but was left by the parties to be decided during the during the "fleshing out" period between the oral

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agreement and a written settlement agreement. "Where the parties agree upon the essential terms of a settlement, so that the mechanics can be 'fleshed out' in a writing to be thereafter executed, the settlement will be enforced notwithstanding the fact the writing does not materialize because a party later reneges." See Sipler v. Trans Am Trucking, Inc., 881 F. Supp. 2d 635, 637 (D.N.J. 2012) (citing Lahue v. Pio Costa, 623 A.2d 775 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1993), cert. denied, 634 A.2d 524 (N.J. 1993)).

Here, five days after the pre-trial conference in which the parties settled the matter, plaintiff's counsel affirmatively stated in an email to defense counsel, "I also ask that the agreement reflect payment within 30 days of execution, and separate checks to Ms. Natale and my firm. I also wanted to inquire if it was possible to have the payment made by 1099 as opposed to W-2." Plaintiff's counsel also did not take issue with the indemnification provision which made all tax liabilities plaintiff's responsibility. It was not until plaintiff visited her accountant who advised her to not sign the agreement unless she was paid by W-2, which was a month after the settlement conference and after several email exchanges between counsel, that the issue of the form of payment became a

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deal breaker in plaintiff's eyes.4 This fact and others lead the Court to conclude that the method of payment was not contemplated by the parties to be an essential element of the settlement.5

A settlement agreement is a contract, and the court has "no right to rewrite the contract" or "remake a better contract for the parties than they themselves have seen fit to enter into." Karl's Sales & Serv., Inc. v. Gimbel Bros., 592 A.2d 647, 650 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1991) (citing James v. Federal Ins. Co., 5 N.J. 21, 24, 73 A.2d 720 (1950)) (other citations omitted). Because there are tax consequences of every

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settlement, plaintiff or defendant in this case could have raised the form of payment during settlement negotiations and made it an essential term of the contract.6

It is clear that the parties entered into an agreement to settle the matter for a specific amount at the pre-trial conference on March 25, 2015, and that payment via Form 1099 or Form W-2 was not an essential term of the settlement. The Court must therefore addresses plaintiff's argument that a settlement of an ADEA claim paid in the form of a 1099 instead of a W-2 would be contrary to law, and would therefore...

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