Olive v. H. Councill Trenholm State Technical College et al

Filing 87

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER, granting 73 Amended MOTION to Enforce Settlement Agreement filed by Samuel Munnerlyn, Anthony Molina, H. Councill Trenholm State Technical College, Roy W. Johnson, Bradley Byrne; It is further Ordered that the Parties comply with the terms of the Memorandum Agreement in utmost good faith; The Clerk is directed to provide a copy of this Opinion and Order to Plaintiff at Eileen D. Olive, 1825 Brookstone Drive, Montgomery, AL 36117. Signed by Hon. Chief Judge Mark E. Fuller on 11/17/08. (Attachments: # 1 appeals checklist)(vma, )

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA N O R T H E R N DIVISION E IL E E N D. OLIVE, P L A IN T IF F , v. H . COUNCILL TRENHOLM STATE T E C H N IC A L COLLEGE, et al., DEFEN DANTS. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) C A S E NO. 2:06-cv-048-MEF (W O d o not publish) M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER T h is case is before the Court on Defendants' Amended Motion to Enforce Settlement A g ree m en t . (Doc. # 73.) On November 5, 2008, the Court conducted a plenary evidentiary h e a rin g on this Motion and a Motion to Withdraw as Attorney and for Leave to File a Lien (D o c . # 78.) The Court orally granted the Motion to Withdraw and for Leave to File a Lien, b u t took the Amended Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement under advisement. For the re a so n s set forth in this Memorandum Opinion and Order, the Motion to Enforce is due to b e GRANTED. Factual Background P lain tiff filed this suit alleging she was discriminated against because of her race in v io latio n of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. 1981, 1983, 1985(3). Defendants are H. Councill T re n h o lm State Technical College ("Trenholm Tech"), Anthony Molina, Roy W. Johnson, B ra d le y Byrne, in his official capacity as Chancellor of the Alabama Department of 1 P o sts e c o n d a ry Education, and Samuel Munnerlyn, in his official capacity as Interim P re s id e n t of Trenholm Tech. The parties participated in a mediation of this case on July 8, 2008. Plaintiff was re p re se n te d by counsel (Candis McGowan, Nancy Perry, and Monica Arrington). The parties re a ch e d a settlement as a result of the mediation, which was memorialized in a Memorandum A g ree m en t ("the Agreement") (Doc. # 77) (filed under seal pursuant to order of this Court). T h e terms of the Agreement were approved by Plaintiff and one of her attorneys, Defendants a n d one of their attorneys, and the mediator. Because the Agreement was to be kept c o n f id e n tia l and was filed under seal, the details will not be repeated here, except that p u rs u a n t to the Agreement Plaintiff was to cease coming to work on July 18, 2008 and the p a rtie s were to draft and sign a final settlement document. Nine days later, on July 17, 2008, Plaintiff sent a letter to her counsel, with a copy to th e Court, (Doc. # 73 Ex. A) claiming that she signed the Agreement "under duress" and that sh e was "forced into signing an agreement without having a chance to talk with [her] f in a n c ia l advisor." She further stated that she was "sure [the] settlement was not in her best in te re st" and that she did not intend to sign a final settlement document and would not tender h e r resignation as required under the terms of the Agreement. Furthermore, on July 23, 2008, a tto rn e ys for the Defendants were advised that Plaintiff would not agree to the terms and c o n d itio n s of the settlement. On July 29, 2008, Defendants filed a Motion to Enforce S ettlem en t Agreement. (Doc. # 72), which they amended the following day (Doc. # 73). 2 P l a in t i f f filed her pro se response on August 21, 2008 (Doc. # 79). On August 8, 2008, c o u n se l for Plaintiff filed a Motion for Leave to Withdraw and For Leave to File Lien (Doc. # 78). Plaintiff proceeded pro se at the plenary hearing. Testimony at the hearing established th a t the mediation lasted from around 12:00 pm to 9:30 or 9:45 pm. Plaintiff claims she was in a state of heightened anxiety throughout the mediation as a result of two primary factors. F irs t, she claims her attorneys were not guarding her best interests and were increasingly her a d v e rs a rie s in the negotiations. Plaintiff claims her attorney Candis McGowan intimidated h e r by telling her about court costs and potential jury sympathies and frightened her by saying th a t the Governor planned to consolidate some parts of the state college system such that she m ig h t lose her job anyway. Second, she is a Type-2 diabetic and did not eat at all during th e mediation, which she claims exacerbated her feelings of anxiety, frustration, and fatigue. T h e re is some dispute about whether food was available at the mediation, but it is clear that P la in tif f never requested a break in order to eat or that someone get food for her, even when h e r attorneys asked if she needed something to eat. She claims these circumstances c o n s titu te duress and that she was forced into signing the settlement agreement. The Court orally granted the Motion for Leave to Withdraw and For Leave to File Lien (D o c . # 78) during the hearing. The Court took the Motion to Enforce Settlement A g re e m e n t under advisement. That motion is now ripe for disposition. 3 L E G A L STANDARD T h is Court has the power to summarily enforce a settlement agreement entered into b y litigants while the litigation is pending before the Court. Massachusetts Cas. Ins. Co. v . Forman, 469 F.2d 259, 260 (5th Cir. 1972) (per curiam).1 When material facts co n ce rnin g the existence or enforceability of a settlement agreement are in dispute, however, t h e court should hold a plenary hearing to determine the enforceability of the settlement r a t h e r than summarily enforcing the settlement agreement. Murchison v. Grand Cypress H o te l Corp., 13 F.3d 1483, 1486 (11th Cir. 1994); Pearson v. Ecological Science Corp., 5 2 2 F.2d 171 (5th Cir. 1975); see also Thompson v. D.C. America, Inc., 951 F.Supp. 192, 1 9 4 (M.D.Ala. 1996) (DeMent, J.). "Principals governing general contract law apply to interpret settlement agreements." R e sn ic k v. Uccello Immobilien GMBH, Inc., 227 F.3d 1347, 1350 (11th Cir. 2000). Even th o u g h this case seeks redress under federal statutes, state contract law governs the validity o f the mediated agreement between the parties to this action. See id.; Hayes v. Nat'l Serv. I n d u s ., 196 F.3d 1252, 1253 (11th Cir. 1999); Schwartz v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 807 F.2d 9 0 1 , 905 (11th Cir. 1987). Under Alabama law, valid settlement agreements are as binding on the parties as any o th e r contract. Billy Barnes Enters., Inc. v. Williams, 982 So.2d 494, 498 (Ala. 2007). In Bonner v. City of Prichard, Ala., 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir. Nov. 3, 1981) (en banc), the Eleventh Circuit adopted as binding precedent all Fifth Circuit decisions handed down prior to the close of business on September 30, 1981. 4 1 H o w e v e r, settlement agreements may be reopened in the case of fraud, accident, mistake or d u re s s . Id. at 498-99 (fraud, accident, or mistake); Jardine v. Jardine, 918 So.2d 127 (Ala. C iv . App. 2005) (duress). For purposes of defending against putative contracts or s e ttle m e n t agreements in Alabama, "[d]uress is defined as subjecting a person to improper p re ss u re which overcomes his will and coerces him to comply with demands to which he w o u ld not yield if acting as a free agent." E.g. BSI Rentals, Inc. v. Wendt, 893 So.2d 1184, 1 1 8 9 (Ala. Civ. App. 2004); Head v. Gadsden Civil Serv. Bd., 389 So.2d 516, 519 (Ala. C iv. App. 1980). D IS C U S S IO N A la b a m a courts have enforced settlement agreements when the claimed duress was f a ctu a lly similar to the duress claimed by Plaintiff. In Allen v. Allen, 903 So.2d 835, 843 ( A la . Civ. App. 2004), the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals found there was no duress w h e re one of the parties was "under stress" and "appeared beat down." The court's analysis re ste d on the following considerations: (1) the party was represented by counsel; (2) he n e g o tia te d significant changes to the document before signing it; and (3) there was no " im p ro p e r pressure" because the only person who met with the complaining party about the a g re e m e n t was his attorney. See also Swistok v. Swistok, 656 So.2d 1207 (Ala. Civ. App. 1 9 9 5 ) (holding that there was no duress in part because the complaining party consulted with a n attorney before executing the agreement). Additionally, Alabama courts have found duress only in circumstances significantly 5 m o re antagonistic than those presented by Plaintiff. In Elliott v. Elliott, 667 So.2d 116, 118 (A la . Civ. App. 1995), for example, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals found that a wife e n te re d a settlement agreement under duress where the husband harassed and intimidated her o v e r a two month period by calling her at work at least once per day, showing up at her place o f employment "angry and aggressive" once or twice per week, once prompting a supervisor to call security, and undertaking similar harassment of her at her home. The wife testified t h a t "she signed [the agreement] just so it would be over." Id.; see also Delchamps v. D e lc h a m p s , 449 So.2d 1249, 1252 (Ala. Civ. App. 1984) (holding that a husband signed a settlement agreement under duress where there had been numerous altercations between th e husband and wife in which wife had threatened husband's life, that wife had threatened h u sb an d with a gun, and that husband was fearful that wife would do him great bodily harm). P lain tiff 's claim of duress is not supported by Alabama law. The factors the court c o n sid e re d important to a finding of an absence of duress in Allen are all present here. First, P la i n tif f was represented by counsel (even if, in her view, not well). Second, Plaintiff n e g o tia te d and initialed no less than four significant changes to the Memorandum Agreement b e f o re signing it. Third, as there was no "improper pressure" in Allen because "the only p e rs o n who met with the complaining party about the agreement was his attorney," there was n o improper pressure here because, according to Defendants, "at no time during the m e d ia tio n process did the attorneys for the Defendants or the Defendants themselves speak w ith or have any contact with Ms. Olive other than casual introductory remarks at the 6 b e g in n in g of the mediation. During the entire process she was in a separate room with her three (3) attorneys." (Doc. # 73 11.) Moreover, the circumstances of the mediation do not rise to the level found to c o n stitu te duress in Elliott and Delchamps. Those cases involved protracted and aggravated h ara ssm en t , sometimes involving threats of serious bodily harm. Here, no one was "angry a n d aggressive" as the counterparty was in Elliott. There was no threat of bodily harm and n o fear of death as their was in Delchamps. Therefore, in view of the facts considered by the c o u rt in Allen, and the severity of the circumstances Alabama courts have held to constitute d u re ss , the circumstances of the mediation do not meet the test for duress in Alabama. T h e re f o re , Plaintiff is bound by the Memorandum Agreement as she would be by any other v a lid contract. GRANTED. CONCLUSION T h is Court previously granted the then-pending Motion to Withdraw as Attorney and f o r Leave to File Lien. The Court will quantify the lien only when Plaintiff's former counsel s u b m its their costs to the Court for approval. Additionally, in accordance with the reasons s e t forth in this Memorandum Opinion and Order, it is hereby O R D E R E D that Defendants' Amended Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement (D o c . # 73) is GRANTED. It is further ORDERED that the Parties comply with the terms of the Memorandum Defendant's motion to enforce the agreement is therefore due to be 7 A g re e m e n t in utmost good faith. The Clerk is DIRECTED to provide a copy of this Opinion and Order to Plaintiff at E ile e n D. Olive 1 8 2 5 Brookstone Drive M o n tg o m e ry, AL 36117 Done this the 17 th day of November, 2008. /s/ Mark E. Fuller CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 8

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