CT: Underlying personal injury matter
Facts: The client hired the lawyer to represent her in a personal injury claim. The lawyer failed to appear in court on behalf of his client on several occasions and the complaint was dismissed with prejudice. The client filed a legal malpractice claim based on the lawyer’s negligence. During a pretrial conference, the client and lawyer agreed upon a settlement of $20,000, to be paid within ninety days. The day after the conference, the lawyer contacted the client to tell her that he no longer agreed to pay the $20,000. The client then filed for the court to enforce the settlement agreement. The lawyer defended himself on the belief that the contract was unenforceable because of his communication refusing to pay the agreed upon amount. The court ruled in favor of the client and ordered the lawyer to pay the client $20,000 within ninety days.
Issue: Did the trial court properly decide against the lawyer in ordering him to pay the client $20,000 in order to enforce the settlement agreement?
Ruling: No. A trial court generally has the power to enforce a settlement agreement as a matter of law when the terms of the settlement are clear and definite and not in dispute. In this case, the trial court’s judgment award against the lawyer was directly in conflict with the terms of the settlement agreement. Thus, the court inappropriately used its discretion by rendering a judgment that contradicted the terms of the settlement agreement.
Lesson: “The court’s authority in these circumstances is limited to enforcing undisputed terms of the settlement agreement that are clearly and unambiguously before it, and the court has no discretion to impose terms that conflict with the agreement.” Janus Films, Inc. v. Miller, 801 F.2d 578, 582 (2d Cir. 1986). If the court enforced a settlement where the terms are unclear or in dispute, the court has gone beyond the scope of its power.