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Friday, June 17, 2011

Settlement agreements


Settlement agreements

McLean v Village of Sleepy Hollow, 166 F. Supp. 2d 898

What can an individual do if the terms of a settlement agreement between the employee and the employer fail to provide the benefit or result expected by the employee? In the absence showing that agreement to the settlement was the result of some fraud on the part of the employer, very little, as the McLean decision by a federal district court judge demonstrates.

Gary McLean was a part-time Buildings Code Enforcement Officer in the Village of Sleepy Hollow. He was also employed full time in another position and in view of this, he was permitted to set his own work schedule. McLean was terminated from his position following the election of a new mayor. He sued in federal district court, contending that he had been fired in retaliation for his vocal support of the previous administration.

The Village and McLean settle the case. McLean was to be reinstated with back pay and his attorneys' fees paid -- all the relief to which he would have been entitled had he won his lawsuit. Settlement documents were signed and the Court “so ordered” the Stipulation and Order of Settlement.

The settlement included the following provision:

“IT IS FURTHER AGREED that the plaintiff will be re-employed by the Village of Sleepy Hollow at the annual salary of $10,000 per annum as a part-time Code Enforcement Officer subject to all terms and conditions of employment attendant to that position.”

McLean was told that he could return to work by letter dated June 14, 2000. Prior to this date, however, the Mayor endorsed a recommendation that Building Code Inspectors be required to work between the hours of 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. As McLean's full time job required that he be at work 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., he was unable to meet the Village's new work schedule set for his position. The possibility of a new policy changing the work hours of his job was not mentioned to McLean during the settlement negotiations.

Although the Village offered McLean the option of working any three successive hours between 8:30 AM and 4:30 PM on weekdays, this would not solve his problem and he did not return to work as contemplated by the settlement. The Village subsequently filed disciplinary charges against McLean for failure to return to work “as scheduled.” The hearing officer ruled that the Village had acted within its authority when it changed McLean's work schedule and recommended that McLean be dismissed from his position because he failed to report for work.

The Village Board adopted the hearing officer's findings and recommendations and terminated McLean. McLean filed an Article 78 in state supreme court challenging the Village's action. He also asked the federal district court to enforce the terms of the settlement order.

McLean's argument: he would never have settled the case if he had known that he would have to give up his full-time job in order to go back to work as a Building Code Examiner. He contended that the use of the phrase “subject to all the terms and conditions of employment attendant to that position” in the Stipulation and Order means that the Village had to reemploy him on the terms that were in effect at the time he agreed to settle the case.

The district court said that although the “situation is extremely unfortunate” and McLean did not get what he thought he was entitled to under the settlement to which he agreed, it agreed with the Village that his motion must be denied.

Although it is clear that the court has subject matter jurisdiction to enforce the settlement, “subject matter jurisdiction was only the first hurdle to adjudication” in this case. The federal judge pointed out that McLean participated in a civil service disciplinary hearing, where he litigated and lost the issue of the Village's right to dismiss him notwithstanding the terms set out in the settlement agreement.

According to the ruling, whether the hearing officer's finding against McLean bars his obtaining a different interpretation of the meaning of the relevant language in the settlement Stipulation in federal court is a complicated question. While any decision by the New York State Supreme Court in the Article 78 proceeding would be entitled to preclusive effect under the Full Faith & Credit Clause, regardless of whether the Supreme Court ruled on questions of fact or of law, here there is only the administrative determination. Is an administrative hearing officer's unreviewed findings entitled to preclusive effect under the circumstances?

According to the ruling, this depends on whether the challenged elements constitute findings of fact, where preclusive effect is accorded, or findings of law.

The judge said that he did not have to decide if there was any “preclusionary effect” with respect administrative findings of law. Instead the court held that even if McLean could relitigate the meaning of the settlement agreement, he agreed “with the conclusions of the hearing officer.”

McLean conceded that the Village had the right to set the terms and conditions of employment, including the work schedule, of its employees. In the words of the court:

The Village is of course free to waive its rights in this regard, but any such waiver must be apparent from the face of the contract between McLean and Sleepy Hollow. The terms of the Stipulation and Order are artless (at least from McLean's perspective), but the relevant sentence is not ambiguous and cannot be read as a waiver by the Village of its right to alter the terms and conditions of its employees' jobs. The Stipulation does not require the Village to maintain the terms and conditions of McLean's employment as they were at the time the settlement was negotiated. It says only that McLean will be reemployed on the terms and conditions that are “attendant to his position.” While the words “from time to time” do not appear after the word “position,” they do not have to, because the usual rule is that job terms can be changed. McLean's reading of the Stipulation, not the Village's, is the one that departs from the usual rule; thus McLean's reading cannot be adopted unless it is clearly spelled out in the contract. It is not. End of discussion.

This, said the court, leads to a harsh result. However, the fact that McLean and his counsel assumed that everything would go back to the way it was, -- i.e., “that they subjectively intended the settlement would restore the status quo ante” -- is insufficient to bind the Village when that subjective intention is not clear from the objective manifestation of McLean's intent - the words of the Stipulation and Order.

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

A Reasonable Penalty Under The Circumstances at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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