Appeal from an interlocutory order of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (McAvoy, J.), denying Defendant-Appellant GAF Corporation's motion to enforce a settlement agreement in an employment discrimination case.
Kaufman, Cardamone and Daniel M. Friedman,*fn* Circuit Judges.
Should a court system awash in backlog delay further the disposition of a case where there is convincing proof that a settlement has been reached? In this case we confront that question from two perspectives. The immediate issue, of paramount importance to the litigants, is whether a compromise was reached in this particular instance.
The broader question concerns how best this Court should deal with such disputes. We are told that by allowing immediate appeal from an order denying enforcement of a purported settlement we undermine the salutary final judgment rule. But, we also gain an opportunity to review an order whose main effect is to keep alive litigation that arguably has been settled -- thereby increasing the burden on the system as a whole. The ultimate question is whether such interlocutory orders present a need for immediate review urgent enough to overcome the general requirement of finality.
Because the details of settlement negotiations in this case are critical to a determination of whether an agreement was reached, we recite some of the steps leading to the settlement.
In 1983 Appellee Doudou Janneh instituted a pro se action alleging that his employer, Appellant GAF Corporation, wrongfully denied him a promotion and permitted the existence of a racially hostile workplace, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-1-2000e-17, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the New York Human Rights Law, N.Y.Exec.Law § 290 et seq.
The suit proceeded at a leisurely pace until June of 1985 when Janneh offered to settle for $80,000, a sum GAF categorically rejected as "ridiculous." After Janneh reduced the proposal to $25,000, and GAF unsuccessfully counteroffered $500, the court appointed Alexander Luckanick as counsel for Janneh. Luckanick informed his client that a maximum recovery would approximate $10,000.
With Janneh's authority, Luckanick telephoned Brady and proposed settling for $6,000. This sparked a $3,000 counteroffer. Luckanick recommended accepting this offer and Janneh agreed. On December 22, 1987, Luckanick forwarded to Brady a confirmation letter stating that Janneh was "agreeable to settling his claim against GAF for $3,000," and Janneh signed the letter below a line reading: "I agree to settle my case for three thousand dollars."
On January 4, 1988, Janneh decided he wanted new counsel and so advised Judge McAvoy. His ex parte letter made no reference to the December 22 "settlement letter" and in fact asserted that negotiations had failed.*fn1 His request was denied.
After several discussions during which Luckanick advised that he planned to withdraw as counsel, Brady indicated his intent to enforce the settlement.
In July, 1988, Brady informed the court of the settlement agreement. During a September status conference, at which Luckanick finally withdrew and new counsel was appointed, Janneh attacked the settlement. He did not deny signing the letter agreement, but instead argued that the settlement should be set aside because he "signed this agreement under civil pressure": his former counsel, he claimed, told him that he did not have much of a case, thus "coercing" him to settle.
Later, GAF moved for an order enforcing the settlement agreement. Judge McAvoy denied the motion, finding "that no such settlement agreement was ever formed." ...