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Duff v. Commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Dep't

December 10, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joseph F. Bianco, District Judge


On April 12, 2004, pro se plaintiff William Duff ("Mr. Duff") filed a complaint alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including conspiracy, unreasonable and excessive force, false written statement, false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, violations of the Sixth and Fourteenth amendments, failure to protect while in custody, supervisory liability, failure to intercede based on racially-motivated animus, and perjured testimony. Plaintiff further alleged that a conspiracy existed to interfere with and deprive him of his civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) and 42 U.S.C. § 241.

Mr. Duff also brought two other cases against Suffolk County and its employees which were resolved in defendants' favor after a jury trial. Specifically, in Duff v. John Doe, et al., 03-CV-1912(JFB)(MLO), the jury returned a verdict on October 31, 2006 in defendants' favor. Similarly, in Duff v. Soto, et al., 03-CV-2749(JFB)(MLO), the jury returned a verdict on March 27, 2007 in defendants' favor. Mr. Duff is currently appealing the judgment in the Soto case to the Second Circuit.

With respect to the instant lawsuit, on May 11, 2007, the Court referred the parties to United States Magistrate Court for a settlement conference. On June 6, 2007, a settlement conference was held before Magistrate Judge Michael L. Orenstein. During this conference, both parties agreed on the record to a final settlement of all plaintiff's pending cases against the County, including the above-referenced case on appeal. After Mr. Duff refused to execute the settlement documents in the weeks following the June 6th conference and claimed that such documents were inconsistent with the terms agreed upon on the record on June 6, this Court again referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Orenstein to address these issues. On October 24, 2007, Magistrate Judge Orenstein issued a Report and Recommendation, holding that based upon the June 6, 2007 transcript, plaintiff and defendants had settled all of Mr. Duff's pending cases, including the instant case and the separate case (Duff v. Soto, et al.) currently on appeal. Magistrate Judge Orenstein further noted that plaintiff agreed to the settlement of the case under oath. Thus, Magistrate Judge Orenstein recommended that his action be dismissed with prejudice. Mr. Duff filed his objections to Magistrate Judge Orenstein's Report and Recommendation on November 7, 2007. As set forth below, under a de novo standard of review, the Court agrees with Magistrate Judge Orenstein that the plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily entered into an in-court settlement agreement. Accordingly, the terms of the settlement agreement on the record are fully enforceable and, pursuant to those terms, the instant lawsuit is dismissed with prejudice.

A. Standard of Review

A district judge may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations of the Magistrate Judge. See DeLuca v. Lord, 858 F. Supp. 1330, 1345 (S.D.N.Y. 1994); Walker v. Hood, 679 F. Supp. 372, 374 (S.D.N.Y. 1988). As to those portions of a report to which no "specific, written objection" is made, the Court may accept the findings contained therein, as long as the factual and legal bases supporting the findings are not clearly erroneous. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985); Greene v. WCI Holdings Corp., 956 F. Supp. 509, 513 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). As to those portions of a report to which specific written objections are made, the Court reviews such findings de novo. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b); Hynes v. Squillace, 143 F.3d 653, 656 (2d Cir. 1998); United States v. Male Juvenile, 121 F.3d 34, 38 (2d Cir. 1997).

B. Enforceability of Settlement Agreements

The Second Circuit has held that settlement agreements negotiated between litigants are considered no different than other contracts and, therefore, are subject to general principles of contract law. See, e.g., Powell v. Omnicom, 497 F.3d 124, 128 (2d Cir. 2007) ("A settlement agreement is a contract that is interpreted according to general principles of contract law. . . .Once entered into, the contract is binding and conclusive.") (citation omitted); accord Omega Eng'g, Inc. v. Omega, S.A., 432 F.3d 437, 443 (2d Cir. 2005); Red Ball Interior Demolition Corp. v. Palmadessa, 173 F.3d 481, 484 (2d Cir. 1999). Moreover, there is no requirement that the settlement agreement be in writing in order for it to be enforceable. Thus, in Powell v. Omnicom, the Second Circuit reiterated that where a "`voluntary, clear, explicit, and unqualified' settlement [was made] on the record in open court. . . . the fact that the settlement was never reduced to writing is insufficient to render the settlement nonbinding."*fn1 497 F.3d at 129.

Once such a binding settlement exists, a claim by a litigant that he or she misunderstood the consequences of such a settlement is insufficient to relieve that party of the terms of such settlement. See, e.g., Powell, 497 F.3d at 128 ("When a party makes a deliberate, strategic choice to settle, a court cannot relieve him of that a [sic] choice simply because his assessment of the consequences was incorrect.") (citing United States Bank of N.Y., 14 F.3d 756, 769 (2d Cir. 1994)). Similarly, "[t]he settlement remains binding even if a party has a change of heart between the time he agreed to the settlement and the time those terms are reduced to writing." Id. at 129. For example, in Doi v. Halekulani, 276 F.3d 1131 (9th Cir. 2002), the Ninth Circuit found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by (1) enforcing a settlement agreement entered into in open court, and (2) sanctioning plaintiff for her unreasonable failure to sign the written agreement. Specifically, the court explained:

[H]ere, the plaintiff made a binding settlement agreement in open court; when read the terms of the agreement, and asked if she agreed with them, [plaintiff] simply responded, "yeah." At a time where the resources of the federal judiciary, and this Circuit especially, are strained to the breaking point, we cannot countenance a plaintiff's agreeing to settle a case in open court, then subsequently disavowing the settlement when it suits her. The courts spend enough time on the merits of litigation; we need not (and therefore ought not) open the flood gates to this kind of needless satellite litigation.

Id. at 1141 (emphasis in original); see also Manning v. New York Univ., 299 F.3d 156, 164 (2d Cir. 2002) ("[P]laintiff's change of mind does not excuse her [or him] from performance of her [or his] obligations under the settlement agreement") (quotations and citation omitted); Wynn v. Wegmans Food Markets, No. 96-CV-6307L, 2007 WL 2994227, at *4 (W.D.N.Y. Oct. 11, 2007) ("When both parties have mutually assented to a contract and there is an intention to be bound, the settlement is binding notwithstanding a litigant's `change of heart' or the acquisition of `cold feet.'"(citing Powell, 497 F.3d 124)); see also MacDonald v. Dragone Classic Motor Cars, No. 395-CV-499, 2003 WL 22056626, at *6 (D. Conn. Apr. 29, 2003) ("[O]nce reached, a settlement agreement constitutes a contract that is binding and conclusive. . . . even if a party has a change of heart."); Conway v. Brooklyn Gas Co., 236 F. Supp. 2d 241, 251 (E.D.N.Y. 2002) ("Once a party agrees to the settlement terms, either orally or in writing, that party's later change of heart will not frustrate the agreement's enforceability.").

Finally, if the agreement is knowing and voluntary, the pro se status of the litigant does not allow the litigant to escape from the terms of the valid agreement. See, e.g., Willgerodt v. Hohri, 953 F. Supp. 557 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) ("An agreement entered into by a pro se plaintiff in open court is likewise binding.") (citations omitted).

C. Analysis of Instant Settlement

In the instant case, after a detailed dialogue between Mr. Duff and counsel for defendants (Suffolk County Attorney Brian Mitchell, Esq.) regarding the terms of the settlement, Magistrate Judge Orenstein stated the clear terms of the agreement on the record and ...

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