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Beazer East, Inc. v. Mead Corp.

June 23, 2005


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 91-cv-00408). District Judge: Honorable Gustave Diamond, Chief Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roth, Circuit Judge


Argued on December 16, 2003

Before: ROTH, MCKEE and ROSENN, Circuit Judges


The Mead Corporation appeals several orders of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in a CERCLA*fn1 contribution action brought by Beazer East, Inc. The main issue presented in these appeals is whether the District Court, over Mead's objection, properly referred part of Beazer's action -- the equitable allocation proceeding -- to the Magistrate Judge. In conducting this proceeding, the Magistrate Judge resolved factual disputes going to one of the ultimate issues in the case -- what share of Beazer's response costs should be borne by each of the responsible parties -- and, in doing so, essentially tried part of the case. Magistrate judges may not, however, try cases without the parties' consent. Because we conclude that the District Court's referral was an improper delegation of its traditional adjudicatory function, this case must be remanded for a new equitable allocation proceeding before the District Judge.

II. Factual Background and Procedural History

This is the second time this CERCLA contribution action has been before us. See Beazer East, Inc. v. The Mead Corp., 34 F.3d 206 (3d Cir. 1994) ("Beazer I"). In 1991, Beazer East, Inc., signed an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The AOC required Beazer to investigate and cleanup the Woodward Facility Coke Plant, an industrial site in Alabama formerly owned and operated by Beazer. Beazer's predecessor, Koppers Company, Inc (KCI), bought the site from The Mead Corporation in 1974. Beazer sought contribution for its investigation and cleanup costs from Mead under CERCLA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 9607(a) & 9613(f). Mead filed a counterclaim for indemnity based on certain provisions of the 1974 purchase agreement. The District Court granted summary judgment to Mead on this basis, but we reversed in Beazer I. We held that the key environmental indemnification provision failed the basic rule of Alabama contract law that promises to indemnify must be plain and unambiguous. Beazer I at 216-19. Accordingly, we remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings on Beazer's contribution claim. Id. at 219 & n.10.

The chief tasks on remand were to determine which of Beazer's response costs were necessary and consistent with the National Contingency Plan (NCP), 42 U.S.C. 9607(a)(4)(B), and what percentage of those costs should be born by each of the responsible parties: Beazer, Mead, and Koppers Industries, Inc. (KII).*fn2 42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(1) ("In resolving contribution claims, the court may allocate response costs among liable parties using such equitable factors as the court determines are appropriate"). In July 1996, the District Court referred this second question to the Magistrate Judge, ordering the Magistrate Judge to issue a report, "after a hearing if necessary," identifying the appropriate equitable factors and setting forth an allocation of Beazer's clean-up costs among the parties.

Mead objected, arguing that the Magistrate Judge did not have authority under the Magistrates Act to decide the equitable allocation issue in the first instance without the parties' consent. The District Court rejected this argument, reasoning that equitable allocation was "essentially . . . a pretrial matter" which can be referred to a magistrate judge without the parties' consent per 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), and that any concerns over the Magistrate Judge's authority were allayed by the District Court's retention of de novo review over the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation.

The Magistrate Judge conducted a lengthy hearing on the equitable allocation issue in May 1997 and ultimately issued a Report and Recommendation in November 1999. Starting from the premise that responsible parties should pay according to their relative fault, the Magistrate Judge found that Mead was responsible for disposing of approximately 90% of the waste on the site, while Beazer and KII together were responsible for disposing of approximately 10% of the waste. However, the Magistrate Judge adjusted this initial allocation to account for his proposed finding that the parties to the 1974 purchase agreement "intended that Mead be able to 'walk away' from the site, i.e., that Mead would not indemnify [KCI] for any future costs at the site for any reason, including environmental response costs."*fn3 The Magistrate Judge proposed that Mead's share of Beazer's response costs be reduced and Beazer's share increased by 15% of the total costs. The Magistrate Judge also found that KII should bear a minor share of the response costs because, as the current owner, it would benefit from the environmental remediation of the site. The Magistrate Judge proposed that KII's share of Beazer's response costs should be 2.5%, that Mead's share should be 73.75% (90% of the waste minus 15% shifted to Beazer minus 1.25%, half of KII's share), and that Beazer's share should be 23.75% (10% of the waste plus 15% shifted from Mead minus 1.25%).

Following Mead's objections, in March 2000, the District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's report with the following minor modifications: 1) 20% of the total costs - rather than 15% - would be shifted to Beazer based on the text, parole evidence, and legal context of the 1974 purchase agreement; and 2) KII's share would be subtracted entirely from Mead's share and added to Beazer's share because Beazer did not bring a contribution claim against KII. Accordingly, Mead's share was reduced to 67.5% (90% minus 20% minus 2.5%), and Beazer's increased to 32.5% (10% plus 20% plus 2.5%).

In February 2002, the District Court conducted a three-day trial to determine which of Beazer's actual costs incurred through December 31, 1999, were recoverable CERCLA response costs. In August 2002 the District Court issued a thorough opinion largely rejecting Mead's challenges to Beazer's costs. The court determined that Beazer had incurred recoverable response costs of $4,805,137.60 through the end of 1999 and entered judgment against Mead for 67.5% of this amount, or $3,243,467.80. Pursuant to the parties' stipulation, in September 2002, the Court further ordered Mead to pay pre-judgment interest in the amount of $1,538,164.03. Finally, in October 2002, the District Court entered a declaratory judgment requiring Mead to pay 67.5% of Beazer's ongoing response costs associated with implementing the AOC. The order also provided a framework for resolution of disputes over the necessity and NCP-consistency of such costs.

Mead timely appealed these orders. In December 2002, we assigned the case for mediation pursuant to the Third Circuit's Appellate Mediation Program, L.A.R. 33.0. The parties strenuously dispute what transpired at the February 26, 2003, mediation session. Beazer claims that the parties reached an oral agreement while Mead claims that the tentative agreement reached at mediation was conditioned on further management approval which was ultimately denied. In May 2003, Beazer moved this Court to enforce the alleged oral settlement and dismiss Mead's appeal with prejudice. The motion was referred to this panel and we decide it here along with Mead's appeals.

III. Jurisdiction

The District Court had jurisdiction over this case under 42 U.S.C. § 9613(b), which vests exclusive jurisdiction of CERCLA claims in the federal courts, as well as under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1332. Horsehead Industries, Inc. v. Paramount Communications, Inc., 258 F.3d 132, 140 (3d Cir. 2001); Beazer I, 34 F.3d at 210.We have appellate jurisdiction over the appeal from the District Court's final orders described above pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Horsehead Industries, 258 F.3d at 140. Finally, we have original jurisdiction over Beazer's motion to enforce the alleged settlement agreement. See Fed. R. App. Pro. 33 ("The court may, as a result of the [mediation], enter an order controlling the course of the proceedings or implementing any settlement agreement."). See also Herrnreitter v. Chicago Housing Auth., 281 F.3d 684, 637 (7th Cir. 2002).

V. Discussion

A. Enforcement of the Alleged Oral Settlement

Beazer's motion to specifically enforce the alleged oral settlement reached at the appellate mediation and to dismiss this appeal with prejudice must be rejected. Both Local Appellate Rule (LAR) 33.5 and sound judicial policy compel the conclusion that parties to an appellate mediation session are not bound by anything short of a written settlement. Any other rule would seriously undermine the efficacy of the Appellate Mediation Program by compromising the confidentiality of settlement negotiations.*fn4

Beazer requests enforcement of the alleged oral settlement but admits that there are genuine factual disputes regarding whether the parties actually reached an agreement.*fn5

Mead correctly argues that we cannot resolve these disputes without violating the confidentiality rule, LAR 33.5(c). With exceptions not relevant here, Rule 33.5(c) provides that no one at the mediation session -- neither mediator, counsel, nor party -- may disclose "statements made or information developed during the mediation process." The provision further provides that "the parties are prohibited from using any information obtained as a result of the mediation process as a basis for any motion or argument to any court." LAR 33.5(c) (emphases added). Beazer cannot prove the existence or terms of the disputed oral settlement without violating this provision's broadly stated prohibitions.*fn6

Beazer argues that the rule is not so sweeping. Beazer concedes that it may not use information obtained at the conference in any argument going to the merits of the appeal, but contends that it must be able to use that information for the limited purposes of proving the existence and terms of a settlement. This argument is unpersuasive. First, the rule is stated in the broadest possible language and does not contemplate any such exception. Second, Beazer's proposed exception would effectively undermine the rule and would compromise the effectiveness of the Appellate Mediation Program. A confidentiality provision "permits and encourages counsel to discuss matters in an uninhibited fashion often leading to settlement." Lake Utopia Paper Ltd. v. Connelly Containers, Inc., 608 F.2d 928, 929 (2d Cir. 1979). If counsel know beforehand that the proceedings may be laid bare on the claim that an oral settlement occurred at the conference, they will "of necessity . . . feel constrained to conduct themselves in a cautious, tight-lipped, non-committal manner more suitable to poker players in a high-stakes game than to adversaries attempting to arrive at a just resolution of a civil dispute." Id.; see also Herrnreiter, 281 F.3d at 637 ("A motion to implement a conference settlement easily could be a strategy to pierce the confidentiality of the negotiations and inform the judges of the parties' position, rather than to carry out an agreement actually reached."). Third, Beazer's proposed exception would require appellate courts to receive evidence and resolve factual disputes, tasks more properly suited to the district courts. See Herrnreiter, 281 F.3d at 637.

We must also consider LAR 33.5(d), which provides that "[n]o party shall be bound by statements or actions at a mediation session unless a settlement is reached." The rule further provides that "if a settlement is reached, the agreement shall be reduced to writing and shall be binding upon all parties to the agreement." Mead argues that the most "straightforward" reading of this rule is that no agreement is binding until it is written. Mead's reading is serial: 1) if the parties reach an agreement, 2) then that agreement shall be written down, and 3) then, and only then, the agreement shall be binding. However, the grammatical structure of the rule is consistent with a parallel construction: 1) if the parties reach an agreement, 2)a) then it shall be reduced to writing, and, 2)b) then it shall be binding. Under this reading, the agreement is binding because it has been reached, not because it has been written down.

The "parallel" construction of Rule 33.5(d) - which would make oral settlement agreements binding on the parties is irreconcilable with Rule 33.5(c), because, as described above, there is no way to prove the existence or terms of a disputed oral settlement without violating the confidentiality provision. Therefore, we adopt Mead's "serial" reading of Rule 33.5(d), according to which an agreement is not binding unless it is reduced to writing. We note that the Ninth Circuit adopted a serial interpretation of similar language in Barnett v. Sea Land Serv., Inc., 875 F.2d 741, 743-44 (9th Cir. 1989).*fn7 Further, Judge Easterbrook's opinion in Herrnreiter provides persuasive policy justifications for requiring written settlements.*fn8 In Herrnreiter the parties admitted that they had reached an oral settlement at a voluntary appellate mediation session but they did not agree on the terms. Id. at 636. The court denied the defendant's motion to implement the oral settlement. Id. at 637. The court noted that there is no transcript of appellate mediation sessions and that settlement conference attorneys presiding over such sessions promise both sides that nothing that transpires at the conference will be revealed to the judges; the court finally observed that appellate courts are not well-positioned to conduct fact-finding missions. Id. Accordingly, the court concluded that nothing short of a mutually satisfactory written settlement agreement could terminate an appeal. Id. "Any other approach would compromise the confidentiality of the negotiations, require the settlement attorneys to become witnesses in appellate factfinding proceedings, and substantially complicate the disposition of litigation." Id. All of these concerns are equally present in this case. In fact, the argument for preserving confidentiality of proceedings is even stronger in this case, where participation in the appellate mediation program is mandatory and the mediation is directed by a court-employed mediator or a judicial officer. See In re Anonymous, 283 F.3d 627, 636-37 (4th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted).

Beazer complains that if Mead's interpretation of Rules 33.5(c) and (d) is accepted then parties will be able to enter into oral agreements at settlement conferences and simply back out on a whim, significantly deterring the federal policy of encouraging settlements. See D.R. v. East Brunswick Bd. of Educ., 109 F.3d 896, 901 (3d Cir. 1997). Beazer also relies on our oft-repeated position that a written agreement is not necessary to render a settlement enforceable. See, e.g., Green v. John H. Lewis & Co., 436 F.2d 389, 390 (3d Cir. 1970) (citations omitted). Mead's first argument is simply incorrect: if parties know beforehand that only a written settlement agreement is binding, they will be sure to memorialize their agreement in writing at the end of the mediation session. Its second argument is based on ...

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