On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-1025-07 in Docket No. A-4595-06T2 and on appeal from the Division of Workers' Compensation, CP No. 98-13475 in Docket No. A-4806-06T3.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 25, 2008
Before Judges C.S. Fisher and C.L. Miniman.
In these appeals,*fn1 we primarily consider whether the Law Division judge correctly determined that a settlement agreement reached by the parties in a discrimination/wrongful termination action also encompassed a workers' compensation claim then pending. We conclude, after careful review of the record, that the settlement agreement is ambiguous in this regard and cannot be accurately interpreted without an evidentiary hearing.
The record on appeal reveals that Lorenzo Perez (Perez) was first employed by Passaic Beth Israel Hospital (the hospital) in 1981 as a staff mechanic. His employment was terminated on November 1, 1996. On October 22, 1997, Perez filed a complaint against the hospital in the Law Division in Essex County alleging he was terminated for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. He also filed a claim petition in the Division of Workers' Compensation in Passaic County on April 21, 1998. These claims were filed on Perez's behalf by different attorneys; the hospital's responsive pleadings in these matters were also filed by different attorneys.
The record reveals that the Law Division action was settled by the execution of a document entitled "Negotiated Settlement Agreement and General Release" (hereafter "the settlement agreement") in February 2000. The settlement agreement expressly indicated the parties' desire "to avoid further proceedings with respect to certain claims that [Perez] has made against [the hospital] in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-12016-97." The hospital promised to pay $35,000, and Perez:
-- agreed to "dismiss, with prejudice and without an award of costs or attorneys' fees, . . . the complaint filed in the Litigation"*fn2;
-- "unconditionally and irrevocably discharge[d] and release[d] [the hospital] . . . of and from any and all claims, known or unknown, that [Perez], has or may have against [the hospital] as of the date of execution of [the settlement agreement], including, but not limited to those claims set forth in the Litigation, or otherwise arising out of his employment or termination of employment or any alleged violation" of a series of federal and state statutes that were set forth in the body of the settlement agreement*fn3;
-- agreed to waive and not seek employment with the hospital in the future;
-- "confirm[ed] that no claim, charge, complaint or action against [the hospital], other than the Litigation . . ., exists in any forum or form," and "[i]n the event that any such claim, charge, complaint or action is filed, [Perez] shall not be entitled to recover any relief or recovery therefrom, including costs and attorneys' fees."
Perez also acknowledged in the settlement agreement that he was "given a reasonable period of time to consider the terms of this
[a]greement," that he "reviewed the terms of this [a]greement . . . with legal counsel of his choosing," and that he "underst[ood] and agree[d] that this [a]greement settles, bars and waives any and all claims that he has or could possibly have against [the hospital]." The parties further stipulated that the settlement agreement contained "the entire agreement between the parties," that it could not be modified "except upon express written consent of both parties," and that it could be "specifically enforce[d]" by way of a civil suit.
The record on appeal does not reveal what occurred with the compensation action immediately after execution of the settlement agreement. The record does reveal, however, that the compensation matter was not then dismissed. Indeed, it remained on the docket, and a trial eventually began on December 8, 2005, well over five years after execution of the settlement agreement, without a discouraging word from the hospital. In addition, the existence of the settlement agreement appears not to have been brought to the compensation ...