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Conti v. County of Mercer


February 20, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1700-06.

Per curiam.


Submitted January 14, 2009

Before Judges Parrillo and Messano.

Plaintiff Jerry M. Conti appeals from the April 25, 2008 order that granted defendant, County of Mercer (the County), Division of Transportation & Infrastructure, T.R.A.D.E., summary judgment and dismissed plaintiff's complaint with prejudice.*fn1 We affirm.

Plaintiff filed his complaint on June 28, 2006 alleging he had been employed as a motor vehicle operator for the County since 1994. In January 2000, he was "placed on certain physical restrictions for the performance of his regular and assigned duties," and, thereafter, during calendar years 2000 through 2004, his supervisors routinely harassed him "by instituting false and bogus disciplinary charges, verbal abuse and threatening comments." As a result, plaintiff complained that he was 1) "compelled to accept an early retirement . . . in violation of N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 [through -49]" (the LAD); and 2) "harass[ed] on the basis of [his] physical disabilities in violation of [the LAD]." He sought compensatory and punitive damages. Defendant filed its answer, and, after some interim discovery disputes were resolved, moved for summary judgment.

In September 2002, the County filed a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action against defendant alleging he was "unfit for duty" based upon his own physician's report. On February 27, 2004, plaintiff and the County entered into a "Settlement Agreement" (the Agreement) eventually reduced to writing and executed by all concerned on April 2, 2004. The Agreement's preamble provided that plaintiff and the County "ha[d] voluntarily resolved all disputed matters and enter[ed] into the [] Agreement, which fully dispose[d] of all issues in controversy between" them. Noting the County had withdrawn the disciplinary charge, subject to potential reinstatement, the Agreement provided for the plaintiff to retire, effective July 3, 2004. In the interim three months, plaintiff would work in the position of "[d]ispatcher." The County also agreed to "support an Ordinary Disability Retirement application" to the Division of Pensions by plaintiff, "to the extent that is appropriate[.]"

The Agreement then provided:

7. [Plainitff] waives any and all claims against the County [], its agents and its employees including but not limited to any award of back pay, counsel fees, or other monetary relief.

8. [Plaintiff] agrees that this settlement constitutes full and final resolution of all issues arising from the matters in question as well as any related matter not listed which is currently filed or pending in any court or before any administrative agency including any notices of claim against the County. [Plaintiff] agrees to forbear from any further appeals, direct or indirect, of these charges or the terms of this agreement in this or any other form (sic), including but not limited to Superior Court of New Jersey, District Court of New Jersey, New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, Merit System Board, Office of Administrative Law, New Jersey Public Employees Relations Commission and any other federal, state or local court of administrative agency.

This agreement does not apply to any pending claim for benefits with the New Jersey Division of Workers' Compensation.

9. This agreement and its terms apply to this matter and this matter only. This agreement shall have no precedential effect on other employees and shall not be binding on [the] county in any other forum. (Emphasis added.)

Plaintiff executed the agreement indicating he did so "voluntarily, free from any coercion, duress or undue influences."

In urging summary judgment, the County argued that plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed because he waived any claims he had under the LAD when he entered into the Agreement. They further contended that his complaint should be dismissed because it was not brought within two years of the execution of the Agreement, and thus was barred by the statute of limitations. See Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282, 290-95 (1993) (claims brought under the LAD are subject to a two-year statute of limitations).

On April 25, 2008, the parties argued defendant's motion before Judge Paul Innes. Judge Innes found the Agreement was not ambiguous and that the "only plausible interpretation . . . [wa]s that the parties fully intended to dispose of any and all claims, including any potential claim for discrimination or harassment." The judge further found that "the date of the []

[A]greement would have been the date for the counting of the statute of limitations because that would have been the day that all actions by the County would have been taken against [plaintiff]." Since that was more than two years prior to the filing of plaintiff's complaint, the judge concluded it should also be dismissed as time-barred. He entered the order under review.

Plaintiff argues before us that summary judgment was not appropriate because "there [were] outstanding issues of material fact" in dispute and because the complaint was not "barred by the statute of limitations." Because we agree with the trial judge's analysis regarding the effect of the Agreement upon plaintiff's complaint, we affirm. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A). We therefore do not consider the statute of limitations issue.

Since the "[s]ettlement of litigation ranks high in our public policy," Jannarone v. W.T. Co., 65 N.J.Super. 472, 476 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 35 N.J. 61 (1961), "settlement agreements will be honored 'absent a demonstration of fraud or other compelling circumstances.'" Nolan v. Lee Ho, 120 N.J. 465, 472 (1990) (quoting Pascarella v. Bruck, 190 N.J. Super. 118, 125 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 94 N.J. 600 (1983)). "In furtherance of this policy, our courts 'strain to give effect to the terms of a settlement wherever possible.'" Brundage v. Estate of Carambio, 195 N.J. 575, 601 (2008) (quoting Dep't of Pub. Advocate v. N.J. Bd. of Pub. Util., 206 N.J. Super. 523, 528 (App. Div. 1985)). "A settlement agreement between parties to a lawsuit is a contract." Nolan, supra, 120 N.J. at 472. We apply general rules of contract interpretation to the terms of any settlement agreement. Grow Co. v. Chokshi, 403 N.J. Super. 443, 464 (App. Div. 2008). Thus, an unambiguous settlement agreement will be enforced as written. Ibid.

As he did before Judge Innes, plaintiff disputes the scope of the Agreement, claiming it was limited to a resolution of the sole disciplinary action then pending, and "any related matter not listed which [wa]s currently filed or pending in any court or before any administrative agency." Plaintiff contends the Agreement was not intended to foreclose his LAD claim. Plaintiff further argues that even if the Agreement is unambiguous on its face, the parties' intentions at the time it was executed were relevant to interpreting its scope. The parties' understanding of the Agreement's terms, he contends, should have been the subject of further discovery, and any summary disposition was inappropriate. We disagree.

The polestar in interpreting a contract is "'the intention of the parties [as] gathered from the language used in the instrument as a whole.'" Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., Inc. v. Checchio, 335 N.J. Super. 495, 501 (App. Div. 2000) (emphasis added) (quoting Schnakenberg v. Gibraltar Savings & Loan Ass'n, 37 N.J. Super. 150, 155 (App. Div. 1955)). "The construction of a written contract is usually a legal question for the court, but where there is uncertainty, ambiguity or the need for parol evidence in aid of interpretation, then the doubtful provision should be left to the [factfinder]." Id. at 502.

In this case, there is no ambiguity in the wording of the Agreement. The only question is whether the document read as a whole expressed the intention of the parties to resolve any and all disputes between themselves and, in so doing, relieve the County from any potential liability as a result of plaintiff's employment.

In this regard, the Agreement clearly and unequivocally expressed the parties' mutual intention to fully "dispose of all issues in controversy" between them. It further broadly and unambiguously expressed plaintiff's intention to waive "any and all claims against the County [], its agents and its employees." It does not matter that plaintiff believed that by executing the Agreement he was not foregoing any LAD claim he might make in the future. As we have said, "[a] party that uses unambiguous terms in a contract cannot be relieved from the language simply because it had a secret, unexpressed intent that the language should have an interpretation contrary to the words' plain meaning." Schor v. FMS Financial Corp., 357 N.J. Super. 185, 191 (App. Div. 2002). There simply is no other reasonable interpretation of the release language, and plaintiff's contention that it was limited to the disciplinary action is contrary to the expansive plain meaning of the words themselves.

Plaintiff asserts that such an interpretation leads to the conclusion that he was waiving "his rights to any recovery for [] past harm" committed by the County, and permitting his employer to commit future harm, "in exchange for no articulable consideration[.]" However, the County was bestowing substantial benefits upon plaintiff under the terms of the Agreement. It agreed to forego its disciplinary action that could have led to plaintiff's termination; it permitted plaintiff to retire, presumably in good standing, and to remain employed until his effective retirement date; it agreed to support plaintiff's disability retirement application. As Judge Innes noted, the County executed the Agreement in anticipation "that this was going to end it[.]" Any contrary interpretation of the Agreement is not a reasonable one.


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