August 15, 2013
MANFREDONIA LAW OFFICES, LLC., Plaintiff-Respondent,
DANIEL SICARDI, Defendant-Appellant.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 8, 2013
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-7125-10.
Daniel Sicardi, appellant pro se.
Manfredonia Law Offices, respondent pro se (John M. Manfredonia, on the brief).
Before Judges Ostrer and Kennedy.
Defendant appeals from an order enforcing a settlement, and argues that the settlement was supported by "inadequate consideration" and was "manifestly unfair." He also argues that the settlement was obtained through "duress [and] coercion" exerted by his attorney at a settlement conference. We have considered these arguments in light of the record and applicable law and we affirm.
Plaintiff represented defendant in litigation involving an estate in Hudson County. The decedent's sister had filed a complaint contesting the probate of a will in which defendant had an interest. Decedent's sister claimed the will was procured through undue influence. That case was concluded by a settlement in which defendant received over eighty percent of the assets in an estate valued at approximately $700, 000.
Following that litigation, defendant refused to pay plaintiff the legal fee he was owed. After giving defendant the requisite fee arbitration notice, plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division for breach of contract. Defendant retained counsel to represent him.
On July 12, 2011, plaintiff and defendant, represented by his attorney, appeared at a settlement conference and reached a settlement that was then placed on the record. The settlement was that defendant would pay $50, 000 to plaintiff within seven days and plaintiff's complaint would be dismissed with prejudice.
After the terms of the settlement were put on the record, defendant was sworn in and stated he had heard and understood the terms of the settlement and agreed to it "freely and voluntarily." He agreed he was not being "forced or coerced" into the settlement, wanted to settle and intended to be bound by its terms. He acknowledged he was represented by counsel who had answered all of his questions and had no additional questions of counsel. Defendant asked the judge if he could recommend any "literature" respecting attorney-client communications, and the judge replied he could not "think of anything" at the moment.
The judge then concluded that defendant, represented by counsel, "understands the terms of the settlement[, ]" and must make payment within seven days. Defendant did not make payment and plaintiff filed a motion, returnable on August 19, 2011, to enforce the settlement. Defendant appeared at that time without counsel.
Defendant advised the court that he had attempted to pay plaintiff prior to the fee litigation by transferring to him some stock certificates which plaintiff "refused to accept." He added, "Basically, I'm here because of the fact that the lawyer that I had did a crummy job, in terms of my dealing with [plaintiff]." The judge then opined, in pertinent part, as follows:
Before this Court is the Plaintiff's application to enter judgment against the Defendant in the amount of $50, 000, plus interest. This matter arises out of a lawsuit that was filed by the Plaintiff, against the Defendant, for fees due and owing, as a result of representation in an estate matter. The matter was here for a settlement conference in July, 12th, 2011. At that time Plaintiff, Mr. Manfredonia, was here, as was the Defendant, as well as Defendant's counsel.
The Court did take a lot of time with the parties, discussing the settlement of the matter, and ultimately, the matter was resolved and a settlement was placed on the record. At that time this Court found a settlement was entered into freely and voluntarily, that the Defendant understood the terms in the settlement, the settlement was the product of negotiations between the Defendant, with counsel, and the Plaintiff. The Defendant, again, was represented by counsel. . . .
I found that you were not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, I found you weren't being coerced into the settlement, and I found that the matter was settled for $50, 000. . . .
I'm going to order the Defendant to pay $50, 000 to the Manfredonia Law Firm within 14 days. If payment is not made then Mr. Manfredonia and his law office may move to enter judgment. . . .
I have found that there was a settlement, [and] the settlement was fair and reasonable.
The judge later denied defendant's motion for reconsideration and this appeal followed.
We briefly state the principles that guide our analysis. In furtherance of the strong policy of enforcing settlements, "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) (internal citation omitted). Therefore, an agreement to settle a lawsuit will be honored and enforced in the absence of fraud or other compelling circumstances. Pascarella v. Bruck, 190 N.J.Super. 118, 124-25 (App. Div. 1983). "Where the parties agree upon the essential terms of a settlement, so that the mechanics can be 'fleshed out' in a writing to be thereafter executed, the settlement will be enforced notwithstanding the fact the writing does not materialize because a party later reneges." Lahue v. Pio Costa, 263 N.J.Super. 575, 596 (App. Div. 1993). "[T]he party seeking to set aside the settlement agreement has the burden of proving . . . extraordinary circumstances sufficient to vitiate the agreement[, ]" Jennings v. Reed, 381 N.J.Super. 217, 227 (App. Div. 2005), by clear and convincing evidence. Smith v. Fireworks by Girone, Inc., 380 N.J.Super. 273, 291 (App. Div. 2005), certif. denied, 186 N.J. 243 (2006).
We review the trial judge's decision to enforce a settlement for abuse of discretion. Brundage, supra, 195 N.J. at 613; Chattin v. Cape May Greene, Inc., 216 N.J.Super. 618, 628 (App Div) certif denied 107 N.J. 148 (1987) The plain terms of a settlement agreement must be enforced as we have explained unless they were procured by fraud or compelling reasons exist to withhold their implementation Nolan v Lee Ho 120 N.J. 465 472 (1990)
Guided by these principles it is clear that the motion judge neither erred nor abused his discretion in enforcing settlement The terms of the settlement were clear and uncomplicated; defendant was represented by counsel; defendant replied appropriately to the questions put to him on the record and testified that he understood the settlement wanted to settle and acknowledged his representation by counsel He stated he was neither forced nor coerced to settle and had no questions of his attorney No compelling reasons or extraordinary circumstances warranted vacating the settlement
The remainder of defendant's arguments on appeal are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion R 2:11-3(e)(1)(E)