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Garba v. Fresh Express, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 3, 2014

FRESH EXPRESS, INC., Defendants.


MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction

Contractual disputes often entail divining the intent of the parties. In many instances this task reduces itself to an exercise in determining whether the parties genuinely failed to have a meeting of the minds, or whether one party, with the clarity of hindsight, simply wishes to escape what he now regards as an inconvenient promise.

So it is in this case. This matter comes before us on a motion to enforce a settlement agreement filed by the defendant. (Doc. 19.) Upon consideration of this motion, and after conducting a hearing in this matter, we conclude that an enforceable agreement does exist between these parties to settle this case for $7, 000. While the plaintiff may now, in hindsight, experience buyer's remorse relating to the promise he made and conveyed through his counsel, those regrets do not justify allowing the plaintiff to ignore his promises simply because they are no longer convenient. Therefore, for the reasons set forth below, we recommend that the motion to enforce settlement agreement be granted.

II. Statement of Facts and of The Case

This settlement dispute arises out of an employment discrimination case filed by the plaintiff, Boubacar Garba, against his former employer, Fresh Express, Inc. With respect to the question of whether the parties reached an enforceable agreement to settle this lawsuit, all counsel have submitted affidavits describing their settlement discussion. These affidavits are consistent and congruent with one another, and describe a commonplace course of settlement negotiations, negotiations that led to an agreed-upon resolution of this case. (Docs. 20-3, and 23.)

According to counsel, these settlement negotiations took place in May and June of 2014, following the plaintiff's May 20, 2014, deposition in this lawsuit. According to the plaintiff's counsel, [1] prior to May 29, 2014, the plaintiff, Boubacar Garba, had authorized his counsel to settle this case for $14, 500. Following Garba's deposition, on June 4, 2014, Mr. Dion and Mr. Bateman had an extensive telephone conversation with Garba during which they discussed the "pros and cons of his case."[2] In light of their assessment of his case, both Mr. Dion and Mr. Bateman sought authorization from Garba to attempt to negotiate a settlement of this lawsuit. At the conclusion of the June 4, 2014, telephone conversation Attorneys Dion and Bateman both understood that Garba had authorized them to settle this case for $4, 000 or more.[3]

Attorney Bateman then took the lead in these settlement discussions. In the course of these negotiations, on June 12, 2014, Mr. Bateman and Garba had a telephone conversation in which Mr. Bateman sought confirming authorization to settle this case for $7, 000, some $3, 000 more than the settlement sum that the attorney believed Garba had previously authorized on June 4, 2014. According to Attorney Bateman at the close of this discussion he asked Garba for authorization to enter into a $7, 000 settlement and Garba replied: "Ok Richard, whatever you think."

Having received what he believed to be this authority to settle this case for $7, 000 counsel reached an agreement to settle this lawsuit for that sum. Plaintiff's counsel then communicated this settlement by voice-mail to Garba on June 12, 2014. When counsel did not hear back from Garba after a week had passed they placed follow-up calls to the plaintiff on June 19, 2014, and ultimately both of plaintiff's counsel spoke with Garba by telephone on June 20, 2014. According to Garba's two attorneys, by June 20, 2014, Garba reported to his attorneys that he now refused to accept the $7, 000 settlement they had negotiated on his behalf because it was not enough money to compensate him for his damages.

In stark contrast to the straightforward factual narrative provided by his own counsel, Boubacar Garba initially provided the Court with an affidavit which set forth an inconsistent and contradictory account of these settlement negotiations. Thus, Garba acknowledged initially demanding $14, 500 to settle this case in May 2014. (Doc. 23, Garba affidavit, ¶ 3.) Garba then conceded that his attorneys sought authorization to settle the case for a certain sum on June 4, 2014, and admitted that his lawyers believed that he had authorized a sum certain settlement of $4, 000 or more. However, in his declaration Garba enigmatically stated that "I gave them authority to settle my case at that time for no less than a certain sum" without ever stating what that "certain sum" was. ( Id., ¶4.) Garba's initial declaration then entirely ignored his June 12, 2014, conversation with Attorney Bateman in which Mr. Bateman stated that Garba authorized a $7, 000 settlement of the case. (Id.) Instead, Garba's declaration implied that he first learned of this $7, 000 settlement amount on June 20, 2014, and rejected that settlement amount at that time. ( Id., ¶5.) Garba then provided a mathematically contradictory account of his version of these settlement discussions, stating that he believed he had only authorized a $14, 000 settlement, and that he had understood the settlement to have been for $17, 000. ( Id., ¶6.) Oddly, Garba's declaration immediately contradicted these representations regarding his settlement posture. Having stated that he authorized the lawyers to settle the case for $14, 000 Garba announced in his swore declaration that "$17, 000 is not enough to settle..." ( Id., ¶6) and "for even $20, 000 I will not settle this case.' ( Id., ¶9.) Thus, in the course of a brief 3-page sworn declaration Garba admitted to authorizing a settlement for an undisclosed sum certain that he acknowledged his lawyers believed to be $4, 000; Garba then denied actually authorizing $4, 000 or $7, 000 settlements; further, Garba seemed to acknowledge authorizing a $14, 500 settlement; and then contradicted that claim of authorization by stating that he would not settle for $20, 000.

Given the inconsistences which riddled Garba's account of these events, as a matter of fairness to the plaintiff we scheduled a hearing in this matter on August 29, 2014, to allow Garba to testify and provide some clarity to the many contradictions in his prior affidavit. Having conducted this hearing, we find that Garba's account of these negotiations remains evasive, elusive, contradictory and inconsistent. Further, we find that Garba's claims that he did not authorize a settlement of this matter for $4, 000 or $7, 000 is contradicted by the great weight of the credible evidence in this matter, including admissions made by Garba before this Court.

In his hearing testimony, Garba addressed the one critical factual issue which he had evaded in his initial sworn declaration, the nature of his June 12, 2014, conversation with his own attorney, Richard Bateman. After some equivocation, Garba conceded that Attorney Bateman's description of this June 12, 2014, conversation-in which Attorney Bateman alleged that he asked Garba for authorization to enter into a $7, 000 settlement and Garba replied: "Ok Richard, whatever you think"-was accurate. After making this significant concession, the balance of Garba's hearing testimony was a wholly unpersuasive fabric of explanations for his erratic conduct, explanations which failed legally, logically, linguistically and mathematically. Thus, at various times Garba suggested that he believed that his lawyers were describing $14, 000 and $17, 000 settlement figures when they actually stated $4, 000 and $7, 000. Garba then seemed to contradict this assertion by acknowledging that at times the lawyers spoke of $4, 000 and $7, 000 settlements. Garba tried to reconcile these inconsistences by then insisting that he believed these $4, 000 and $7, 000 sums were in addition to his initial $14, 500 demand. However, Garba did not, and could not, explain how these additional sums could have added up to the $17, 000 settlement sum which he claimed he understood that the defendants had offered him, since plainly they do not.[4] Finally, presented with the many inherent contradictions in his testimony, Garba asserted in an incredible fashion that he instructed his lawyers to settle the case but never told them what sum he would accept in settlement of his claims.

On these facts, we find that the defendant has carried its burden of proving the existence of an enforceable settlement agreement involving a $7, 000 settlement, and Garba authorized such a settlement on June 12, 2014, during a conversation with Attorney Bateman. We further find that Garba's later objections to this settlement amount do not stem from a genuine misunderstanding or a failure of the parties to reach a meeting of the minds. Instead, it reflects a legally unenforceable ...

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