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Bellardine v. Ross

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 1, 2018

EDWARD E. BELLARDINE, Plaintiff,
v.
WILBUR ROSS, SECRETARY U.S. DEPT. OF COMMERCE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          EDWARD G. SMITH, J.

         The plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit because he believes the defendant wrongfully denied him employment in 2010 in its Berks County office. He pursued this allegation for approximately six years prior to filing his complaint in federal court. Shortly after filing his complaint, the parties resolved this longstanding dispute during a settlement conference before the Honorable Timothy R. Rice in late 2017. As part of the agreement, the defendant agreed to allow the plaintiff to apply for a job without the defendant first advertising the position to the general public. Because the defendant was not advertising this job, the parties understood that the plaintiff would be the only applicant. He only needed to submit an application, take an employment test, and the job would be his. The defendant also agreed to pay the plaintiff $1, 000.

         Upon notification that the parties had settled the case, the court entered an order dismissing the action with prejudice under Local Civil Rule 41.1(b). Subsequently, the plaintiff came to believe that the defendant had misrepresented a material term of the agreement. More specifically, he believed the defendant had promised him that it no longer employed any individual in the Berks County office who had been involved with his 2010 employment application. The plaintiff contends he discovered that this representation was false. Accordingly, the plaintiff filed a motion to vacate the Rule 41.1(b) order dismissing the case. The undersigned held an evidentiary hearing on the motion. After considering the evidence presented at the hearing, the court determines that the plaintiff has not clearly and convincingly shown that the defendant misrepresented a material fact pertaining to the settlement. Accordingly, the court will deny the motion to vacate.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 9, 2017, the plaintiff, Edward E. Bellardine (“Bellardine”), proceeding pro se, commenced this action by filing an application to proceed in forma pauperis (“IFP”) and a proposed complaint.[1] Doc. No. 1. The court granted the application to proceed IFP on May 19, 2017, and directed the clerk of court to file the complaint.[2] See May 19, 2017 Order, Doc. No. 2. Later that day, Bellardine filed a request to have the court appoint counsel to represent him. Doc. No. 4. In response to Bellardine's request, the court referred the matter to the employment panel and stayed the case for up to 90 days pending the appointment of counsel.[3] See May 25, 2017 Order at 1-2, Doc. No. 5. Prior to the expiration of the 90-day period, Attorney Patrick M. Harrington agreed to represent Bellardine and accordingly, the court appointed him as Bellardine's counsel on August 28, 2017. See Aug. 28, 2017 Order, Doc. No. 10. The court also directed the clerk of court to return the case to the court's active docket. See id.

         Through Attorney Harrington, Bellardine filed an amended complaint on October 2, 2017.[4] Doc. No. 17. In the amended complaint, Bellardine asserted that the defendant, the United States Department of Commerce (“the Department”), violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it failed to employ him as a field representative.[5] See Am. Compl. at 5.

         On November 14, 2017, the parties met with the Honorable Timothy R. Rice for a settlement conference. The parties reached an agreement before Magistrate Judge Rice, but the agreement was not placed on the record. As the parties had agreed to settle the case, this court entered an order dismissing the action with prejudice under Local Civil Rule 41.1(b) on November 15, 2017.[6] Doc. No. 19.

         Despite the parties having resolved their dispute and the court having closed the case, Attorney Harrington filed a motion to withdraw as Bellardine's counsel on January 29, 2018. Doc. No. 24. His motion indicated that he and Bellardine had reached an impasse. See Mot. to Withdraw as Attorney at 3.

         Prior to the court holding a hearing on the motion to withdraw, Attorney Harrington, in an effort to preserve Bellardine's legal rights, filed a motion pursuant to Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure seeking to vacate the Rule 41.1(b) order dismissing the case. See Mot. to Vacate Order Dismissing Case (“Pl.'s Mot.”), Doc. No. 28. Three days later, Bellardine filed an affidavit in support of the motion that Attorney Harrington had prepared for him. See Aff. of Edward E. Bellardine (“Bellardine Aff.”), Doc. No. 29. Specifically, Attorney Harrington drafted paragraphs one through fourteen of the affidavit, and Bellardine added a fifteenth paragraph that purported to “correct . . . the above numbered paragraphs” and provide “additional information.” Id. at 3-4.

         On February 14, 2018, the court held a hearing on the motion to withdraw. At the hearing, it was revealed that Bellardine believed that the Department had materially misrepresented a term of the settlement agreement and accordingly, had refused to sign the Department's memorialization of the settlement agreement. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court granted the motion to withdraw and subsequently entered a written order memorializing the court's oral ruling. Doc. No. 30.

         The court held an initial evidentiary hearing on the motion to vacate the order dismissing the case on May 3, 2018, and a continuation of the evidentiary hearing on May 29, 2018. During the two hearing days, the court heard sworn testimony from three witnesses: Bellardine, Rosa Estrada, and Attorney Harrington. See May 3, 2018 Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g (“Tr. I”) at 2, Doc. No. 45; May 29, 2018 Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g (“Tr. II”) at 2, Doc. No. 46. Upon the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing, the court ordered the parties to file proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Doc. No. 44. Bellardine timely filed his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on June 27, 2018, and the Department filed its proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on July 6, 2018. See Findings of Fact and Conclusions, Doc. No. 48; Def.'s Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, Doc. No. 49. The motion to vacate the Rule 41.1(b) order dismissing the case is now ripe for adjudication.

         II. FINDINGS OF FACT

         1. The parties appeared before Magistrate Judge Rice on November 14, 2017, for a settlement conference. See Nov. 14, 2017 Minute Entry, Doc. No. 20; Tr. I at 27.

         2. At the settlement conference, the parties agreed to settle case. See Tr. I at 65.

         3. The settlement agreement was not placed on the record.

         4. The agreement contained the following terms:[7]

a. The Department would pay Bellardine $1, 000, see id.;
b. The Department would give Bellardine the opportunity to apply for a Field Representative Position working on the Survey of Income and Program Participation (“SIPP”) within the Berks County ...

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