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Aikins v. Short

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 11, 2019

TAMMY AIKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM SHORT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIAL L. DODGE, JUDGE

         Presently pending before the Court is Defendant William Short's Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement. (ECF No. 39). For the reasons stated herein, Defendant Short's Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Relevant Procedural History

         This action was commenced in November of 2018 by Plaintiff Tammy Aikins in which she alleged, among other things, a violation of her freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution against Defendant Short, the Superintendent of the Gateway School District. (ECF No. 1).

         The parties participated in an early neutral evaluation ("ENE") before a neutral, Maria Danaher, on June 13, 2019, at which time they agreed to a settlement in principle and signed a handwritten document that included the basic terms of their agreement. (ECF No. 25; Second Motion to Enforce, ¶¶ 3-4). Subsequently, after Ms. Aikins disputed the terms of a more formal written settlement agreement prepared by Defendant, Defendant filed a Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement. (ECF No. 27). After a telephone conference with the parties, the Court directed the parties to return to mediation with Ms. Danaher. (ECF No. 35). On August 8, 2019, Ms. Danaher filed a report of mediation which indicated that the lawsuit had been resolved. (ECF No. 36).

         Shortly thereafter, on August 21, 2019, Defendant filed a second Motion to Enforce Settlement (the "Second Motion to Enforce") (ECF No. 39) which is the subject of this Opinion. Ms. Aikins filed a response to the Second Motion to Enforce (ECF No. 47) and immediately thereafter, Plaintiffs counsel, Jennifer Price, filed a Motion to Withdraw as Attorney ("Motion to Withdraw"). (ECF No. 48).

         A hearing was held on September 5, 2019, at which counsel for both parties as well as Ms. Aikins were present. Oral argument took place regarding the Motion to Withdraw and after giving Ms. Aikins an opportunity to state her objections to her counsel's withdrawal, the Court granted Ms. Price's Motion to Withdraw. Ms. Aikins was then provided with the option of either obtaining a continuance of the hearing regarding the Second Motion to Enforce so that she had sufficient time to secure new counsel and/or otherwise prepare for a hearing, or to proceed with the hearing. After being given multiple opportunities to consider how she wished to proceed, including consulting with her husband who was present in the courtroom, Ms. Aikins elected to proceed with the hearing.

         The hearing on the Second Motion to Enforce was then conducted during which both Ms. Price and Ms. Aikins testified. Both parties also presented oral argument.

         II. Relevant Facts

         A. Background

         According to the Second Motion to Enforce, the parties reached a settlement at the ENE and signed a handwritten document which set forth the basic terms of the settlement.[1] (Second Motion to Enforce, ¶¶ 3-4). During the ENE, the parties discussed that a formal agreement would need to be signed. (September 5, 2019 Hearing Transcript ("Tr."), at 2).

         A formal settlement agreement was subsequently prepared by counsel for Defendant. A dispute arose over the meaning and breadth of a term as used in the first sentence of Paragraph 5 of the draft agreement. This term had also been used in the handwritten document prepared at the ENE. For a variety of stated reasons, including the issue of how the disputed term was defined and Plaintiffs claims that the formal agreement "looked different" than the handwritten version and that her computer was broken, Ms. Aikins refused to sign the formal agreement. (Defendant's Reply to Plaintiffs Response to Motion to Enforce Settlement (ECF No. 33), at 2 ("Reply"); Tr., at 2-3). She also attempted to make changes to the settlement agreement by crossing out a number of the paragraphs, including those related to a release of all claims. (Reply, at 2-3).

         After they were ordered by this Court to return to mediation, but before the mediation took place, Jennifer Price, Plaintiffs counsel, advised counsel for the Defendant that Ms. Aikins would sign the previously supplied written agreement as long as an additional provision was added. (Second Motion to Enforce, ¶ 10; Tr., at 4-5, 18-19). Defendant agreed and sent an updated draft of the settlement agreement to Plaintiffs counsel on August 2, 2019. (Second Motion to Enforce, ¶ 11; Tr., at 15). In addition to adding Ms. Aikins' requested provision in a second sentence in Paragraph 5, Defendant also made a modification to the language in the first sentence of Paragraph 5. (Tr., at 15).

         In the Motion to Withdraw that was filed after the Second Motion to Enforce, Ms. Price states that she reviewed the August 2, 2019 revised version of the settlement agreement, including both changes to Paragraph 5, with Ms. Aikins, including a line by line review, and that Ms. Aikins orally agreed to ...


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