As a mediator, I am in the business of getting lawsuits settled, so I take special note of court opinions where a party tries to get out of a settlement by alleging such things as fraud, economic duress, and most recently in Starpoint Properties, LLC v. Namvar, a California Court of Appeal case, coercion. Early in my career I settled a lawsuit during trial but the plaintiff attempted to back out of the deal. It took several months and additional legal fees to finally get a court order to enforce the settlement. As a result, I like to report on “settlements gone bad” cases to illustrate how settlements can fall apart and help others learn from what I and others have learned from the school of hard knocks.
The Starpoint Properties case, involving allegation of breach of contract and fraud, was settled when the parties agreed that the lawsuit would be dismissed in exchange for the right to purchase certain real property owned by the defendants in Los Angeles. The settlement agreement also included a stipulation for entry of judgment, which provided that Starpoint would be entitled to judgment in the amount of $8,362,000, plus interest, against all of the defendants named in the complaint, if any one of four events was to occur. Additionally, the stipulation expressly stated that defendants had waived their right to appeal any judgment issued pursuant to the stipulation, as well as any right to receive notice that judgment would be entered pursuant to the stipulation. When negotiating the terms of the settlement agreement and the stipulation, all parties were represented by counsel.
After three of the four events listed in the settlement agreement and stipulation occurred, Starpoint filed the stipulation and judgment was entered ex parte. Defendant’s attempted to set aside the judgment by alleging that Starpoint coerced them into entering the settlement agreement. However, the trial court found that the claim of coercion was unfounded, and denied the motion. Defendants then appealed but the Court of Appeal found the appeal was untimely; it also noted that the matter would have failed on the merits of the case. Finally, the Court awarded attorney fees to Starpoint as the settlement agreement provided that the prevailing party would be awarded attorney fees in any action to enforce the settlement agreement.
Perhaps the most important take-away from the Starpoint case is that settlement agreements have consequences, and the courts will enforce the intent of the parties as expressed in the agreement, as it would for any contract. The court rejected many of the claims on appeal based upon the language of the settlement agreement. For example, the defendants claimed that the trial court erred in entering judgment against them on an ex parte basis, without giving them an opportunity to appear. The argument, however, was found to be without merit because appellants expressly waived their right to receive notice in the settlement agreement, and such waivers are valid under California law.
The Court of Appeal also noted other aspects of the settlement contract that could not be ignored: it expressly stated that the parties had entered into the agreement”voluntarily,” and “with full knowledge of its significance,” and that its terms had been “negotiated at arms’ length among sophisticated Parties represented by counsel.” Some may view such language as “boilerplate”, but unambiguous terms of a settlement agreement will be enforced by the courts. In this case, the Court of Appeal could not find any reason to overturn the order of the trial court-even in the face of a claim of coercion.