Business Lawsuit Roundup

New Connecticut business litigation decisions and lawsuits of interest for February 2011:

Appellate Decisions:

Schirmer v. Souza

The Appellate Court upheld an award in favor of the plaintiffs on claims of unjust enrichment concerning renovations to a residence on defendants’ property. In a somewhat strange set of facts, the plaintiffs loaned money to the occupants of a home thinking they had title when the defendants actually had title. The defendants sold the house after the renovations.  Plaintiffs expected  over $100,000 from the sale of home to cover the renovation costs and instead got nothing.  Plaintiffs sued an recovered   based on unjust enrichment. 

Gateway, Kelso and Co. v. West Hartford No. 1, LLC

The Appellate Court upheld denial of summary judgment holding that a court finding in a pre-judgment proceeding could not provide the basis for summary judgment.  Plaintiff moved for a prejudgment remedy and it was denied because the defendant raised a defense based on the plaintiff’s failure to be licensed.  The defendant then tried to use that same ruling to obtain a judgment in the case.   The trial court denied the motion finding that the earlier ruling was not sufficient.  The Appellate Court upheld the denial of summary judgment and agreed that the ruling in the prejudgment remedy proceeding could not be the basis of the summary judgment ruling.

Tzovolos v. Wiseman

The Appellate Court adopted the trial court’s findings in full in this case involving two complex commercial disputes over the ownership and security interests in restaurant equipment.  The plaintiffs alleged breach of a purchase and sale agreement and a promissory note related to the equipment. The most significant aspect of the decision is the trial court’s decision to hold the individual defendants liable for the corporate defendants.

Trial Decision:

Directory Assistants, Inc. v. Albano

This case was filed in the federal district court over breach of a non-compete agreement.  The parties reached a stipulated settlement requiring the defendant to either file for bankruptcy or pay plaintiff $66,000.00 by way of a stipulated judgment.  At the time of the settlement agreement, the defendant was not sure of his ability to file for bankruptcy.  After agreeing to settle, the defendant either changed his mind or was not able to file for bankruptcy.  The defendant then tried to back out of the settlement.  The trial court ruled in plaintiff’s favor following arguments on a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. The court ruled that a litigant cannot agree to a settlement and then change his mind after the fact.  The court entered judgment.

New Lawsuits:

Coach, Inc. v. Tropical Sun, LLC, et al

This is a trademark infringement action under the Lanham Act, and a copyright infringement act under the Copyright Act. The action is brought by  Coach , well known for its leather made products like handbags and wallets. Coach owns several trademarks in various classes for its goods dating back to 1963 for leather goods and wallets. Coach alleges that its trademark is famous.  Coach also alleges that many of the combinations or design elements on its products are "protected works" under the Copyright Act.  Coach alleges that the defendants are selling look a likes from a retail store in Connecticut. 

The lawsuit gives some insight as to how trademark owners can police their products.  In this case, Coach sent a private investigator into the store to purchase the fake Coach products.  The products were retailing for far less than Coach’s genuine products.

Jacqueline Millan v. AIG

This is a whistleblower lawsuit.  Ms. Millan alleges she was fired from AIG Financial Products after identifying irregularities in AIG stock trading. She alleges that she was employed as a compliance associate and reported the irregularities to her supervisor and then was "shut out of the investigation and subjected to intimidation."  She alleges she was fired shorty thereafter.  The complaint seeks recovery for retaliatory discharge under Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Connecticut’s whistleblower law (31-51q).  The irregularities related to AIG employee stock trades at time when AIG was considering bankruptcy.

Can An Attorney Bind A Client To A Settlement Agreement Even If The Client Did Not Agree?

The answer is –   yes, under the right set of facts.  In Connecticut, attorneys must abide by a client’s decision to settle a case.  Additionally, an attorney has to consult with a client and secure consent to accept or make a settlement offer.  Seems straightfoward, right? 

However, what happens if an attorney reasonably believes he has consent, but the client later disagrees?  Or, what if the client does give consent, but later changes her mind?  Or, how about a situation where it appears to the opposing party that the client’s attorney had authority to settle based on conduct of the client.  Does it matter whether there really was express authority given to the attorney to settle?

In a recently released decision,Ackerman v. Sobol Family Partnership, et al, the Connecticut Supreme Court addressed these very issues.  In the case, the Supreme Court upheld a trial court judgment in favor of a group of defendants that sought to enforce a settlement agreement.  The case involved a history of negotiations between well known attorneys for the two sides, including a failed mediation and a few months of verbal and written exchanges on settlement terms. 

The underlying case involved a dispute concerning "management and oversight of a family partnership and various family trusts."  Shortly before trial was scheduled to start, the defendants believed that a global settlement was reached for 1.1 million dollars based on an agreement with the plaintiffs’ attorney.  The plaintiffs disagreed and claimed that their attorney did not have authority to bind the plaintiffs to the settlement.  The defendants then filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement.  Judge Eveleigh held a hearing on the motion, made factual findings on the record, and ultimately entered judgment in the case based on the settlement agreement.  

On appeal, the Supreme Court gave deference to Judge Eveleigh’s findings and upheld his decision to enforce the settlement agreement despite one of the plaintiffs stating her attorney had no authority to settle the case.    The Court’s decision was based on the actual or apparent authority that the plaintiffs’ attorney had to settle the case coupled with the defendants’ reasonable belief that the attorney had the authority. 

The following factors, if present, can result in an attorney binding a client to an enforceable settlement agreement whether the client actually agreed or not:

  • Terms of the settlement are clear, certain, and unambiguous
  • Offer and acceptance of the terms
  • Attorney had actual or apparent authority to agree to the terms
  • If apparent authority, then opposing party must have good faith belief that attorney had authority

On the issue of apparent authority, the basic question is whether it reasonably appeared to the opposing party that the attorney had authority to settle regardless of whether there was express authority.  The relevant inquiry for the court is the conduct of the client, not the attorney.  In other words, the client can engage in conduct that permits others to believe the client’s attorney had authority to settle.  For example, a court may find apparent authority existed if the client through her own actions held the attorney out as "possessing sufficient authority" or knowingly permitted the attorney to act with such authority.   If it was reasonable for the opposing party to believe there was authority to settle, a binding agreement can exist.  In these circumstances, as in the Sobol case, the court can enforce a settlement agreement even if the client later claims that there was no actual authority for the attorney to settle the case.  

The take away here is that a settlement agreement negotiated between attorneys can, under some circumstances,  bind a client to the agreement in court even if a client did not intend to agree or the client later changes her mind.  If a client wants to have final approval over every aspect of a settlement agreement, it should be clear to not only the client’s attorney, but also communicated to the opposing party as well. 

Are Settlement Agreements Enforceable In Connecticut

The short answer is that it depends.  Settlement agreements are generally enforceable if the terms of the agreement are clear and authorized by the litigants or parties to the litigation.  In Gengaro v. City of New Haven (to be officially released December 29th), the Appellate Court had another opportunity to comment on the long standing law in Connecticut that "a compromise agreement . . . if free from fraud, mistake or undue influence . . . is conclusive between the parties." 

In Gengaro, a trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City concerning employment claims because Gengaro had signed a confidential settlement agreement prior to the lawsuit.  Gengaro claimed he was forced to so sign the agreement because of threats of losing his job.  He claimed undue influence to attempt to invalidate the settlement agreement.   Gengaro claimed that he had serious financial and medical problems.  Coupled with the threat  of job loss, he claimed that he had no reasonable alternative but to agree to the settlement.  

The trial court granted summary judgment finding insufficient issues of fact concerning undue influence.  Essentially, the court concluded that the threat of losing his job was not sufficient for the exercise of undue influence.  The Appellate Court agreed.  For a good analysis of what employers should to to avoid these type of claims check of the Connecticut Employment Law Blog post on the case.

To establish undue influence in Connecticut, four elements must be established:

  • a person is who is subject to influence
  • an opportunity to exert undue influence
  • a disposition to exert undue influence; and
  • a result indicating undue influence

Relevant factors in the inquiry include age, physical and mental condition, whether the person had disinterested or legal advice, the consideration of value of the contracted for exchange, and active solicitations and persuasions by the other party.

In summary, undue influence is the exercise of control by one person over another in an attempt to destroy the person’s free agency and "constrain him to do something other than he would do under normal control…"  Undue influence, if demonstrated, may invalidate a contract because the free assent of one party to the contract is lacking.

Settlements agreements are enforceable in court if the terms are clear and authorized by the parties.  Attempting to invalidate the agreement by showing undue influence, fraud, or mistake are difficult claims to make.  The take away here is to carefully review your settlement agreements with counsel because once you sign an agreement, it is likely to be enforced absent special factors.