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Ruiz v. City of Bridgeport

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 31, 2017

JESUS RUIZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BRIDGEPORT, THOMAS AUSTIN and STEVE LOUGAL, Defendants.

          RULING ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT AND DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO ENFORCE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT

          Alvin W. Thompson United States District Judge.

         On June 7, 2016, the court having received an email from counsel reporting settlement, administratively closed the case without prejudice to reopening on or before July 7, 2016. On June 28, 2016, the plaintiff, through new counsel, filed a motion to reopen the case, claiming the plaintiff had not agreed to settlement. Also on June 28, 2016, the plaintiff filed a motion to amend the complaint. On July 11, 2016, the defendants filed an objection to the plaintiff's motion to reopen the case, along with their own motion to enforce the settlement agreement.

         The court granted the motion to reopen the case on August 17, 2016, having found that the plaintiff had timely filed his motion. The court held a hearing on the Plaintiff's Motion to Amend the Complaint and the Defendants' Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement on October 18, 2016, during which the court heard testimony from former counsel for the plaintiff, Attorney John Bochanis; counsel for the defendants, Attorney John Mitola; and the plaintiff, Jesus Ruiz. After the hearing, the court granted the parties leave to file supplemental briefing. For the reasons set forth below, the defendants' motion to enforce the settlement agreement is being denied and the plaintiff's motion to amend the complaint is being granted.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff, Jesus Ruiz, was employed by the City of Bridgeport as a kennel worker for approximately seven years before being promoted to an Animal Control Officer position. Once he was in the Animal Control Officer position, Ruiz's supervisor was Lieutenant Steven Lougal. Believing that Lieutenant Lougal was discriminating against him based on race, Ruiz filed a discrimination claim with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). Although the exact date of the CHRO complaint is unclear, it was filed prior to October 2014.

         On October 3, 2014, while driving a city vehicle during his shift as an Animal Control Officer, Ruiz was involved in a motor vehicle accident. He filed a workers' compensation claim pursuant to the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Act. The City of Bridgeport placed Ruiz on paid administrative leave while it investigated the accident. To date, the City has not formally disciplined Ruiz nor charged him with any misconduct related to the accident, but Ruiz has not been permitted to return to work.

         Ruiz commenced this action on January 23, 2015, in Connecticut Superior Court, claiming state and federal civil rights violations, discrimination, and retaliation related to the accident, the subsequent investigation, and his workers' compensation claim. The case was removed to federal court, and the plaintiff moved to remand the case back to state court. The granted the motion to remand as to the Sixth Count and denied it as to the First through Fifth Counts.

         On May 3, 2016, the defendants had arranged to depose Ruiz. The precise details are unclear, but Ruiz arrived at the office of the defendants' counsel in City Hall that morning with his then counsel, Attorney Bochanis. At that time, Ruiz stayed in the reception area while Attorney Bochanis met with Attorney Mitola and Thomas Austin in a conference room to discuss settlement. Attorney Bochanis came out to the reception area at least twice to discuss the settlement terms with Ruiz. Ruiz testified that at one point, Attorney Bochanis “told me that they wanted to give me a 30-day suspension and I told him I'm not taking no 30-day suspension.” Hr'g Tr. at 108. Ruiz continued, “So then when he came again he says, okay, they'll give you two weeks suspension. I said okay, two weeks suspension with my position. He wanted me to go to kennels. I said I'm not taking the kennels. . . . I told him I'm staying with my position. I want my position. I want to go back. And no matter what happens, I'm not dropping the charges.” Id. When asked whether he knew Attorney Bochanis had reached an agreement with the defendants, Ruiz testified, “No, I didn't know that they settled.” Hr'g Tr. at 110.

         Once the May 15, 2016 discovery deadline had passed, the court issued an order on June 6, 2017, referring the case to a parajudicial officer for a status conference. Upon receiving notice of the order, Attorney Mitola contacted the court via email, with a copy to Attorney Bochanis, stating that the case had settled. The Clerk's Office was directed to close the case.

         Meanwhile, after the meeting on May 3, 2016, Ruiz made several attempts to call Attorney Bochanis to discuss his case, but “never got a call back from Mr. Bochanis.” Hr'g Tr. at 111. Only after Ruiz obtained assistance from Attorney Miller, his present counsel, to view the docket online did Ruiz learn that his case had been reported settled and the court had closed the case. See Hr'g Tr. at 112-13. Ruiz testified that when was finally able to speak to Attorney Bochanis, “I asked him, John, by any chance did you settle the case? And he told me yes, I did. I said how did you settle the case, John? I never settled the case. I never gave permission. I told you from the beginning I wanted my position back, two weeks suspension with my position back. And I was never going to settle with what they wanted. Well, I settled and you have to come down and sign papers [sic].”[1] Hr'g Tr. at 112.

         Ruiz engaged his current counsel, Attorney Miller, who filed the motion to reopen the case and the motion to amend the complaint on June 28, 2016. Attorney Bochanis then filed a motion to withdraw.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “A settlement agreement is a contract that is interpreted according to general principles of contract law. Once entered into, the contract is binding and conclusive.” Powell v. Omnicom, BBDO/PHD, 497 F.3d 124, 128 (2d Cir. 2007). “The lawyer-client relation [is] one of agent-principal, ” and as is the case here, “[i]n a case arising under federal law, the scope of an agent's authority is determined according to federal precedent.” United States v. Int'l Bhd. Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of Am., AFL-CIO, 986 F.2d 15, 20 (2d Cir. 1993) (citing Fennell v. TLB Kent Co., 865 F.2d 498, 501 (2d Cir. 1989). Settlement agreements, particularly those to end litigation, “are strongly favored by courts and are not lightly cast aside.” Palmer v. Co. of Nassau, 977 F.Supp.2d 161, 165-66 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (citing Willgerodt v. Hohri, 953 F.Supp. 557, 560 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). For this reason, “[t]he burden of proving that an attorney entered into a settlement agreement without authority is not insubstantial.” Int'l Bhd., 986 F.2d at 20 (citing, inter alia, Gilbert v. United States, 497 F.2d 1267, 1268-69 (2d Cir. 1973).

         III. ...


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