Nicholas Malfitano Apr. 19, 2016, 11:50am


PHILADELPHIA – A federal court has ruled a Philadelphia firefighter will not be permitted to renege on a previously reached settlement agreement, in order to effect further modifications to it.

Judge Gerald J. Pappert of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled April 13 that plaintiff John A. Clark would not be allowed to invalidate a prior settlement agreement with the City of Philadelphia, subsequent to a termination in July 2012 after which he felt he was subject to a hostile work environment and retaliated against.

In November 2013, Clark was reinstated “pursuant to an arbitrator’s award under the provisions of a collectively bargained grievance and arbitration procedure.” For the vast majority of the instant litigation, including the settlement negotiations, Clark was represented by William T. Wilson, of MacElree Harvey in West Chester.

The district court’s Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa presided over the settlement negotiations, held Nov. 24. All parties, including Clark and his attorney, agreed to settle the case and Caracappa’s chambers communicated that fact to the Court that same day.

The settlement agreement reached before Caracappa was memorialized, prepared by counsel for the City and sent by Wilson to Clark on Dec. 2. However, Clark had second thoughts about the settlement which led him to file a “Motion for Time to Retain New Counsel” on Feb. 8.

Clark’s motion informed the Court that he fired Wilson and asked that the Court allow him “two weeks to hire a new counsel to represent him moving forward in [the] case” – however, Clark had yet to secure alternate counsel, according to court records.

Clark’s motion went on to say he refused to sign the settlement as is, and that Wilson took no action on presenting Clark’s proposed changes to the agreement. In a letter from Wilson to Clark dated Dec. 21, Wilson said he saw no reason to modify the settlement and if Clark wished to pursue that course of action, he should do so with other counsel. Clark terminated Wilson’s services on Feb. 8.

In this case, the City then argued Clark’s extension request motion did not “show good cause” to vacate the prior settlement agreement.

If his new addition to the settlement agreement were not approved, Clark intended to proceed to trial on the merits of his case, as opposed to following through with the terms of the original settlement agreement.

“On Nov. 24, 2015, the parties agreed to a settlement after lengthy negotiations overseen by the Chief Magistrate Judge, who then promptly told the Court the case was resolved. District court judges rely on assigned magistrate judges to inform them of whether a case settled,” Pappert said. “This case was properly dismissed pursuant to Local Rule 41.1(b). A party seeking to vacate, modify or strike a court’s order of dismissal under that Rule bears the burden of showing good cause why the order should be set aside or modified.”

Pappert indicated Clark’s intention to re-open settlement negotiations with a list of proposed modifications the judge labeled as “numerous and vague," did not hold legal ground.

“Clark’s additions include demands that he ‘be made ‘whole,’ his ‘record cleared,’ apologies to his wife (who is not a party to the case), that he be afforded the ‘same rights of neighbors when filing any valid complaint to the City of Philadelphia,’ ‘back pay without stipulations’ and the removal of standard release language including his heirs among those bound by its terms,” Pappert said.

“Clark’s proposed modifications to the settlement agreement, however, do not undermine the settlement’s validity. Instead, they express Clark’s change of heart. In this district, that is not enough,” Pappert stated in conclusion.

The defendant is represented by Diane A. Loebell and Frank E. Wehr II, of the City of Philadelphia’s Law Department.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-05930

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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