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Ortiz v. Alvarez

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 2, 2018

SANDRA ORTIZ, et al., Plaintiffs,
GERARDO ALVAREZ, et al., Defendants.


         Defendants Parlier Unified School District and Gerardo Alvarez (collectively, the “District Defendants”) have moved to enforce a settlement agreement with Raul Villanueva (“Mr. Villanueva”) and for monetary sanctions against said party in the amount of $4, 891.50. (ECF No. 161). The settlement was negotiated in off-the-record discussions with a magistrate judge, and the parties assented to the terms of the agreement on the record in open court. Mr. Villanueva opposes the motion, arguing that he rescinded his acceptance of the settlement agreement because he felt coerced by the settlement conference magistrate judge to accept the offer and because he was not in his right state of mind when he agreed to the settlement terms. (ECF No. 163). Mr. Villanueva also argues that he should not be sanctioned for his refusal to execute the written settlement agreement because he has not demonstrated reprehensible conduct warranting the imposition of sanctions and because the sanction sought by the District Defendants is tantamount to an award of attorney fees.

         After reviewing the relevant law and facts, the Court recommends that the District Judge grant in part and deny in part the District Defendants' motion by enforcing the settlement agreement but not awarding sanctions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Raul Villanueva was employed by Parlier Unified School District (“PUSD”) as the head custodian of Chavez Elementary. Mr. Villanueva is one of a number of former employees of PUSD in this lawsuit who are alleging, among other things, retaliation and harassment for political affiliation and the exercise of protected speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Specifically, Mr. Villanueva's allegations in the Fourth Amended Complaint are as follows:

Mr. Raul Villanueva announced his candidacy for Parlier Unified School Board in 2014. Mr. Villanueva made it publically known that he was endorsed by Mr. Juan Sandoval. On or about November of 2014, Gerardo Alvarez requested to meet with Mr. Villanueva. Mr. Villanueva requested to be accompanied by Mr. Sandoval. Mr. Alvarez refused to meet with Mr. Villanueva with Mr. Sandoval present.
On the day of the Parlier Unified School Board Election, Mr. Alvarez reassigned Raul Villanueva to a remote school site location (Exhibit G- Parlier Unified School District Notice of Involuntary Transfer). Mr. Villanueva has been on medical leave for stress and anxiety since November of 2014.
Mr. Alvarez has distributed flyers and political propaganda depicting Mr. Raul Villanueva as supporter of criminal activity (See Exhibit D - Flyer defaming the Plaintiffs). The flyer distributed by Mr. Alvarez during Parlier Board Meetings accused Mr. Raul Villanueva of supporting criminal activity alleged against Juan Sandoval, Gudelia Sandoval and Mary Villanueva.
Mr. Villanueva is accused of promoting their political elections with school district equipment for mass production. Furthermore, the flyer alleges that “Villanueva friends and family members take home hundreds of thousands of dollars, ” and misappropriate school funds.

(ECF No. 67 at 9).

         On July 26, 2017, Magistrate Judge Stanley A. Boone conducted a settlement conference in this action. (ECF No. 118). Counsel for the Plaintiffs, Jeff Reich and Alexia Kirkland, and counsels for the Defendants, Mart Benjamin Oller, IV and Justin Campagne, were present. Id. Mr. Villanueva was represented by his counsel, Alexia Kirkland (“Ms. Kirkland”). During the conference, Mr. Villanueva agreed to settle his claims against the District Defendants for $40, 000.00. The terms of the settlement were placed on the record, (ECF No. 118), and on July 28, 2017, Judge Boone issued an order directing Mr. Villanueva to file dispositional documents within forty-five days, (ECF Nos. 119, 131). The settlement was put on the record as follows:

THE COURT: All right. If I could have appearances, beginning with the plaintiff and your client, since we're dividing this up.
MS. KIRKLAND: Good afternoon, Your Honor. Alexia Kirkland appearing on behalf of Raul Villanueva, present at counsel table.
THE COURT: All right.
MR. OLLER: Good afternoon, Your Honor. Mart Oller appearing on behalf of the defendants, Parlier Unified School District, Parlier Unified School District Board of Trustees, and defendant, Gerardo Alvarez, who is present here at counsel table.
THE COURT: All right. Mr. Oller, why don't I have you set forth the terms. Ms. Kirkland, I will have you listen carefully. Mr. Villanueva, I'll ask you if that is also, in fact, the terms of the agreement. So, Mr. Oller.
MR. OLLER: Thank you, Your Honor. In exchange for payment by Parlier Unified School District on behalf of the defendants that I just listed in the amount of $40, 000 made payable to Mr. Villanueva and his attorney, Ms. Kirkland, Mr. Villanueva will sign a release of all claims as to all known and unknown claims and will waive the provisions of Civil Code, California Civil Code § 1542. The release will indicate that there's no admission of liability on the part of the defendants who are involved in the release. Each side will bear their own costs and fees, including any attorney fees. And this is subject to approval by the Parlier Unified School District Board and we believe that all of this can be accomplished within the next 30 days as far as the approval and then, of course, it will take some time to then have the settlement release signed and then the exchange of the money. So overall, it might take as much as days to get the check in hand, but as far as the Board approval we think that can be accomplished, at least presented to the Board for approval within 30 days.
THE COURT: All right. Ms. Kirkland, is that your understanding of the terms in the agreement?
MS. KIRKLAND: Yes, Your Honor. That's an accurate representation of the terms of the agreement - THE COURT: All right. And - MS. KIRKLAND: -- between the parties.
THE COURT: All right Sorry, Ms. Kirkland. Sorry to interrupt. And, Mr. Villanueva, is that, in fact, what you understand the agreement to be?
THE COURT: All right. All right. So the Court notes that this case as to this plaintiff only has settled. The Court will vacate any and all dates related to this plaintiff only and will order that dispositional documents be filed as to this plaintiff only, let's say within 45 days of today's date. And that should be it as to this plaintiff only. ...

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