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Nellis v. Cushfield Maintenance West Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 1, 2019



          LUCY H. KOH, United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is a motion to dismiss the parties' settlement agreement filed by Plaintiff Vernon Nellis (“Plaintiff”), ECF No. 36 (“MTD”), and a motion to enforce the parties' settlement agreement filed by Defendant Cushfield Maintenance West Corp., erroneously sued as Cushman Maintenance West Corporation (“Defendant”). ECF No. 42 (“MTE”). Having considered the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the record in this case, the Court GRANTS Defendant's motion to enforce and DENIES Plaintiff's motion to dismiss.

         Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the Court orders that Plaintiff execute and return, by July 8, 2019, the Joint Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice to Defendant's counsel for filing with this Court. By July 10, 2019, Defendant shall file notice with the Court of Plaintiff's compliance or noncompliance with the instant Order. If Plaintiff fails to comply with the instant Order and the settlement agreement, the Court will sua sponte dismiss Plaintiff's case with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On or around March 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed an individual claim pro se with the California Labor Commissioner's Office (“Labor Commissioner”) and alleged violations of the California state labor laws governing overtime, minimum wages, meal and rest periods, and payment of all wages due on termination. ECF No. 42-1 (“Dollarhide Decl.”) ¶ 2. On January 17, 2017, a hearing was held in the San Jose Office of the Labor Commissioner on Plaintiff's claims. Id. On June 30, 2017, an “Order, Decision, or Award of the Labor Commissioner” was issued. Id.; see also ECF No. 42-2 at Ex. A (“Labor Commissioner Order”). The Labor Commissioner awarded Plaintiff $195.22 in unpaid overtime and double premium wages, along with $22.30 for interest pursuant to California Labor Code § 98.1, for a total award of $217.52. See Labor Commissioner Order. The Labor Commissioner determined that Plaintiff should take nothing in connection with his meal period, rest period, liquidated damages, and waiting time penalty claims. Id.

         On February 22, 2017, Plaintiff appealed pro se the Labor Commissioner Order in the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. See Nellis v. Cushfield Maintenance Corp., et al, No. 17CV306630 (the “Related Action”).

         On April 7, 2017, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) closed Plaintiff's pro se discrimination case for the following reason: “Investigated and Dismissed - Insufficient Evidence.” ECF No. 1-1, Ex. 12. The DFEH also issued Plaintiff a Notice of Right to Sue. Id. The notice stated that any claim brought pursuant to federal discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”), or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), would need to be filed within 90 days of the date Plaintiff received the notice. Id.

         Almost five months later, on September 5, 2017, Plaintiff filed a second pro se action against Defendant--the instant putative class action--in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County and asserted, among other claims, various claims for violations of the California Labor Code, violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, violations of Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act, age discrimination, and violations of the California Government Code. ECF No. 1-1. On July 2, 2018, Defendant removed the case to this federal Court. ECF No. 1. On July 2, 2018, Defendant also filed its answer to Plaintiff's pro se complaint. ECF No. 1-2.

         On September 26, 2018, the parties filed a joint case management statement, and Plaintiff acknowledged that he had been unable to retain counsel for his putative class action. ECF No. 20. On October 31, 2018, the parties filed a second joint case management statement, and Plaintiff again acknowledged that he had been unable to retain counsel for his putative class action. ECF No. 26.

         On November 2, 2018, the Court referred the parties to a settlement conference with United States Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins and stayed the case. ECF No. 28.

         The parties participated in a settlement conference with Judge Cousins on January 31, 2019. ECF No. 35. The settlement conference was scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. ECF No. 32. Mary Dollarhide, attorney for Defendant, attended the settlement conference, and Plaintiff appeared pro se. Dollarhide Decl. ¶¶ 5-6. Stephanie Mercer, Deputy General Counsel of Cushman & Wakefield, Inc., resident in Defendant's Dallas, Texas officer, also attended as the Company representative. Defendant submitted the above described facts and procedural history of Plaintiff's case, including the Labor Commissioner Order, in the Defendant's settlement conference statement and presented them to Judge Cousins at the settlement conference. MTE at 3.

         Judge Cousins began with a brief joint session where he outlined the settlement conference process. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 7. Judge Cousins explained that the parties would be situated in different spaces during the day and that he would move back and forth to communicate settlement positions and that information provided by one side would not be presented to the opposing party without express permission. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 7. Thus, as Plaintiff acknowledges, “at no time were the merits of the case discussed directly between the Defense counsel and the Plaintiff.” MTD at 13.

         Judge Cousins first met with Plaintiff in a conference room adjacent to the courtroom, while Ms. Dollarhide and Ms. Mercer waited in the courtroom. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 8; MTD at 13. Plaintiff represents that during his conversation with Judge Cousins, Judge Cousins asked Plaintiff what he was looking for, and Plaintiff responded that “he was tired and would be willing to settle” as he found it difficult emotionally “to go through the notes on the case” and be reminded of his work situation. MTD at 13. Ms. Dollarhide estimated that Judge Cousins spent more than 2 hours meeting with Plaintiff. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 8. At that point, Judge Cousins asked the parties to break for lunch and return at 1:30 p.m. Id.

         After lunch, Judge Cousins met with Ms. Dollarhide and Ms. Mercer to discuss the substance of the case and the Defendant's settlement position. Id. Judge Cousins then alternated meeting with Plaintiff and Defendant and communicated each side's positions and proposed settlement numbers throughout the afternoon. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 9. Plaintiff rejected Defendant's first two offers that were conveyed to him through Judge Cousins. MTD at 14.

         At some point, Judge Cousins informed Ms. Dollarhide and Ms. Mercer that Plaintiff had expressed concerns about his reputation and potential negative reports to prospective employers that might come from Company representatives. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 9. In response, Ms. Dollarhide offered to prepare a neutral letter of reference for Plaintiff and to provide him with an exclusive point of contact in the Human Resources Department who would not supply information beyond dates of service, salary and position held. Id.

         Near the end of the day, Judge Cousins recommended a settlement number and that Ms. Dollarhide draft a neutral reference letter and identify a Human Resources contact for Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 10. Ms. Dollarhide drafted that letter in the courtroom and Judge Cousins agreed to print the document for Plaintiff's review. Id.; ECF No. 42-3 at Ex. B (“Reference Letter”). Ms. Mercer accepted the number proposed by Judge Cousins. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 10. Judge Cousins then presented the number and letter to Plaintiff, and Plaintiff accepted. MTD at 14.

         Ms. Dollarhide and Ms. Mercer were subsequently informed by Judge Cousins that Plaintiff had agreed to the settlement number and the non-monetary consideration. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 10; ECF No. 42-4 (“Settlement Agreement”). Ms. Dollarhide then prepared a written settlement agreement in the courtroom that memorialized the terms negotiated by Judge Cousins. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 11. Judge Cousins took the agreement to Plaintiff and returned it with Plaintiff's signature. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 11. Ms. Mercer then signed the settlement agreement in Ms. Dollarhide's presence. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 11. The settlement conference concluded at 4:00 p.m. and Ms. Dollarhide and Mr. Mercer never reconvened with Plaintiff because they left to catch their flights. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 12.

         Ms. Dollarhide declared that Plaintiff appeared to be pleasant during the minimal interactions they had during the course of the settlement conference. Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 13. Specifically, Ms. Dollarhide declared:

Throughout the course of the settlement conference, I exchanged only pleasantries with Plaintiff. At the outset of the day, he had been locked out of the courtroom, so I opened the door for him and introduced myself to him along with Ms. Mercer. When the parties broke for lunch, we encountered Mr. Nellis and he asked me if I knew of any good lunch spots in the area. I said that I could not assist him because I was not from the area. In both exchanges, Mr. Nellis was pleasant and did not appear to be upset or distraught. Indeed, he appeared calm, prepared with files and documents, and capable of managing his affairs. This was consistent with my prior dealings with him on the phone. After the signing of the settlement agreement and upon leaving the courtroom, I observed Mr. Nellis, who was still in the other room. He did not appear unnerved or upset. There was no indication to me throughout the proceedings that Mr. Nellis was in any way, shape, or form incapable of representing his own interests, as he had apparently been doing for several years in the various actions he had brought against the Company. Had that been the case, I would not have proceeded to negotiate with him through Judge Cousins.

Dollarhide Decl. ¶ 13.

         The settlement agreement that both parties signed provided that Defendant would pay Plaintiff a settlement payment of $7, 500 and provide a reference letter and a point of contact for future employment related inquiries regarding Plaintiff.[1] See Settlement Agreement at Section 1(b). In exchange, Plaintiff agreed to release his claims against Defendant. Id. at Section 2(a). In addition, as a condition of the release, Plaintiff promised to voluntarily dismiss the instant case and the Related Action. Id. at Section 2(b). Plaintiff initialed each page of the settlement agreement. See generally Id. The last page of the settlement agreement contains the signature of Plaintiff, Vernon Nellis, the signature of Ms. Mercer, and the date, January 31, 2019. See Id. at 9.

         Thus, on January 31, 2019, Judge Cousins entered a minute entry on the docket that stated:

Settlement Conference held on 1/31/2019:
Case settled; dismissal to be filed.
Plaintiff: Vernon Ells.
Attorney for Defendant: Mary Catherine Dollarhide.

ECF No. 35.

         Plaintiff never moved to voluntarily dismiss the instant action pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement. Instead, two weeks after Plaintiff had signed the settlement agreement, on February 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed his instant motion to dismiss the settlement agreement. See MTD. According to Plaintiff's motion to dismiss, Plaintiff now believes that the settlement agreement should be rescinded for duress, or mistake of fact and law, and fraud. MTD at 13-15. Plaintiff represents in his motion to dismiss that during Plaintiff's first conversation with Judge Cousins, Plaintiff “fought off tears with the whole experience being re-lived coupled with having been sexually molested as a child through teen years.” MTD at 13-14. Further, Plaintiff takes issue with the fact that, according to Plaintiff, Judge Cousins “stated [that] the Defense counsel was unlikely to go up more and would be filing to dismiss nearly all of the case based on statute of limitations” and that “Judge Cousins had been told by the Defense counsel the right to sue notice[] had expired.” Id. at 14. Plaintiff also states that “the presence of Judge Cousins and his eagerness to complete the settlement and his own offer sitting in front of the Plaintiff coupled with Judge Cousins stating the Defense had a flight to catch was simply too much pressure. The Plaintiff was under emotional duress and under physical stress from sitting in the room six hours, then having a [sic] Federal Judge Cousins present his own number on the contract and hand a pen to the Plaintiff to sign, the Plaintiff signed feeling extremely pressured and overwhelmed.” Id. Plaintiff also complains that he went home and could not sleep. Plaintiff also represents that a “legal referral site reached out the next day with two lawyers, ” and that “one of the lawyers will take the case if the settlement agreement is rescinded.” Id.

         On March 1, 2019, Defendant filed its instant motion to enforce the settlement agreement and opposition to ...

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