2020 WL 5666705
United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division.
RICHARD BROWN and MARY BROWN PLAINTIFFS
H & H TRANSPORTATION, INC. and LEROY THOMPSON DEFENDANTS
Michael P. Mills UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
*1 This cause comes before the court on the motion of defendants to enforce a settlement agreement which, they contend, was agreed to between the parties in this case. Plaintiffs have responded in opposition to the motion, and the court, having considered the memoranda and submissions of the parties, is prepared to rule.
This case arises out of a commercial motor vehicle wreck that occurred on January 3, 2018 on Mississippi Highway 6 near the intersection with Macedonia Road in Batesville. At that time, plaintiff Richard Brown was driving a 2001 Chevrolet Express van while defendant Leroy Thompson was operating a 2015 Freightliner tractor trailer in the course and scope of his employment with H & H Transportation, Inc. (“H&H”). Plaintiffs allege that Thompson, while traveling westbound on Highway 6, negligently failed to keep a proper lookout and negligently failed to maintain proper control of his vehicle, thereby resulting in a collision. Plaintiffs allege that, as a result of the accident, Brown sustained injuries to his neck, left shoulder, and lower back. Brown underwent surgery to repair the injuries to his neck and his left shoulder, and plaintiffs allege that he has incurred medical expenses in the amount of $151,491.59, as well as lost wages.
In the present motion, defendants seek to enforce an alleged settlement between the parties based upon negotiations conducted in 2018 between plaintiffs’ prior counsel, Kelvin Pulley, and Chris Schneider, an adjuster for H&H’s liability carrier. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that there must be a meeting of the minds in order for there to be a settlement agreement. Crowley v. Germany, 268 So. 3d 1277, 1279 (Miss. 2018). For a settlement agreement to be enforced, the party claiming the benefit of the enforcement must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there was a meeting of the minds. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Byrd, 44 So. 3d 943, 948 (Miss. 2010). Such an agreement may be established by the actions of the parties or of their agents. Parmley v. 84 Lumber Co., 911 So. 2d 569, 572 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). With this authority in mind, this court will proceed to a discussion of the facts surrounding the alleged settlement in this case.
In March 2018, Pulley sent an initial demand of $150,000 to Schneider to settle plaintiffs’ claim. Beginning on April 19, 2018 and continuing until August 22, 2018, Pulley e-mailed Schneider updated records and bills for Brown as well as updates regarding his ongoing treatment; negotiations also occurred during this timeframe. On August 27 and 28, 2018, e-mail exchanges took place between Pulley and Schneider which form the basis for the instant motion. At 2:37 p.m. on August 27, Pulley e-mailed Schneider that “I think I can get [plaintiffs] to $38,000.” [Exhibit C to the Affidavit of Kelvin Pulley.] At 1:40 p.m. on August 28, Schneider responded “[c]an you get 38k? If you confirm your [sic.] moving to 38 which includes any and all liens associated I will respond with our position.” [Id.] Three minutes later, Pulley replied “Yes, I can confirm we are moving to $38,000 which includes all liens.” One minute later, Schneider responded “[c]onsider this settled at 38k. I will send over a release. Is your client married?” [Id.] Pulley did not immediately respond to this e-mail.
*2 On August 29, 2018, Pulley e-mailed Schneider that the parties “might just need to wait on settlement. I believe that he will resolve it for the $38,000.” [Exhibit D to the Affidavit of Kelvin Pulley.] In response, Schneider wrote “[y]ou said your client is willing to settle at $38k, which was why we agreed to put it on the table. You have till the end of the business day to accept this number I have already agreed upon settling with your client for, or I will pull the offer and we can start back at the beginning.” [Exhibit E to the Affidavit of Kelvin Pulley.] Pulley did not accept the $38,000 offer, and, true to his word, Schneider responded by lowering his employer’s best offer. On October 15, 2018, Pulley wrote to Schneider “[t]hanks Chris for your letter offering my client $36,000. I understand and appreciate your offer. My client has undergone further treatment as you can see. Is there anyway [sic] you can push your offer to $40,000 or $45,000?” [Exhibit F to the Affidavit of Kelvin Pulley.] In response, Schneider wrote “[m]y offer is $36,000.00”, and later that day he reiterated that this was, in fact, the amount he was willing to offer. [Id.]. With these facts in mind, this court will proceed to a discussion of the motion to enforce settlement.
This court regards this motion as presenting rather close issues, and, unfortunately, neither side offers it authority involving a fact pattern similar to the one here. In the absence of such authority, this court will attempt to analyze these issues as best it can. On the one hand, this court understands the need to ensure that a party which agrees to a settlement is not allowed to simply back out of it after reconsidering its actions. On the other hand, this court is unable to agree with defendants that the words and actions of their own agent following the alleged settlement are irrelevant in determining whether a firm meeting of the minds occurred in this case. Specifically, defendants argue in their brief that:
Neither plaintiff Richard Brown nor Defendants could revoke the offer and/or acceptance of the contract and settlement agreement after the binding formation thereof shown by “Exhibit B” to “Exhibit A” to the Motion, so the communications between Pulley and Schneider thereafter have no legal effect on the contract and settlement agreement that came into acceptance upon Schneider’s acceptance of Pulley’s offer.
[Reply brief at 4].
Defendants offer no authority for this proposition, and it seems quite doubtful to this court that the words and actions of defendants’ own agent charged with negotiating a settlement in this case are irrelevant in determining whether a settlement occurred. As quoted previously, Mississippi law requires a “meeting of the minds” for an enforceable settlement to exist, and this suggests to this court that the thoughts and beliefs of the two individuals who actually negotiated the alleged agreement may be relevant in determining whether such a meeting occurred. As noted previously, the Mississippi Court of Appeals noted in Parmley that “an agreement may be established by the actions of the parties or of their agents,” Parmley, 911 So. 2d at 572, and this suggests to this court that, in focusing purely upon the language of the August 28 e-mails, defendants are urging an unduly narrow inquiry regarding the alleged settlement in this case.
As quoted above, Schneider stated the day after the alleged settlement that “[y]ou have till the end of the business day to accept this number I have already agreed upon settling with your client for, or I will pull the offer and we can start back at the beginning.” [Id.] This court does not regard this statement as consistent with defendants’ position that a settlement was reached on August 28. Understandably, defendants choose to emphasize the portion of Schneider’s statement, quoted above, which refers to a settlement of the case. [Reply brief at 4]. However, even that portion of Schneider’s August 29 e-mail merely states that he had agreed to settle the case for $38,000, which is not, as defendants seem to suggest, a statement that a settlement had been reached. Indeed, Schneider’s threat that he would “pull the offer and we can start back at the beginning” seems to indicate that he was referring to an offer he made, and not to his acceptance of an offer made by Pulley. Schneider’s interpretation of the facts regarding the alleged settlement is made even clearer by his statement that “[y]ou have till the end of the business day to accept this number.” [Id.] Clearly, there would be no need for plaintiffs to accept an offer if a settlement had already been reached.
*3 Plaintiffs’ position on this issue is further buttressed by the fact that, on October 15, 2018, Schneider reduced his client’s best offer from $38,000 to $36,000. [Exhibit F to Pulley’s affidavit]. In the court’s view, this removes any argument that Schneider simply misspoke in asserting on August 29 that he would be starting negotiations anew. Defendants now appear to have thought better of this decision made by their agent, but this court does not believe that this is a bell which can simply be unrung. In so stating, this court notes that plaintiffs retained new counsel based upon an understanding that this was still an active and ongoing case, and that counsel filed suit in state court on August 16, 2019 based upon this same understanding. Defendants removed the case to this court on November 26, 2019, and it did not file this motion to enforce settlement until February 20, 2020.
Defendants now seek to enforce the alleged settlement in this case, and in so doing, they would have this court focus narrowly upon the language of the August 28 e-mails. Once again, however, the requirement that there be a meeting of the “minds” is inconsistent with such a narrow evaluation of the evidence in this case. There were two “minds” at issue in the settlement negotiations in this case, and the words and actions of both of them support a conclusion that those negotiations were ongoing in the days and weeks following the August 28 e-mail exchange. That being the case, defendants’ bare assertion, unsupported by authority, that this court should ignore these actions by their own representative and focus solely upon three e-mails sent within a period of minutes on August 28 is unpersuasive.
It appears to this court that this motion arises from the fact that, at some point long after the e-mail exchanges between Schneider and Pulley occurred, counsel for defendants reviewed the record in this case and came to a conclusion that, considered in isolation, the language of the August 28 e-mails are consistent with a settlement having taken place. While counsel may offer one reasonable interpretation of the August 28 e-mails, this does not alter the fact that this interpretation is not the one reached by the two “minds” who were actually involved in the negotiations. Moreover, it strikes this court as problematic for uninvolved third parties to seek, long after the fact, to single out particular e-mails as supporting a settlement agreement which the “minds” who were involved did not believe had occurred. While the dry language of e-mails is certainly important, this court believes that it is also important to give a certain degree of deference to the thoughts and impressions of the two individuals who had actually been negotiating with each other for a lengthy period of time, in ascertaining whether their “minds” actually came together on August 28.
This court notes parenthetically that, even if it were required to focus purely upon the language of the August 28 e-mails (which it does not believe it is), there is some degree of ambiguity in Pulley’s assertion that “we are moving to $38,000 which includes all liens.” While this court agrees with defendants that this language gives it a very real argument that a settlement offer was made in this amount, the statement “we are moving” arguably does not make it clear that the process of moving to $38,000 is complete. This is particularly true when considered in light of Pulley’s prior e-mail, in which he stated “I think I can get [plaintiffs] to $38,000.” In his follow-up e-mail, Pulley never indicated that he had spoken with his clients about the offer, and, that being the case, the e-mail can be interpreted as merely a confirmation that Pulley believed that he could convince his client to settle for $38,000. Moreover, Pulley never agreed with Schneider’s statement that the case had settled; to the contrary, his next e-mail on the subject stated that the parties “might just need to wait on settlement.”
*4 This court thus believes that plaintiffs have a legitimate argument that, even if this court were limited to a consideration of the August 28 e-mails, there was no settlement reached in this case. Once again, however, this court believes that it has discretion to consider Schneider’s own interpretation of the events of August 28, and this interpretation does not support defendants’ position in this case. Schneider’s own words and actions on the day after the August 28 e-mail exchange are inconsistent with those of an individual who believes that a case has been finally settled, and, since he is the individual who had been actually been negotiating with Pulley for months, this court is unable to conclude that they are irrelevant in determining whether there was a meeting of the minds to settle this case. Schneider is, for better of worse, the individual to whom defendants assigned the responsibility for negotiating a settlement in this case, and, that being the case, their attempts to essentially push him aside and assert an interpretation of the August 28 e-mail exchange which he did not make himself strike this court as ill-founded. This is particularly true considering that, as noted previously, plaintiffs relied upon Schneider’s representation that this case was an ongoing one, including by retaining their current counsel to file suit based upon this understanding. Considering all the circumstances of this case, this court concludes that defendants have failed to establish that a settlement agreement was reached in this case, and their motion to enforce settlement will therefore be denied.
It is therefore ordered that defendants’ motion to enforce settlement is DENIED.
This, the 24th day of September, 2020.
— F.Supp.3d —-, 2020 WL 5666705