Litigation: the Boxing Match That Never Ends

Litigation can often be a boxing match that never ends. Imagine a scenario where you are a professional boxer in a boxing match. You start the match feeling very confident. You throw a straight punch followed by a hook, and then you pull a haymaker and a mixture of other punches that have other names of an unknown origin. To your surprise, however, your opponent pulls a Bolo punch, and you find yourself on the floor. Ready to throw in the towel, you do so, and the referee ends the match.

That’s the end of it, right? Well, no. Your opponent continues to hammer you, relentlessly. Refusing to acknowledge your surrender.  What would you say about such a scenario? What if you were to be told that such scenarios often occur in the world of litigation?

In the event you get sued, you have two options: litigate the case or settle it. You may decide to litigate, but in this scenario you settle, at which point, you enter into a settlement agreement.

You do your part and abide by the terms of the settlement. To your astonishment, however, your opponent does not discontinue the case, despite your compliance and the settlement agreement. How would that make you feel? That is exactly what transpired in the case of Martin v Harrington, 2016 NY Slip Op 04027 [2d Dept May 25, 2016].

In the Martin case, neighbors had a property line dispute. Martin claimed that due to improvements made by Harrington on his property, which included an asphalt driveway, Harrington encroached and trespassed on her property.

The neighbors fought it out in court for about six months. The parties finally agreed to settle the case. The proposition to settle was initiated by Martin’s counsel. The attorney for Martin sent a letter to Harrington proposing to settle the matter; Martin would discontinue the case if Harrington were to satisfy certain conditions. Harrington agreed and satisfied the conditions including removal of the encroachment, which cost him over $5,500.00.

About three years later, Martin complained to Harrington that he is still encroaching upon her property. Harrington’s position was that he satisfied the conditions as agreed upon. To Harrington’s surprise, Martin did not discontinue the case despite complying with the conditions.

It is parallel to our analogy with the boxer; you tap out, but your opponent is still throwing punches at you. Harrington moved the court to enforce the settlement agreement and dismiss the case as settled. Martin (who wants to have her cake and eat it too) claimed that the settlement agreement is not binding.

New York Civil Practice Law and Rules defines what constitutes a binding settlement agreement. An agreement is binding upon a party if it is in writing and signed by the party or the party’s attorney. Furthermore, the settlement agreement must contain all the material terms and must be clear that there is a mutual accord between the parties.

In the Martin case, the material terms were contained in the letter that was sent from Martin’s attorney to Harrington’s attorney. Based upon the correspondence between the attorneys, Harrington performed the tasks set forth within the settlement. Martin never objected to the settlement or to Harrington’s compliance with the conditions. The court in the Martin case therefore concluded that the settlement agreement is indeed enforceable and confirmed the dismissal of the action.

The lesson to be learned here is to make sure that your attorney is careful to ensure that the settlement agreement is absolutely binding, and then to follow-up and verify that the case is discontinued upon satisfaction of the settlement terms. You do not want to be in the position of the boxer that is being pummeled while down.