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Makins v. District of Columbia

November 4, 2004


Before Wagner, Chief Judge, Terry, Schwelb, Farrell, Ruiz, Reid, Glickman and Washington, Associate Judges, and Nebeker and Steadman, Senior Judges.*fn2

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nebeker, Senior Judge

On Rehearing En Banc Reargued en banc June 29, 2004

Opinion concurring in part by Associate Judge RUIZ at p. 16.

Pursuant to D.C. Code § 11-723 (1995), the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ("Circuit") has certified the following question to this court:

Under District of Columbia law, is a client bound by a settlement agreement negotiated by her attorney when the client has not given the attorney actual authority to settle the case on those terms but has authorized the attorney to attend a settlement conference before a magistrate judge and to negotiate on her behalf and when the attorney leads the opposing party to believe that the client has agreed to those terms.

Makins v. District of Columbia, 349 U.S. App. D.C. 303, 312, 277 F.3d 544, 553 (2002).

For reasons set forth below, we answer the question in the negative. In so doing, we confine our analysis to the undisputed facts and those recited in the certified question.*fn3


In November 1998, Brenda Makins, represented by John Harrison, Esquire, brought an action against the District of Columbia in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia claiming sex discrimination and retaliatory firing, in violation of Title VII (42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.). Makins had been employed in the District's Department of Corrections from 1995 until her discharge in 1997. Her complaint sought reinstatement, compensatory damages, and attorney's fees.

In the summer of 2000, at a pre-trial conference, the district judge referred Makins' case to a magistrate judge "for settlement purposes only" and ordered the District to "have present at all settlement meetings . . . an individual with full settlement authority." A similar admonition was absent as to Ms. Makins. A few days later, the magistrate ordered the "lead attorney(s) for the parties" to appear before him for a settlement conference; the order required that the "parties shall either attend the settlement conference or be available by telephone for the duration of the settlement conference."

When the conference took place, Makins was not present. After two and a half hours of negotiations, Harrison and the attorneys for the District reached an agreement. Makins would receive $99,000 and have her personnel records amended from "discharged" to "resigned" (to preserve her retirement benefits if she were able to obtain other creditable employment). In return, Makins would dismiss her claims against the District. Mr. Harrison left the hearing room with cell phone in hand, apparently to call Ms. Makins. When he returned, the attorneys "shook hands" on the deal and later reduced it to writing. A few days later, when Harrison presented Makins with a copy for her signature, she refused to sign it. The District then filed a Motion to Enforce Settlement. Makins retained another attorney, and the court held an evidentiary hearing in which Harrison, Makins, and the lead attorney for the District testified.

The testimony of Makins and Harrison was at odds respecting whether Harrison had been given authority to settle absent a provision for her reinstatement to her job. The District Court, observing this "sharp conflict" in testimony, declined to resolve it. Instead, the court assumed arguendo that Harrison did not have actual authority to settle the case short of reinstatement. The court granted the District's motion to enforce the settlement on the alternative ground that Harrison had apparent authority to bind Makins to the agreement. The court saw "no justification for the District of Columbia not to reasonably believe that Mr. Harrison had the full confidence and authority of his client."


There is arguably some inconsistency as to the extent of authority required of an attorney in settlement negotiations.*fn4 Indeed, a review of relevant case law and principles enunciated by the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute demonstrate some differences not only over the extent of authority, but also the appropriate definitions of authority. To the extent that there tends to be this inconsistency among the cases, it reflects, in part, a difference in the ...

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