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Brooks v. Rosebar

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

June 27, 2019

David Brooks, Appellant,
v.
Michael Rosebar, et al., Appellees.

          Submitted September 19, 2017

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (2014-CAB-8071) (Hon. Maurice A. Ross, Trial Judge)

          David Brooks, pro se, was on the brief.

          Wendell Robinson was on the brief for appellees.

          Before Glickman, Beckwith, and Easterly, Associate Judges.

          Glickman, Associate Judge.

         Appellant David Brooks sued appellees Michael Rosebar and Erin Rosebar for defamation in 2014 based on reviews they allegedly wrote online about his security camera business. The trial court entered a default against Ms. Rosebar as a sanction for violating court orders in the discovery process, and the case against Mr. Rosebar proceeded. During a September 2016 court hearing, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Rosebar's counsel orally agreed to settle the case, but Mr. Brooks, proceeding pro se, made conflicting statements about whether he intended for the settlement to cover his claims against both Mr. and Ms. Rosebar. In a subsequent letter to the judge, Mr. Brooks alleged that he clarified that he had never intended to settle his claim against Ms. Rosebar, against whom he (mistakenly) believed he had obtained a default judgment. The court found, however, that Mr. Brooks had agreed to settle his claims against both of the Rosebars and dismissed the case with prejudice. In this appeal, Mr. Brooks asserts that the court violated his due process rights in so dismissing his case, in part because there was no "meeting of the minds" between the parties as to material terms of the proposed settlement. We agree that, on the record before us, there is insufficient evidence of a meeting of the minds. We therefore vacate the dismissal and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         The case before us began on December 18, 2014, when Mr. Brooks filed a defamation complaint against Michael and Erin Rosebar.[1] However, to understand the issues in the case, we must go back further-to 2007. That year, Mr. Brooks loaned the Rosebars $30, 000, secured with a promissory note and a rental stream as collateral. The Rosebars never repaid the loan, and Mr. Brooks eventually won a judgment in Superior Court entitling him to the $30, 000 plus interest.[2] Mr. Brooks spent years attempting unsuccessfully to collect on the judgment, during which time Mr. Rosebar filed numerous civil complaints against him, also unsuccessfully. On December 3, 2013, the court ordered that the civil clerk no longer accept claims by Mr. Rosebar against Mr. Brooks without leave of the court because those claims appeared to be "an attempt to use judicial process to bar Mr. Brooks from recovering a debt to which this Court has already determined that he is legally entitled."

         Later that December, negative reviews of Mr. Brooks's security camera business, which had been operational for eight years, were posted online. These reviews alleged that Mr. Brooks "has stolen money from my family[, ]" "does not hold . . . proper [business] license[s, ]" is "using this legitimate business as a front for illegal, commercial, and personal loan sharking and predatory lending[, ]" "is a criminal" and has been "taking pictures off the internet social media websites of your children." Mr. Brooks claims that after the reviews were posted, he received no new referrals from the Internet and his business closed within one year. In December of 2014, Mr. Brooks, believing that the Rosebars had posted the negative reviews, sued the Rosebars for defamation, seeking both injunctive relief and damages. He also requested as relief that the court "declar[e] the [r]eviews false and defamatory . . . ."

         In connection with this case, Mr. Brooks attempted to depose Ms. Rosebar multiple times, but she either did not show up to or refused to answer questions at the scheduled depositions, notwithstanding court orders to comply. As a result, the court entered a default against Ms. Rosebar on May 19, 2016. Mr. Brooks did not move to have a default judgment entered against Ms. Rosebar, and no further actions were pursued as to that default.

         On September 2, 2016, Mr. Brooks and the attorney Wendell Robinson, who had previously represented both Rosebars, [3] appeared in court for a motions date that the court had set sua sponte. Neither of the Rosebars appeared. When the court inquired as to whom Mr. Robinson represented, he stated, "I'm representing only Mr. Rosebar because you've already entered a judgment, a default against his wife." In reality, no judgment had been entered against Ms. Rosebar. The court, however, did not clarify the status of the case against Ms. Rosebar.

         After the parties and the court addressed two unsuccessful motions by Mr. Brooks, the court asked, "Mr. Brooks, you already have sixteen judgments against Mr. Rosebar?" and Mr. Brooks responded, "[y]es. I've, I offered to settle for $800. They said no." The court asked, "[i]f you walk away and agree not to sue him for five years, wouldn't he and his wife agree not to sue you for five years?" Mr. Robinson responded, "I certainly would recommend it."

         Mr. Robinson then stated that he "would have given 800 bucks to get it over with." Mr. Brooks accepted the offer, saying, "[f]ine, fine. . . . Fine, I accept." Mr. Robinson said, "I'll give him a check. I'll write him a check." At that point, the court told the parties to "make sure you guys get it in writing."

         We quote the exchange that followed in detail because it provides important context for assessing the question of whether the parties entered into a valid, enforceable settlement agreement:

MR. ROBINSON: Well, wait a minute, can we put it on the record right now, Your Honor?
THE COURT: Okay, what's the offer?
MR. BROOKS: $800.
MR. ROBINSON: I will write a check for you for $800 . . . and that will dismiss this case against both ...

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