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Mark Johnson v. Thomas Dart

July 26, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Virginia M. Kendall


Plaintiff Mark H. Johnson ("Johnson") filed suit against Tom Dart, Sheriff of Cook County, and Unidentified Cook County Deputy Sheriff McClendon (collectively "Defendants") alleging that Defendants used excessive force against him, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants claim that the parties reached a valid oral settlement when Johnson's former attorney and the Defendants' attorney orally agreed that Defendants would pay Johnson $500 to dismiss the lawsuit. Defendants therefore move for the Court to enforce the settlement. For the following reasons, the Court denies the Motion to Enforce the Settlement Agreement.


When Defendants initially moved to enforce the settlement and close the case, the Court reviewed the merits and determined that an evidentiary hearing was necessary to elucidate two issues: (1) the authority of Johnson's attorney, Elizabeth Bryant ("Bryant"), to settle the case for $500; and (2) whether the purported oral settlement agreement between Bryant and Defendants' counsel, Colleen Cavanaugh ("Cavanaugh"), is enforceable. The following factual findings are from the testimony at the evidentiary hearing.

On November 10, 2009, the Court appointed James Helenhouse ("Helenhouse") to represent Johnson, an inmate incarcerated at the Lawrence Correctional Center. (Tr. at 11:12-17.) Bryant, from the same firm as Helenhouse, filed her appearance on February 22, 2010. (Tr. at 12:9-13.) A few days later, on February 24, Bryant filed an Amended Complaint on behalf of Johnson. (Tr. at 13:1-5.)

Bryant met with Johnson in-person at Lawrence Correctional Center on May 7, 2010. (Tr. at 48:3-15.) The purpose of the meeting was to generally discuss the facts of the case and familiarize Johnson with the nature of Bryant's representation, namely that she would be filing documents and making court appearances on his behalf. (Tr. at 13:23-14:13.)

On July 23, 2010, counsel for Defendants, Cavanaugh, contacted Helenhouse and asked him to make an opening settlement demand. (Tr. at 16:13-15.). Helenhouse and Bryant therefore arranged to talk with Johnson over the phone about the possibility of settling the case. (Tr. at 16:15-16.) The discussion between Helenhouse, Bryant, and Johnson took place over the phone in late July 2010. (Tr. at 16:19-21.)

During the call, Bryant and Helenhouse advised Johnson that $5,000 seemed like a reasonable opening demand, but it was unlikely that the Defendants would accept it. (Tr. at 18:1-7.) Johnson indicated that he thought the case could settle for much more than that, especially if Bryant and Helenhouse were able obtain a videotape apparently capturing the incident. (Tr. at 49:20-50:5.) Before the conversation ended, Bryant and Helenhouse asked Johnson if he would be willing to accept a settlement offer as low as $500. (Tr. at 19:8-21; 61:23-62:2.) In response, Johnson did not specifically indicate yes or no, and stated that he just wanted to "get this over with." (Tr. at 50:4-5; 62:1-2.) Johnson testified that this response was not intended to indicate agreement to the $500 amount; rather, by saying "get this over with," he meant receiving a satisfactory amount of compensation from Defendants along with an admission of wrongdoing. (Tr. at 62:11-63:20.) Besides the dollar value of settlement, Bryant and Helenhouse did not discuss with Johnson any other settlement terms or, in general, the legal implications of settling. (Tr. at 33:11-14.) For example, they never mentioned to Johnson that settlement would release the Defendants and prevent Johnson from further pursuing his claims. (Tr. at 33:3-23.)

Soon after this discussion, Johnson realized that proving his case largely depended on the missing videotape; otherwise, it would simply be his word against the guard who allegedly used unjustified force against him. (Tr. at 52:2-13.) He wrote a letter, dated August 2, 2010, asking Bryant to obtain the videotape before going forward with settlement discussions. (Tr. at 37:1-4.)

Believing that Johnson had expressly given her authority to settle the case for $500, on August 3, 2010, Bryant and counsel for Defendants, Cavanaugh, discussed settlement over the phone. (Tr. at 21:22-23.) Bryant made an initial demand of $5,000, Cavanaugh countered with an offer of $200, and Bryant indicated that she would not go lower than $500. (Tr. at 21:15-20.) Cavanaugh and Bryant then agreed to settle the case for $500. (Tr. at 21:20-21.) They discussed no other specific terms at this time. (Tr. at 22:2-6.)

On about August 5, after the settlement discussion, but before Johnson received notification of the alleged $500 agreement, Bryant received the August 2 letter from Johnson requesting that she defer settlement discussions pending recovery of the videotape. (Tr. at 24:7-24.) As a result, at the August 10 status the Court did not enter an order dismissing the case. (Tr. 22:12-23:13.)

Bryant sent Johnson a letter explaining that he was bound by the settlement. (Tr. at 24:25-25:4.) She also attached the draft settlement agreement to the letter. (Tr. at 25:6-9.) Johnson challenged Bryant's authority to settle the case in a response letter. (Tr. at 27:2-10, 14-20.) Ultimately, Johnson refused to sign the written settlement agreement. (Tr. at 58:15-17.) Bryant testified that, based on her interactions with Johnson, he did not sign the agreement because he was dissatisfied with the $500 amount. (Tr. at 40:21-41:19.) Johnson, however, testified that he took issue not only with the $500 amount but also with paragraph 5 of the agreement, which stated that Defendants' settlement should not be construed as an admission of wrongdoing. (Tr. at 57:1-58:17.)


Illinois law governs the validity of a settlement agreement because Bryant and Cavanaugh executed the alleged agreement in Illinois. Lynch, Inc. v. SamataMason Inc., 279 F.3d 487, 489 (7th Cir. 2002). Under Illinois law, an enforceable oral settlement agreement requires offer, acceptance, and a "meeting of the minds" as to the material terms. Wilson v. Wilson, 46 F.3d 660, 666 (7th Cir. 1995). The material terms of the settlement agreement must be "definite and certain," so the Court can determine when a breach occurs. Dillard v. Starcon Intern., Inc., 483 F.3d 502, 508-09 (7th Cir. 2007). Specifically, a material term is a provision that goes to the "heart" of the settlement, as evidenced by the parties' conduct during settlement negotiations. Id. at ...

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