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Turner v. Archer Western Contractors, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 19, 2019




         In this tort suit, plaintiff Steven Turner, who is self-represented, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against defendant Archer Western Contractors, LLC (“Archer Western”), a private construction contractor. ECF 2 (“Complaint”)[2]; see also ECF 64-1 at 15 (claim denial from City of Baltimore). Turner is an employee of Baltimore City's Department of General Services, Fleet Management Division. ECF 64-1 at 13. At the relevant time, Archer Western was performing work for the City of Baltimore. Defendant timely removed the case to this Court on August 7, 2017, under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, based on diversity jurisdiction. ECF 1; see also ECF 25.

         In his suit, Turner alleged that Archer Western sprayed “hazardous chemicals” onto Turner's two motor vehicles, which were “on the parking lot at work, ” damaging their paint. Turner also claims that the hazardous chemicals got on his clothes, hands, skin, and face and entered his body. In addition, Turner alleges that his exposure to the chemicals has caused him to sustain various medical ailments. Id. at 1. Turner sought $20 million in damages. Id.

         The Complaint did not contain specific counts. But, I interpreted it as alleging two claims of negligence. Id. The first was for the medical problems that plaintiff allegedly sustained. The second was for the property damage to plaintiff's two vehicles. As discussed in more detail, infra, I granted defendant's motion for summary judgment as to the medical claim but denied it as to the property claim. See ECF 74; ECF 75.

         Now pending is Archer Western's “Motion To Enforce Settlement Agreement” (ECF 79), supported by a memorandum (ECF 79-1) (collectively, the “Motion”) and multiple exhibits. ECF 79-2 to ECF 79-7. In response, Turner filed correspondence reiterating his desire to be compensated for injuries to his health. ECF 80 at 1. The correspondence was supported by a letter from his physician. Id. at 2.

         Pursuant to an Order of April 16, 2019 (ECF 81), the Court held a hearing on the Motion on June 7, 2019, at which testimonial and documentary evidence were presented. See ECF 83; ECF 84.[3] Aman S. Aulakh, Esq., an associate attorney at the Maryland law office of Mintzer Sarowitz Zeris Ledva & Meyers, LLP (“Mintzer” or the “Firm”), testified as a witness for Archer Western. Turner testified on his own behalf. The Court also heard oral argument from the parties.

         For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the Motion.

         I. Factual Summary

         A. Procedural Background

         By Order of November 14, 2017 (ECF 35), I referred the case to Magistrate Judge A. David Copperthite for a settlement conference. On January 5, 2018, Judge Copperthite appointed Gretchen Slater as pro bono counsel for plaintiff for the limited purpose of settlement discussions. ECF 48. And, on January 23, 2018, he scheduled a settlement conference for April of 2018. ECF 52; ECF 54.

         On March 15, 2018, Archer Western filed a status report (ECF 53), stating that the parties had reached a settlement. Accordingly, the next day, Judge Copperthite canceled the settlement conference that had been scheduled for April 17, 2018. ECF 54. However, on March 23, 2018, Archer Western filed another status report (ECF 55), claiming that Turner withdrew his acceptance of Archer Western's settlement offer. Turner filed correspondence with the Court on March 26, 2018, expressing his desire to represent himself. ECF 57. He also filed correspondence on April 6, 2018. ECF 59.

         Then, on April 6, 2018, Archer Western filed its first motion to enforce the settlement agreement between the parties (ECF 60), supported by a memorandum (ECF 60-1) and several exhibits. ECF 60-2 to ECF 60-7. In this motion, Archer Western claimed that the parties had entered a binding settlement. ECF 60-1 at 4. On April 12, 2019, because the settlement conference had been canceled, appointed counsel for plaintiff filed a “Motion To Withdraw As Counsel.” ECF 61. It was supported by several exhibits. ECF 61-2 to ECF 61-6.

         By Order of May 17, 2018 (ECF 71), Judge Copperthite granted appointed counsel's motion to withdraw. But, he denied Archer Western's first motion to enforce settlement, because Turner had withdrawn “his acceptance of settlement before meeting all of the conditions required for a valid settlement.” Id. In particular, it appears that settlement documents were never executed by Turner.

         Meanwhile, on April 16, 2018, Archer Western moved for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. ECF 62. Its motion was supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 62-1) and over 300 pages of exhibits. ECF 62-2 to ECF 62-9. Plaintiff opposed the summary judgment motion (ECF 64) and filed two supplements. ECF 65; ECF 66. Defendant replied. ECF 67. Thereafter, plaintiff filed four supplements. ECF 68; ECF 69; ECF 70; ECF 73.

         By Memorandum (ECF 74) and Order of January 7, 2019 (ECF 75), I granted in part and denied in part Archer Western's summary judgment motion. Specifically, I granted summary judgment as to Turner's claim that Archer Western's spraying of “hazardous chemicals” caused Turner to sustain medical problems. In this regard, I note that Turner did not have an expert witness as to proximate cause and was, in my view, unable to establish a causal relationship between the alleged exposure and his medical problems. ECF 74 at 12. But, I denied summary judgment as to Turner's claim that defendant had damaged his vehicles. As a result, Turner's only remaining claim is one for property damage. According to Turner, he received a copy of the Memorandum and Order in the mail by January 11, 2019.

         On January 28, 2019, Turner filed correspondence with the Court, in which he claims that he was “trick[ed]” by Archer Western into signing a settlement agreement. ECF 77. Further, he asserts that Archer Western “destroyed [his] health.” Id. On January 30, 2019, Archer Western filed a status report (ECF 78), to which it attached a copy of an undated stipulation of dismissal that was signed by Turner and counsel for Archer Western. ECF 78-1. Moreover, in the status report, counsel claimed that Turner signed and executed the settlement documents, and he then mailed them to counsel. But, Turner subsequently left a voicemail message for counsel, stating that he was no longer interested in the settlement. ECF 78.

         B. Factual Summary[4]

         At the Motion hearing, Aman Aulakh, Esq. testified that he has been a member of the Maryland bar since 2013. Aulakh also testified that, at all times relevant to this case, there were only two men in Mintzer's Maryland office: Aulakh and George Dean Bogris, Esq., who serves as lead counsel for Archer Western in this case.

         Aulakh recalled that on January 11, 2019, he contacted plaintiff by telephone to discuss the settlement of Turner's property claim in regard to damage to Turner's two vehicles. During the call, Aulakh told Turner that the Court dismissed Turner's health claim, but not his property claim. Aulakh, on behalf of defendant, offered to settle Turner's property claim for $8, 968.42. This figure represents the precise claim asserted by Turner for damage to his vehicles. That sum corresponds to the estimate obtained by Turner from Maaco Collision Repair & Auto Painting to repaint his vehicles. See ECF 2-1 at 1-2.

         Aulakh explained that he did not provide legal advice to Turner, nor did Turner seek legal advice from Aulakh. Moreover, they did not discuss Turner's right to appeal the disposition of the summary judgment motion as to Turner's medical claim. However, Aulakh testified that Turner gave no indication that he did not understand the Court's ruling on the summary judgment motion. To the contrary, Turner said that he disagreed with the ruling.

         Notably, Aulakh testified that Turner accepted the settlement offer. In response, Aulakh told Turner that Archer Western would not pay Turner until Turner signed and returned a general release and a stipulation of dismissal. Accordingly, Aulakh mailed Turner the settlement documents to execute in order to finalize the parties' settlement agreement. See ECF 79-5.

         On January 24, 2019, Aulakh called Turner on the telephone and asked Turner whether he had signed the settlement documents. Turner did not raise any concerns about the settlement documents. Rather, Turner indicated that he had signed and mailed them.

         Notably, the envelope in which Turner mailed the documents is postmarked January 23, 2019, which is also the date Turner executed the general release. See ECF 79-6 at 4-5. And, Turner also took the time to have the release notarized. Id. at 4.

         But, on the morning of January 25, 2019, Aulakh received a voice message from Turner, stating that he was no longer interested in the settlement and directing Archer Western not to take any actions regarding the settlement documents. Id. That afternoon, Aulakh received the settlement agreement documents in the mail. They were fully signed, executed, and notarized.

         Turner testified that he is in severe pain, has rashes on his body, and suffers with blurry vision. He also testified that he completed high school and, at the relevant time, was not taking any medications that affected his comprehension.

         Plaintiff acknowledged in his testimony that he had agreed to settle the suit during a phone call with an attorney for Archer Western. He also acknowledged that he signed the settlement documents and mailed them back to counsel for Archer Western. And, he acknowledged that, after he mailed the settlement documents, he left a voice message for counsel for Archer Western, seeking to withdraw from the settlement.

         However, Turner maintained that he never spoke either with Aulakh or Bogris. Rather, he insisted that he spoke with another attorney for Archer Western, whom he met at a hearing with Archer Western in State court.[5] Turner testified that in January 2019, he knew he was speaking to that same attorney because he recognized the attorney's voice. Although Turner stated that he spoke with this attorney on at least two occasions, he did not know the attorney's name. But, he ...

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