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Todd v. Coleman

Court of Appeals of Indiana

March 8, 2019

Jacob Todd, Appellant-Defendant,
Tonji Coleman and Amos Johnson, Appellees-Plaintiffs

          Interlocutory Appeal from the Cass Circuit Court The Honorable Leo T. Burns, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 09C01-1607-CT-19

          Attorneys for Appellant Crystal G. Rowe Alyssa C.B. Cochran Kightlinger & Gray, LLP New Albany, Indiana Galen Bradley Kightlinger & Gray, LLP Merrillville, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellees Ryan D. Etter Ken Nunn Law Office Bloomington, Indiana

          CRONE, JUDGE.

         Case Summary

         [¶1]Tonji Coleman was injured in an automobile accident and filed a negligence action against Jacob Todd. The parties' attorneys engaged in negotiations and made a verbal agreement to settle the case for $10, 000. The trial court initially ordered Coleman to comply with the settlement agreement but subsequently granted Coleman's motion to reconsider and rescinded the original order. In this interlocutory appeal, Todd asserts that Coleman is bound by the settlement agreement and that the trial court therefore erred in rescinding its order to compel compliance. We reverse and remand.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] In July 2016, Coleman filed a negligence action against Todd stemming from an August 2014 automobile accident in which she was injured.[1] Over the next eighteen months, the parties scheduled three mediation sessions but completed none, due largely to Coleman's nonattendance. In January 2018, Coleman's counsel ("Counsel 1")[2] negotiated with counsel for Todd's insurer ("Insurer") to settle all claims. Insurer's initial offer of $5000 was increased via counteroffer to a $10, 000 settlement of all claims. On February 2, 2018, Counsel 1 indicated that Coleman had agreed to the $10, 000 figure, and Insurer began preparing the necessary documents. On February 12, 2018, Insurer filed a notice of settlement in the trial court. On February 21, 2018, Counsel 1 sent Insurer a letter requesting that the settlement check be issued. Two days later, Counsel 1 discovered that Coleman had hired another law firm ("Counsel 2") to represent her. Meanwhile, Insurer sent the settlement documents to Counsel 1, who informed Insurer about the change of representation and forwarded the documents to Counsel 2 with a letter apprising Counsel 2 of the accepted settlement offer.

         [¶3] During the next couple months, Todd learned that Coleman no longer wanted to settle the case. On April 19, 2018, Todd, through Insurer, filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. The trial court granted Todd's motion and issued an order for Coleman to comply with the settlement agreement. A few days later, Coleman filed a motion to reconsider, claiming that she neither agreed to nor signed the $10, 000 settlement agreement. She requested that the trial court issue an order rescinding its previous order enforcing settlement. The trial court conducted a hearing, during which Coleman and Counsel 1 testified. Both attorneys from Counsel 1 testified that it was their understanding, based on communications with Coleman, that they had authority to agree to the $10, 000 settlement. When questioned about the settlement negotiations and why she decided to seek different representation, Coleman testified, "[Counsel 1] said, uh, how about five thousand dollars for your pocket, is what I heard the first time and the second day it was ten thousand, so I am thinking the next day it might be fifteen, so, I just was done at that point." Tr. Vol. 2 at 14.

         [¶4] The trial court issued an order with findings of fact, specifically finding that Counsel 1 had actual and apparent authority to enter into the settlement agreement. Notwithstanding, the court granted Coleman's motion and rescinded its original order to compel compliance. This interlocutory appeal ensued. Additional facts will be provided as necessary.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶5]Todd contends that the trial court erred in granting Coleman's motion to reconsider. A trial court has the inherent power to reconsider, vacate, or modify any previous order so long as the action remains in fieri, meaning that it is "pending resolution." Pond v. Pond, 700 N.E.2d 1130, 1135 (Ind. 1998); Stephens v. Irvin, 734 N.E.2d 1133, 1135 (Ind.Ct.App. 2000), trans. denied (2001). Here, the trial court's order included specific findings of fact. When a trial court issues specific findings sua sponte, the findings control our review and the judgment as to the issues those findings cover; for all other issues, we apply a general judgment standard. State Farm Ins. Co. v. Young, 985 N.E.2d 764, 766 (Ind.Ct.App. 2013). We apply a two-tiered standard of review, determining first whether the evidence supports the findings and then whether the findings support the judgment. Id. We review the findings for clear error and will reverse when our review of the record leaves us with a firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Id. We neither reweigh evidence nor reassess witness credibility. Id. While we defer substantially to findings of fact, we do not do so to conclusions of law. Id.

         [¶6] Coleman sought and was granted rescission of the trial court's previous order to compel compliance with the $10, 000 settlement agreement. This Court has stated,

Indiana strongly favors settlement agreements and if a party agrees to settle a pending action, but then refuses to consummate his settlement agreement, the opposing party may obtain a judgment enforcing the agreement. Settlement agreements are governed by the same general principles of contract law as other ...

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