This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A03-1523

 

Kenneth S. Benigni,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

Theodore Tammaro,

Respondent,

 

Todd Tammaro,

Respondent.

 

Filed July 6, 2004

Affirmed

Stoneburner, Judge

 

St. Louis County District Court

File No. C700600723

 

Kenneth Benigni, 7485 Kauppi Lake Road, Cotton, MN 55724 (pro se appellant)

 

Jerome D. Feriancek, Thibodeau, Johnson & Feriancek, P.L.L.P., 800 Lonsdale Building, 302 West Superior Street, Duluth, MN 55802 (for respondent Theodore Tammaro)

 

Steven W. Schneider, Schneider Law Office, Box 16, Duluth, MN  55801-0016; and

 

Anthony S. Downs, Downs, Reyelts, Leighton, Bateman & Hylden, Ltd., Suite 700, 332 West Superior, Duluth, MN 55802 (for respondent Todd Tammaro)

 

            Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge; Peterson, Judge; and Stoneburner, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N

 

STONEBURNER, Judge

 

            Appellant Kenneth S. Benigni challenges the district court’s order enforcing a settlement agreement entered on the record.  Because appellant has failed to establish that he was subject to undue influence when he entered into the settlement agreement, we affirm.  Additional issues raised by appellant relate to the underlying action that was settled and, therefore, are moot.[1]

D E C I S I O N

 

A district court exercises broad discretion in determining whether to vacate a settlement agreement and will not be reversed unless it is shown that the district court acted in such an arbitrary manner as to frustrate justice.  Myers v. Fecker Co., 312 Minn. 469, 474, 252 N.W.2d 595, 599 (1977).  Because settlement of disputes without litigation is highly favored, courts will not lightly set settlements aside.  Gould v. Johnson, 379 N.W.2d 643, 646 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. Mar. 14, 1986).  A party seeking to avoid a settlement has the burden of showing sufficient grounds for the vacation.  Id.

            In this case, appellant asserts that his attorney improperly influenced him to settle this lawsuit against respondents Theodore Tammaro and Todd Tammaro by agreeing to reduce his fees if the matter settled, commenting on the viability of a punitive-damages claim, and threatening to withdraw from the case.  Appellant also argues that the district court exerted undue influence by indicating in settlement negotiations that it would not allow appellant’s punitive-damages claim, when a previous order denying a motion to amend the complaint to add punitive damages had left open the possibility of renewing the motion at trial.

            Because settlement agreements are contractual in nature, their validity is evaluated using basic principles of contract law.  Beach v. Anderson, 417 N.W.2d 709, 711 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. Mar. 23, 1988).  “To constitute a full and enforceable settlement, there must be such a definite offer and acceptance that it can be said that there has been a meeting of the minds on the essential terms of the agreement.”  Jallen v. Agre, 264 Minn. 369, 373, 119 N.W.2d 739, 743 (1963).  This court will set aside or void settlements “(1) [f]or fraud or collusion; (2) for mistake; or, (3) where the stipulation was improvidently made and in equity and good conscience should not be allowed to stand.”  Keller v. Wolf, 239 Minn. 397, 399, 58 N.W.2d 891, 894 (1953).  Duress and undue influence on a party may amount to a fraud.  Blattner v. Blattner, 411 N.W.2d 24, 27 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Oct. 30, 1987).[2]

In order to show undue influence: the evidence must go beyond suspicion and conjecture and show, not only that the influence was in fact exerted, but that it was so dominant and controlling of the [person’s] mind that, in making the [contract], he ceased to act of his own free volition and became a mere puppet of the wielder of that influence.

 

In re Estate of Congdon, 309 N.W.2d 261, 268 (Minn. 1981).

            In determining whether a person acts of his own free will, it is necessary to consider the person’s age, intelligence, experience, physical and mental health, and strength of character.  Agner v. Bourn, 281 Minn. 385, 392, 161 N.W.2d 813, 818 (1968).  Given the record in this case, all of these factors weigh heavily in favor of the district court’s conclusion that appellant was not rendered a “mere puppet” of his attorney despite whatever influence the attorney may have exerted to encourage appellant to settle this lawsuit.[3] 

            In this case, the district court judge was actively involved in the settlement negotiations that took place on the date of a pre-trial conference.  The judge acted as the “go between” for the parties who were in separate rooms with their attorneys.  The district court specifically found that appellant’s attorney appeared at the pretrial, represented appellant, and indicated that he was prepared to and intended to try the case.  Appellant did not indicate otherwise to the court.  The district court also found that appellant’s counsel did not in any manner engage in conduct that improperly influenced or pressured appellant to enter into the settlement agreement.  The district court found that appellant was an active participant in formulating the terms of the settlement and that appellant suggested the amount of the cash settlement that respondents accepted.

            On the record, settlement was confirmed and explained.  The district court made it clear to the parties that acceptance would be a final settlement of the lawsuit and ensured that appellant fully understood the terms of the settlement.  The district court found, and the record reflects, that appellant concurred with the agreement on the record, did not express any uncertainty about the terms or any unwillingness to be bound by the agreement, and exhibited no signs of distress or duress.  After a thorough review of the record, we conclude that appellant has failed to produce evidence of undue influence and that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying his motion to vacate the settlement agreement.  Because we uphold the validity of the settlement agreement, the issues raised by appellant regarding the underlying lawsuit are moot.

            Affirmed.

 



[1] Appellant claims that a quitclaim deed offered as required by the settlement agreement was “fraudulent” because it failed to contain the signatures of respondents’ spouses, but this claim is premature because the issue of the validity of the quitclaim deed is only relevant if the settlement is valid.  Moreover, the district court has ordered respondents to provide a quitclaim deed signed by their spouses.

[2] Although appellant mentions duress, duress is only available as a defense to a contract when the agreement is coerced by physical force or unlawful threats.  Wise v. Midtown Motors, Inc., 231 Minn. 46, 51, 42 N.W.2d 404, 407 (1950).  “[A] claim of duress will not be sustained when the claimant entered into the contract with full knowledge of all the facts, advice from an attorney, and ample time for reflection.  St. Louis Park Investment Co. v. R.L. Johnson Inv. Co., 411 N.W.2d 288, 291 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Oct. 30, 1987).  The record demonstrates that appellant cannot maintain a claim of duress in this matter.

[3] It appears that appellant has a fee dispute with the attorney who represented him at the time of the settlement.  Nothing in this opinion is meant to reflect on the validity or outcome of that dispute.