Lately, the First DCA has been doing some housecleaning when it comes to washout settlements; where the parties agree to completely resolve the claim for a lump sum. They confirmed that the JCC has jurisdiction to determine if a settlement agreement exists between parties, and per my recent post, found that a settlement agreement with a final authority contingency clause is not an agreement.

Now, the Court puts into question whether a written General Release–a memorialized settlement agreement–is even required in settling a W/C claim, where the Claimant is represented by an attorney.

In Bonagura v. Home Depot/Sedgwick, the parties entered into an oral settlement agreement for $50,000 plus a statutory attorney’s fee. There was no discussion to what language would be included in the written General Release. When the parties could not agree on the General Release language, the Claimant refused to recognize the original oral agreement and filed new Petitions for Benefits.

The lower court denied the Petitions and found that a settlement agreement existed between the parties and ordered the two sides to exchange and excecute the “necessary paperwork.” The First DCA agreed that a settlement agreeement existed and that the denial of the Petitions was appropriate but found there was “no meeting of the minds” towards the General Release and remanded the JCC to order the parties to complete a written agreement in line with their oral agreement.

Considering the oral agreement was just for a release of all pending claims for $50,000 plus a fee, I am guessing the new General Release will be awfully short. But this ruling begs the question: do we even need written settlement agreements in Worker’s Compensation?

I think an argument can be made that no, we do not.

When you consider the First DCA agreed with the JCC that the denial of the subsequent Petitions was appropriate, then in essence the Court is recognizing that a settlement occurred, that Claimant is now barred from filing new Petitions. And, isn’t that what settlement agreements are for?

Way back in 2001, when the Legisalature updated section 440.20, the intent was that the JCC need not approve a settlement when the Claimant is represented by an attorney. All a JCC approves today is that child support arrearages by Claimant was considered and whether Claimant’s attorney fee is fair and reasonable. The idea being that a General Release falls into the realm of contract law, and the parties can contract a release any way they wish to.

Judges like settlements, they keep the litigation process flowing and allow more vacation days from the bench.  Investigating each agreement and dissecting each sentence is not what the courts want to do.  So, the question remains, do we need written settlement agreements?  If the courts recognize that even an oral agreement exists and deny all subsequent Petitions, then it looks like we don’t.

Now, it is nice to have a written agreement memorializing a settlement.  You can do this at mediation, in a written report. It also serves as a receipt of the transaction, and if you are a Claimant you can insert language requiring the E/C to send you the settlement check by a certain date, or a pay a penalty.

It seems kind of foolish that the parties have to memorialize on paper what they just memorialized on paper.  So, my recommendation is, as was with the contingency case in my other blog post, put what you want the settlement to be about on paper (i.e. in a letter or a mediation agreement), thus supporting the situation that there was a “meeting of the minds.”

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