LEWIS v. SCHOOL DISTRICT #70 (June 1, 2011)

After School District #70 fired Debra Lewis, she brought suit. She alleged, among other things, violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Although her employer prevailed in the district court, the Seventh Circuit reversed the FMLA and breach of contract counts. On April 25, 2009, on remand, the parties orally agreed to a settlement in the presence of a magistrate judge. Within weeks, however, Lewis learned that the school superintendent had been accused and was under investigation for child molestation. Lewis refused to sign the settlement agreement. Judge Stiehl (S.D. Ill.) granted defendants' motion to enforce the oral settlement and, when Lewis continued to refuse to sign the agreement, he dismissed the case with prejudice. Lewis appeals.

In their opinion, Circuit Judges Bauer and Williams and District Judge McCuskey affirmed. Illinois enforces oral settlement agreements if there is an offer, acceptance, and a meeting of the minds on its terms. Given the record in open court before the magistrate judge, the Court had no difficulty in finding each element. Lewis also argued that the agreement should be set aside because of the defendants' "fraud." The Court agreed that a contract could be set aside when there is evidence of fraud in the inducement but found the materiality element lacking here. Although the Court conceded that knowledge of the investigation could have given Lewis more bargaining power and possibly a more valuable settlement, it would have been unrelated to the defendants' conduct in terminating her employment. The Court turned to the sanction imposed by the district court. Although it believed the result "unfortunate" and noted that Lewis turned a substantial recovery into nothing, the Court found no abuse of discretion. The district court ordered Lewis to sign the settlement agreement several times and it warned her that not doing so could result in dismissal and sanctions. Only after eight months had passed did he dismiss the case.