Was there sufficient evidence to demonstrate that an enforceable settlement was reached during a court ordered mediation session when the parties did not execute any writings at the time of the settlement and when the alleged settlement included the transfer of certain real estate/mineral rights?
An individual named Mildred Tucker died in 2012 seized of certain real estate and mineral rights. Ms. Tucker left some of her property to a nephew, G. Thomas Bartlett (and his siblings) and to one of her caretakers, Mary Lipscomb. Mr. Bartlett attempted to lease the mineral interests he inherited and discovered that he only owned ¼ of the rights. He bought out his siblings, but Ms. Lipscomb continued to own a ¼ interest. Mr. Bartlett seemed to believe that a property division had been agreed to when Ms. Tucker died and ultimately filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to declare his ownership of the ¼ mineral interest retained by Ms. Lipscomb.
The trial court ordered the parties to mediation which was held on June 6, 2013. There is dispute as to what the results of that mediation were. There is information to suggest that a settlement agreement was reached, but not documented in writing, at the mediation. Several months passed and the case was still not fully resolved and dismissed. In the interim, counsel who represented Mr. Bartlett during the mediation withdrew his representation.
In a hearing before the court on the alleged mediation settlement the parties did not present sworn testimony, but proffers were made by counsel of record and by Mr. Bartlett’s former counsel. Mrs. Lipscomb’s counsel described a settlement wherein Ms. Lipscomb would transfer property interests to Mr. Bartlett and Mrs. Lipscomb would retain royalty interests in some of the property. Mr. Bartlett, then, would own the surface interest and the ability to lease the property, subject to the Libscomb royalty share. Prior counsel for Mr. Bartlett stated that he believed that a settlement had been reached along those lines. Counsel for Mr. Bartlett stated that no agreements had ever been executed and asserted that the statute of frauds would preclude the enforcement of any oral settlement agreement involving the transfer of real estate. A letter from the mediator was read which stated that agreement to resolve the case had been reached at mediation. The Trial Court found that a settlement had been reached by the parties at mediation and ordered Mr. Bartlett to execute the documentation that his prior counsel had prepared.
Mr. Bartlett asserts that W Va. Code 33-1-3 precludes the enforcement of any oral settlement agreement involving the transfer of real estate. He claims that there was no showing, pursuant to Riner v. Newbraugh that the parties actually reached a settlement agreement; that the mediator did not prepare any settlement memorandums; that there was no showing the alleged agreement was free from duress, coercion or mistake; and that the trial court did not conduct a sufficient review of the matter to provide adequate findings of fact and conclusions of law to allow for appellate review. As a result, Mr. Bartlett believes that any alleged oral settlement agreement reached at mediation is not enforceable.
Ms Lipscomb disputes the suggestion that West Virginia’s Statute of Frauds would require the settlement agreement reached at mediation to have been in writing to be enforceable. Even if had, Ms. Lipscomb asserts that she was precluded from entering into any written agreements because it was Mr. Bartlett who was tasked with preparing and submitting the written documents necessary to totally resolve the case. Finally, Ms. Lipscomb asserts that Mr. Bartlett cannot assert alleged evidentiary failings under Riner v. Newbrough when Mr. Bartlett was present at the hearing, yet made no effort to provide testimony supporting his position that there had not been any meeting of the minds as it relates to the settlement.
This case could present the Supreme Court with an opportunity to discuss its expectations under the Trial Court Rules and case law regarding the procedures to be followed by mediators and parties whenever cases settle at court-ordered mediation. Cautious parties and many mediators already follow the practice of drafting memoranda and letters at the conclusion of mediation which outline the specific agreements reached and whether any other part of a settlement will require additional discussion or negotiation.