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Tenth Circuit rejects argument that statutory offer of settlement in Colorado impliedly released other claims much less future lawsuits

Colorado law, CRS 13-17-202, allows defendants in litigation to make what is called a statutory offer of settlement. In a statutory offer of settlement, a defendant in litigation may offer to pay the plaintiff a certain amount in settlement of the claims being litigated, which, if not accepted, the plaintiff must beat at trial, in other words, not only win at trial but obtain an even greater award in the verdict, otherwise the plaintiff becomes liable for the defendant’s actual costs. Colorado law provides that the offer of settlement may not include any other non-monetary term; it must be a pure offer to settle for a sum certain.

In this case, the plaintiff sued his former employer in Colorado’s federal court, alleging wrongful discharge. The defendant extended an offer of settlement in the amount of $100,000.00. The company advised he accepted the offer but noted that he waived no other rights, including the right to bring future lawsuits. The company said, wait, not so fast, it had intended its offer of settlement to require the plaintiff to settle all claims he might have had “without any qualifications.”

Although that was the company’s asserted intent, the Tenth Circuit noted that the company failed to say in its offer of settlement that other lawsuits and claims needed to be released. Further the Tenth Circuit noted, even if it had, that Colorado statutory offer of settlement process does not permit non-monetary terms to be included in the offer. Thus, the Tenth Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument.

Furthermore, the Tenth Circuit rejected the trial court’s analysis of the issue as well. The trial court had ruled that the plaintiff and his former employer had failed to reach a “meeting of the minds.” The Tenth Circuit held that Colorado’s statutory offer of settlement process did not require a “meeting of the minds” or even judicial involvement for the settlement to be effective. Rather, the statutory process required merely that a defendant extend an offer under CRS 13-17-202, which the Tenth Circuit held this company had, and that, within the statutory deadline, the plaintiff accept that offer, which the Tenth Circuit held this plaintiff had. At that point, the settlement was effective: the company owed plaintiff $100,000; in exchange the plaintiff’s claims in that lawsuit should have been dismissed as settled; however, no other settlement or release occurred, thus the company was indeed at risk that plaintiff might file future lawsuits.

It is noted that the company may still have some protection against future litigation. Under different principles (including claim preclusion, issue preclusion and res judicatta), the settlement and dismissal with prejudice of one lawsuit precludes the assertion of the same claims or substantially similar related claims.

Source: Oldenburg v. American Motor Insurance Co., Inc., — F.3d —, case no. 20-1209, 2021 BL 25071 (10th Cir. 1/26/21).

Careful what you ask for, warns Colorado Supreme Court

The Colorado Supreme Court warned in a recent case that a party who seeks to enforce a settlement agreement — even by merely seeking a declaratory judgment and without actually asserting a breach of the settlement agreement — may make itself liable, if it fails in its action, for attorney fees under the settlement agreement’s fee-shifting clause, especially where that party itself had stated its intent to seek such fees had it been successful.

Having themselves sought attorney fees under that provision, plaintiffs tacitly acknowledged that their claims sought to enforce the Settlement Agreement’s terms. Having done so, plaintiffs cannot now take the opposite position, merely because their lack of success at trial rendered them liable for defendant’s attorney fees under the Settlement Agreement

Source: Klun v. Klun, 442 P.3d 88 (Colo. 6/3/2019).