Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 1, 2020

PA Appeals Court Finds Violation of the Sunshine Act Did Not Invalidate a Settlement Agreement Between Landowners and the Township

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

Landowners Scott and Joan Baribault filed five separate land use appeals against the Haverford Township Zoning Hearing Board (“ZHB”) in the trial court in connection with their rental properties located in Haverford Township. Landowners alleged that, in 2018, they and the Township engaged in settlement discussions to resolve the five outstanding land use appeals. In this case, Haverford Township appealed from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County granting Landowners’ Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement. On appeal, the Township argued that the trial court erred by concluding that its Board of Commissioners entered an enforceable settlement agreement without an official vote at a public meeting as required under the Sunshine Act.

 At the outset, the court noted that a court’s decision to invalidate an agency’s action for violation of the Sunshine Act was discretionary, rather than obligatory. While the Commissioners could privately consult with their attorney regarding the strategy to settle pending litigation during executive session, the Commissioners were required to take official action on the settlement at an open meeting, which never occurred. Nevertheless, due to the protracted history of the case, Township Solicitor’s representations to opposing counsel and the trial court regarding the status of the settlement, and Landowners’ good faith reliance on the settlement, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by enforcing the Settlement Agreement.

Despite the Township’s argument that Township Solicitor was not authorized to bind the Township to the agreement, the court found this argument was belied by the facts. In an email dated October 10, 2018, Solicitor stated, “The Commissioners approved the settlement last night.” Furthermore, in a separate email dated December 12, 2018, the Township Solicitor confirmed that the Commissioners had agreed to the language of the Settlement Agreement. Accordingly, the Township Solicitor did not act on its own by entering the Settlement Agreement, but was authorized by its client to do so. Thus, the court held that the trial court did not err in granting Landowners’ Motion upon determining that the Settlement Agreement was an enforceable contract.

Baribault v Zoning Hearing Board of Haverford Township, 2020 WL 3956262 (PA Cmwlth 7/13/2020)

 


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