Settlement between St. Mary's School of Medicine and former student not enforceable, appellate court rules

By Asia Mayfield | Aug 9, 2018

The appellate decision is based off a lawsuit brought by a former med student.  

MIAMI –– St. Mary’s School of Medicine successfully appealed the enforcement of a settlement agreement between the school and a former student, continuing a legal fight that has lasted for 14 years.

In an Aug. 1 ruling, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court's decision granting Anthony Zabaleta's request to force the school into complying with the settlement. 

The appeal centered on the school’s attorney, David Javits. St. Mary’s argued Javits lacked clear and definitive authority to enter into the contested agreement.

The trial court disagreed with St. Mary’s argument and issued an order to enforce the settlement. On August 1, 2018, however, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed the decision.  

The former student claims the school wrongfully withheld his degree.  

Zabaleta sued St. Mary’s in 2004 after the medical school refused to issue his degree. The school claims Zabaleta owed tuition money and never completed the curriculum. The litigation continued until 2016 when the two parties' attorneys began e-mailing possible settlement offers. 

“Over the next few months, the two attorneys attempted to negotiate the settlement terms through a series of emails," Judge Richard Suarez wrote in the appellate opinion. "Throughout the negotiations, Javits represented that he had St. Mary’s authorization to extend and accept certain offers,” .

Zabaleta's attorney maintained an official agreement was reached during an August 30, 2016 teleconference. St. Mary’s disputes this. Zabaleta's attorney bolstered his argument by pointing to the swath of emails regarding the settlement.

The three-judge appellate panel was not convinced.

“The problem is that although these emails evidence some authority to negotiate and even extend or accept certain offers, there was no evidence presented that St. Mary’s authorized Javits to enter into the specific August 30 settlement agreement,” Suarez wrote.

According to court documents, Javits mentioned he was authorized to act in several of the emails, except ones after the August 30 teleconference. Florida statutes require parties to grant attorneys the authority to make deals "unequivocally."

The case will return to the lower court.  

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