St. Mary's School of Medicine Limited, Appellant,
Anthony John Zabaleta, Appellee.
final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.
appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Rodney
Smith, Judge. Lower Tribunal No. 10-16399
Law Offices of Michael D. Stewart, and Michael D. Stewart,
Zumpano Castro, LLC, and Daniel E. Zumpano and Antonio C.
Castro, for appellee.
ROTHENBERG, C.J., and SUAREZ, and SCALES, JJ.
Mary's School of Medicine ("St. Mary's")
appeals from an order granting Anthony Zabaleta's
("Zabaleta") motion to enforce a settlement
agreement. The issue below was whether there was a factual
showing of St. Mary's clear and unequivocal authorization
to its attorney to enter into an alleged August 30, 2016
settlement agreement. The trial court found that there was
and issued the appealed order to enforce. After reviewing the
record, we find that there is not the required competent,
substantial evidence to support the trial court's finding
that St. Mary's attorney had the clear and unequivocal
authority to enter into the agreement. Therefore, we reverse.
2004, Zabaleta filed suit against St. Mary's, his former
medical school, after it refused to issue him a medical
degree. According to St. Mary's, it did not
issue the degree because Zabaleta had only paid a portion of
his tuition, and he had failed to complete the required
course curriculum. This litigation has ground on for over
twelve years. In June 2016, David Javits
("Javits"), St. Mary's attorney below,
initiated settlement negotiations when he emailed a
settlement offer to David Zumpano ("Zumpano"),
Zabaleta's attorney. Over the next few months, the two
attorneys attempted to negotiate the settlement terms through
a series of emails. Throughout the negotiations, Javits
represented that he had St. Mary's authorization to
extend and accept certain offers. This exchange of emails
culminated with a teleconference on August 30, 2016, during
which Zumpano claims a settlement agreement was reached.
hours after the teleconference, Zumpano emailed Javits a list
of settlement terms he claims the parties had agreed upon.
Javits replied by email the same day and agreed to continue
an upcoming hearing "pending settlement." Two days
later, Javits sent a letter to the trial court notifying it
that a settlement could not be reached. He also informed
Zumpano that St. Mary's was not "inclined" to
settle because it was unable to verify Zabaleta's
credentials. Zabaleta moved to enforce the settlement
agreement that the parties allegedly entered into on August
30. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court entered
the order on appeal finding by clear and convincing evidence
that the motion to enforce should be granted. This appeal
party seeking to compel enforcement of a settlement bears the
burden of proving that an attorney has the clear and
unequivocal authority to settle on the client's
behalf." Sharick v. Se. Univ. of Health Scis.,
Inc., 891 So.2d 562, 565 (Fla. 3d DCA 2004). A trial
court's factual findings that there is a clear and
unequivocal grant of authority by the client to the attorney
to settle must be supported by competent, substantial
evidence in order to be upheld on appeal. Hamilton v.
Florida Power & Light Co., 48 So.3d 170, 172 (Fla.
4th DCA 2010).
law sets a very high standard for a party to meet in order to
enforce a settlement agreement. Weitzman v. Bergman,
555 So.2d 448, 449 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990) ("[C]ourts have
been very stringent in what they find to be a 'clear and
unequivocal' grant of authority."). The party
seeking to enforce must show that there was a clear and
unequivocal grant of authority to the attorney to enter into
the settlement agreement. The appellate court must then
review the record to determine whether or not there is
competent, substantial evidence to support the trial
court's finding. Our review of the record shows there is
not competent, substantial evidence presented such that the
trial court could find a clear and unequivocal grant of
authority by St Mary's to Javits to enter into the
June 6 evidentiary hearing revolved around the email
negotiations and particularly the August 30 email, which
Zumpano claims memorialized the agreed upon settlement terms.
Both attorneys testified, and each had different testimony
and interpretations as to what occurred. They also disagreed
as to the meaning of the August 30 email and its purpose.
Zabaleta's attorney, Zumpano, claimed that the email
memorialized the settlement terms while St. Mary's
attorney, Javits, claimed everyone was aware that, as to that
particular email and its terms, he had to obtain St.
Mary's authorization to agree.
Zabaleta argues on appeal that the trial court's ruling
is supported by the settlement negotiation emails over a
period of time and that the emails evidence St. Mary's
authorization. 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. Throughout the email
exchanges, Javits consistently indicated when he had St
Mary's authorization to extend, accept, or reject offers;
however, there is no mention of such authorization in
Javits's reply to the August 30 email. He merely stated
that he agreed to continue an upcoming hearing "pending
settlement" and reset other motions for two weeks.
also argues that St. Mary's authorization to settle is
supported by testimony at the evidentiary hearing. But the
only testimony that St. Mary's authorized Javits to enter
into the August 30 settlement was from Zumpano, who testified
that Javits agreed to settle during the August 30
teleconference. This testimony alone is insufficient evidence
of authorization. See Architectural Network, Inc. v. Gulf
Bay Land Holdings II, Ltd., 989 So.2d 662 (Fla. 2d DCA
2008) (holding that the testimony of an attorney seeking to
enforce a settlement agreement as to opposing counsel's
authority to settle is not sufficient to permit a conclusion
that opposing counsel had ...