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Home / Verdicts & Settlements / Judge OKs small settlement reached behind attorney’s back

Judge OKs small settlement reached behind attorney’s back

A St. Louis County judge ordered that a maintenance employee be required to dismiss his wage and hour employment claims under the terms of an agreement negotiated without the presence or knowledge of his lawyer.

“He agreed that he did not contact his attorney, even after he left defendants’ employ, when he quit a month after he accepted the defendants’ check,” wrote Judge Kristine Kerr wrote of the plaintiff, Charles Roberts. “Thus, the court infers that Mr. Roberts made a choice to proceed on his own, without seeking advice or involvement of his counsel.”

In 2021, Roberts retained counsel and filed a lawsuit against his employer, an apartment complex known as The Reserve at Heritage, and its owners, Jeffrey Feldman and Craig Berger. Roberts claimed non-payment of time-and-a-half for overtime hours worked under the state’s minimum wage law. Roberts said he worked 90 or more hours a week and needed to be on call for maintenance issues.

On Sept. 20 of that year, the plaintiff sat down at a meeting at Feldman’s request to bargain over a settlement deal without attorneys present for either side. The pair arrived at a figure of $3,000 to drop the suit. According to Kerr’s findings, Feldman relayed the terms of the deal to Berger who in turn requested his attorneys at Summers Compton Wells draw up a formal agreement, which Roberts signed on Sept. 29.

Based on emails, Kerr found that attorneys who worked on the document may have been aware that Roberts had representation and expected they might be contacted by someone in that role, but they did not take it upon themselves to make contact with plaintiff’s counsel. She also found that no attorneys for the defendant had any contact with the plaintiff.

Robert’s attorney, Rick Voytas of Voytas Law Firm did not learn of the agreement until early December, after filing a motion for default judgment due to defendants’ apparent failure to answer the petition. The Reserve and its owners then moved to enforce the settlement, an action the plaintiff fought.

“As we stated in our brief, we believe Mr. Roberts did not know what he was signing,” Voytas said. “The nominal amount of consideration of $3,000 was grossly inadequate to Mr. Roberts even for the minimum wages that he was owed for his hours worked.”

According to the defense, Roberts’ estimated damages and attorneys’ fees were in excess of $500,000, though Voytas said the exact amount of his client’s claim remains unknown because discovery was never completed. He said Roberts believed the agreement might pay him part of what was owed but did not understand it would dismiss his claims.

The plaintiff’s court filings describe Roberts as a 9th grade dropout who required glasses to read and who was “easily flustered, easily confused, and in dire need of legal counsel in this matter.” Voytas argued that the defendants failed to get court approval for the settlement and alleged its creation was “unconscionable.”

“Defendants went behind the back of Charles’ legal counsel, confronted him at work, and threatened him with his job if he did not sign the settlement agreement,” said the plaintiff’s answer. “Defendants ‘settled’ Charles’ wage claim worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for just $3,000 and failed to pay any of the attorneys’ fees or costs the wage and hour statutes require.”

Voytas said that a worker may not agree to accept less than minimum wage under Missouri’s laws.

Bridget Halquist, an attorney for the defendants, said in a written submission that the court held a two-day evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether the parties settled the matter, at which the defendants introduced five witnesses and more than 20 documents supporting enforcement. Kerr disagreed with the plaintiff’s arguments and ordered him to dismiss his cause of action.

In a filing, the defendants argued that the final amount “was based upon a realistic estimate of overtime wages owed” rooted in an examination of Roberts’ timecards and denied any “high-pressure” tactics.

“In addition, Plaintiff had nine (9) days to consider the terms of his agreement and the sufficiency of the amount agreed upon before he was presented with the written settlement agreement,” it said.

Kerr found no requirement that cases of this type be approved by the court and ruled that the plaintiff failed to establish either procedural or substantive unconscionability. She wrote that Roberts did not seem easily intimidated, was “no shrinking violet” and did not object to being read the document by his employers nor did he ask for time to get his glasses from his vehicle.

The plaintiff has since filed an appeal.

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Defense judgment


Venue: St. Louis County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 21SL-CC04280/Oct. 24, 2022

Judge: Kristine Kerr

Caption: Charles Roberts v. The Reserve at Heritage LLC, Jeffrey Feldman and Craig Berger

Plaintiff’s Attorney: Rick Voytas, Voytas Law Firm, St. Louis

Defendants’ Attorney: Bridget Halquist, Summers Compton Wells, St. Louis