Pierce v. Town of Tilton, Doc. No. 211-1995-CV-258 (Belknap Super. Ct., June 5, 1997) (McHugh, J.)

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

[1]

THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

BELKNAP, SS. SUPERIOR COURT

BETTY PIERCE

v.

TOWN OF TILTON

Docket No: 95-C-258

ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO INTERPRET AND
ENFORCE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT

The procedural history of this case ending up in the Plaintiff's need to file the within motion is most interesting. On November 1, 1995, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit against her former employer, the Town of Tilton, for wrongful termination. Shortly after the writ was served, Attorney Charles Bauer entered an appearance for the Town of Tilton. The case proceeded along in a normal fashion throughout discovery and was scheduled to go to trial on April 7, 1997. On April 4, 1997, the plaintiff filed a pleading entitled "Stipulation for Voluntary Dismissal with Prejudice". That pleading effectively terminated the within lawsuit.

Apparently because the lawsuit was a claim against a municipality it generated some interest on the part of the press. When the lawsuit did not go to trial, Mr. Roger Amsden, a news correspondent for the Union Leader, wrote a letter to the acting town administrator of Tilton requesting information on all of the details regarding the settlement of this case. Specifically, he requested copies of any Town correspondence with the plaintiff's [2] attorney; copies of any of the Town's correspondence directly with the plaintiff; copies of any documents that the Town had relative to its membership in the New Hampshire Municipal Association Trust; and copies of any Town checks or other disbursements made to the plaintiff or her attorney. The Town in a timely fashion responded to Mr. Amsden's requests by informing him that it had no correspondence with the plaintiff's attorney. It did send him a copy of the plaintiff's termination letter dated June 16, 1994, as well as her release in favor of the Town dated April 4, 1997. It also forwarded to Mr. Amsden a copy of the Town's check made payable to the plaintiff in the sum of $1,000 and a copy of the Town's membership agreement with the New Hampshire Municipal Association Property-Liability Trust Inc.

It is unknown to the Court as to whether or not either Mr. Amsden or any employee of the Union Leader published any story about this case. However, another newspaper, namely the Laconia Citizen, did, through reporter Gordon King, print a story in the April 30, 1997, edition of its newspaper about this case. The headline in Mr. King's story read as follows: "Fired Official Settled Suit for $1,000". The Court has had an opportunity to review that news story and finds that any person reading it not having any knowledge of the settlement of this case would be erroneously led to the conclusion that the plaintiff only received a total of $1,000 in settlement of her lawsuit.

When the plaintiff and her counsel were made aware of the newspaper article in question, they filed the within Motion to [3] Interpret and Enforce Settlement Agreement under seal. In that motion they argued that while they concede they signed certain confidentiality documents pursuant to the settlement agreement which prohibited a discussion of the amount of the settlement, due to the fact that the published report of the case contained information that would lead the general public to conclusions that were not factually correct, they had an obligation to inform the newspaper in general terms that the plaintiff settled her lawsuit for something more than a $1,000 payment from the Town of Tilton. The reason why the motion was filed under seal was because the plaintiff did not want to be accused of violating the terms of the settlement agreement calling for confidentiality regarding all of the settlement terms.

The defendant, through Attorney Bauer, has filed an objection to the motion, that document also being under seal. In the objection he suggests that neither the Town of Tilton nor the New Hampshire Municipal Association Trust has violated the terms of the settlement agreement between the parties and for the plaintiff to seek to provide the press with any further information about the settlement would be a clear violation of the agreement subject to the penalty provisions contained therein. The Court disagrees.

As authority for Mr. Amsden's request for information concerning the full settlement terms of this case, he cited RSA 91-A, the so-called Right to Know Law. In response to Mr. Amsden's letter, the Town of Tilton supplied him with all of the [4] information that he was entitled to receive under this law. The Town represents that the official responding to Mr. Amsden's letter was not made aware of the complete settlement terms of this lawsuit, specifically, the monetary participation of the New Hampshire Municipal Trust. The Court will accept that fact as being true. Therefore, the Court does not find that the Town of Tilton violated the Right to Know Law in any way.

One of the pieces of correspondence forwarded to Mr. Amsden pursuant to his request was a copy of the Town's membership agreement with the New Hampshire Municipal Association Property- Liability Trust Inc. Before receiving a copy of this document Mr. Amsden was already aware of the fact that the Town of Tilton was a member of that trust. He makes that reference in his letter. Therefore, there is no secret but that the New Hampshire Municipal Association Trust was involved to some extent in this litigation. However, as the Court reads RSA 5-B:7, the particulars of any involvement that the Trust had in this lawsuit are to remain confidential. Therefore, under the current law, no one, including the press, is entitled to know the specifics of any involvement of the Trust in the settlement of this litigation.

Notwithstanding that fact, the Court is still faced with a situation where an erroneous news story was printed about the settlement of this case. While perhaps no one is to blame for the contents of that story, this Court cannot sit idly by and allow the press and public to be misinformed about how this [5] lawsuit was resolved. The Court therefore finds that the plaintiff's suggestion of informing the press in some fashion that the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn by the Laconia Citizen story is not accurate is appropriate. Allowing the story to remain without any further explanation creates a falsehood in the mind of the public which is particularly demeaning to the plaintiff in this case. Justice requires that plaintiff's counsel be authorized to inform the press that the $1,000 payment received from the Town of Tilton does not necessarily reflect all of the terms of the settlement between Ms. Pierce, the Town, and the New Hampshire Municipal Association Trust, and therefore the Court authorizes plaintiff's counsel to so inform the press. However, the details of any financial contribution made by the New Hampshire Municipal Trust are to remain confidential pursuant to RSA 5-B:7.

The Court suspects that officials at the New Hampshire Municipal Trust Association will be dismayed by its ruling in this case. It is important to note that the Court finds no wrongdoing on the part of the Trust in the way it has participated in this lawsuit. However, through no fault of anyone, a misleading story was printed which has to be corrected. Notwithstanding that such a correction has been authorized herein, the Court has ruled that the particulars of the Trust participation in this case are to remain confidential. Because both parties' pleadings contain information about the Trust's participation in this lawsuit, those proceedings will remain [6] under seal. This Order, however, will not.

In order to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future, it may well be in the best interests of the Trust to inform its members when a settlement is reached that the amount of any payment made by the municipality itself does not include any other settlement terms which might involve a payment made by the Trust itself.

SO ORDERED.

DATED:    June 5, 1997       /s/   

Kenneth R. McHugh,

Presiding Justice