A judge has upheld a $125,000 settlement between lawyers for a Passamaquoddy housing organization and its former executive director, who sued five years ago after her dismissal and an ensuing federal investigation.
A Washington County Superior Court justice awarded Pamela F. Francis $50,000 and an additional $75,000 in legal fees in connection with her lawsuit for breach of contract against her former employer, the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Housing Authority.
Francis and the housing authority have been at odds since her firing in November 1996 and her lawsuit a year later. She alleged that her contractual and civil rights were violated when she was fired. The housing authority alleged that Francis breached her contract and was unjustly enriched while she worked there.
Francis was never charged with any wrongdoing. Now living in Old Orchard Beach, she said Monday: “I wouldn’t say I’m happy. I am glad some of this has been put to rest. It should never have happened. There are so many other issues on the reservation that are life-threatening and important, and it is a shame we wasted resources and time on a thing like this.”
She was hired as executive director of the housing authority in 1995. The authority uses money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build and improve single- and multifamily housing for members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
The same month Francis was fired, HUD officials investigated the authority, and based on that investigation informed the authority that it would not be eligible for funding for new housing starts, renovations or training because of “questionable” activities that had been approved by the authority during Francis’ tenure.
HUD removed those sanctions two years later.
One of the issues in the investigation was a $200,000 HUD-funded house at Pleasant Point occupied by Francis that some tribal members called “the mansion.”
The settlement agreement approved last month did not negate Francis’ right to sue the housing authority for allegedly unlawfully entering that home in 1998. Francis said she suffered emotional distress when representatives of the housing authority kicked in the door to the house and began to remove her property.
The Pleasant Point Police Department was called, and the housing authority was ordered to return Francis’ belongings. Representatives of the housing authority later said they believed Francis had abandoned the house.
The housing authority tried to evict Francis for more than a year, but that failed after a tribal judge dismissed those actions.
In the meantime, the lawsuit stemming from Francis’ firing – and a counterclaim by the housing authority – remained unresolved in Superior Court.
In January, lawyers for both sides met in Waterville to discuss a settlement offer. Douglas Chapman of Bar Harbor represented the housing authority and Curtis Webber of Auburn represented Francis.
During the meeting, Chapman told Webber that he had authority from the housing authority to settle the lawsuit Francis had filed, according to court papers.
Chapman proposed that Francis receive $50,000 for her breach of contract complaint and $75,000 in payment of attorney’s fees and costs. The proposed settlement included dismissal of the housing authority’s counterclaim against Francis. The proposal also required that Francis dismiss her claims against the housing authority.
During the discussions, Francis’ attorney at first rejected the offer, but on Jan. 17, Webber called Chapman and advised him that his client would accept the proposal. “A discussion ensued as to how the checks would be distributed,” according to court documents. Webber called Francis and told her that the settlement offer had been accepted.
Later that day, Chapman called Francis’ attorney and told him that the housing authority commissioners had changed their minds and “would not honor the settlement agreement” unless Francis made additional concessions. The nature of those additional concessions was not addressed in the court documents.
The next day, Webber wrote to Chapman and told him that he believed they had a binding agreement. “In a second letter mailed the same day, Webber told Chapman that court proceedings would be initiated to enforce the agreement if the [housing authority] refused to honor it,” the court documents say.
But Chapman called Webber and told him the commissioners had met and refused to implement the settlement agreement.
In his court arguments, Chapman claimed that this was “simply a case of negotiations, which had broken down rather than a breached agreement.”
But Justice John R. Atwood disagreed. He ruled that the oral agreement to settle the case was enforceable. “From this, it is unmistakable that Maine law supports a cause of action for breach of contract when it is established that there was an agreement to settle and a party to the agreement refused to perform. This is just such a case,” Atwood wrote.
Contacted Monday, Chapman declined to comment. Chapman is no longer involved in the case, and Greg Sample and Melissa Hewey of Portland represent the housing authority.
In a telephone interview Monday afternoon, Webber said he believes the problems that existed between Francis and the former housing authority commissioners went deep and that some of the former commissioners engaged in a personal vendetta against her which led to the authority’s willingness to spend more than $160,000 in legal fees to fight her in court. Sample said he did not believe the former commissioners’ actions were part of any personal vendetta.
Webber said he plans to contact the authority’s new lawyers to see if they will settle the authority’s effort to seize Francis’ house. If not, Webber said, he plans to file suit over the alleged unlawful entry into her home.
Sample said in a telephone interview Monday night that the commissioners do not plan to appeal because they would like to see the controversy end. He said he could not comment on the specifics of the settlement.