Although he was compelled to rule in defendants’ favor, a federal judge skewered them for letting nearly a year pass since they settled a case without providing a release to the 86-year-old plaintiff in a slip-and-fall personal injury case.

"We find defendants’ non-action on this point to be clearly dilatory, unreasonable and bordering on sanctionable conduct given the plaintiff’s advanced age," said U.S. District Chief Judge J. Curtis Joyner of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in Mackrides v. Marshalls.

But Joyner refused to enforce the settlement because, he said, "the actual settlement terms are patently unclear."

In the fall of 2009, Mary Mackrides fractured her hip after slipping in a Langhorne, Pa., Marshalls store, owned by TJX Cos., also a defendant in the action. The accident required her to have surgery to implant a rod and screws, according to the opinion.

Two days before her suit against the store and its owner was slated to go to trial, the parties settled for $29,750. That was last July. Mackrides asked the court to enforce that settlement, which prompted Joyner’s recent opinion that took a hard line with the defendants’ conduct to date.

Because Mackrides is a Medicare beneficiary, the defendants had argued that they couldn’t send her the release or settlement money until her lawyers had given them a "final demand letter" from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, CMS, regarding the extent to which there may be a lien on the settlement.

After examining a section of law from the Medicare Secondary Payer Act and a section from the Medical Care Recovery Act, Joyner concluded that the government is entitled to seek reimbursement from a settlement fund for medical expenses that it paid.

Mackrides argued that she got a letter from CMS stating that the agency didn’t pay any claims related to the accident.

However, Joyner found that there wasn’t enough in the record to support a ruling to enforce the settlement.

"Noticeably absent from the record here," Joyner said, "is a draft of a release and/or a settlement agreement. As a result, the actual settlement terms are patently unclear — we cannot discern whether or not the settlement figure agreed to by the parties was to include the funds needed to reimburse Medicare for the monies expended to pay for plaintiff’s medical care."

The court didn’t have assurance of whether or not Medicare had actually paid for Mackrides’ medical expenses, Joyner said.

"It is obvious that there are multiple disputed material facts regarding whether a contract was formed here and if so, what the terms of that settlement contract are," Joyner said. "Given this confusion and the paucity of record evidence on these points, we clearly cannot grant the plaintiff’s motion to enforce."

Joyner noted that the defendants were technically correct that the government would be entitled to pursue them, or their insurers, for reimbursement of medical expenses related to the accident, but, he said, any potential action from the government would have nearly reached the statute of limitations.

"In light of the statutory time bar and the CMS letter indicating that its records do not reflect any Medicare payments relative to this claim, we are frankly hard-pressed to understand why defendants have failed to even tender a proposed release or settlement agreement to the plaintiff," Joyner said.

"Although we are constrained to deny the motion to enforce the settlement given the vagaries which surround it, we shall order the parties to show cause why this matter should not be immediately relisted for jury trial and order defendants to show cause why they should not be subject to appropriate trial and/or monetary sanctions," Joyner concluded.

Kevin Monastra of Bonner Kiernan Trebach & Crociata in Philadelphia represented the defendants with Mark Allen Lockett, of the same firm. Monastra declined to comment and Lockett couldn’t be reached.

Steven Rovner of Rovner, Allen, Rovner, Zimmerman & Nash in Feasterville, Pa., represented Mackrides and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or sspencer@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.

(Copies of the 12-page opinion in Mackrides v. Marshalls, PICS No. 13-1014, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •