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Arco Chemical Co. has agreed to pay $600,000 to settle an age discrimination suit that was about to go to trial for the second time. The settlement was supposed to be confidential and its terms kept secret by both sides, but a transcript of a conference with U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno was accidentally filed publicly last Friday. In the first trial of Becker v. ARCO, a federal jury awarded William Becker more than $700,000, but that verdict was overturned on appeal due to an evidentiary issue. Jury selection was about halfway done when the parties informed Judge Robreno that they had reached a settlement. According to the transcript, Robreno ordered Arco’s lawyers to put the terms of the settlement on the record in open court. Attorney Niza Motola of Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll told the judge that the settlement “will be kept confidential” and that the plaintiff would be allowed to discuss the terms only with his lawyers, accountants and close family members. Motola said Arco had agreed to pay $600,000 and was making no admission of liability. The settlement will be paid in two checks, Motola said, one to Becker and the second to his lawyers. Becker, she said, would inform Arco at a later date as to how the $600,000 should be divided. A squabble ensued after plaintiff’s attorney George P. Wood of Stewart Wood Branca & Matos in Norristown, Pa., asked for a deadline for distribution of the funds. Arco attorney Charisse Lillie of Ballard Spahr said that under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the plaintiff must have 21 days to consider the settlement and that the check would issue 10 days later. But Judge Robreno bristled, saying, “The case is going to be settled today. He’s either going to accept it or reject it today. But the jury is here; we’re ready to go. We can’t wait 21 days.” Robreno said he wanted to give Becker “every opportunity to think about it,” but said he did not believe the 21-day rule would apply in a case that “settled in court.” Lillie insisted that “I’ve had cases where we have settled them and because this language was not in, we have later had suit.” As a result, Lillie said, there must be language in the settlement that says Becker’s decision to settle “is a knowing, willing waiver, not induced by the employers.” Robreno seemed to reject the proposal, saying “No. The case is over today.” But in his next breath, Robreno said, “whatever language you want to put in that is agreeable to the plaintiff is agreeable to me. But this is a final settlement. There is no turning back from today, no changing of the minds.” Lillie again asked if the “waiver language” could be inserted, and Robreno allowed Motola to recite a clause that said Becker was certifying that he had the advice of independent counsel in deciding to settle and that he has 21 days to consider it and the option of revoking it within seven days of executing it. But Robreno appeared unhappy, saying, “It would be an absurdity that that language should apply to a settlement in court, because the entire purpose is to eliminate that course of effect.” Instead, Robreno insisted that the plaintiff’s lawyers should assist Becker in putting on the record his waiver of any rights he would have to consider and possibly revoke the settlement. Attorney Carmen Matos said she agreed with the judge’s interpretation and asked Becker if he understood that the revocation period would not apply to his settlement. Becker said that he did. Robreno then insisted that a “simple” release be put on the record from both sides. The judge then said he wanted to congratulate — and offer condolences — to both sides. “I remember somebody once speaking to somebody here who just got a divorce. [They said] ‘I’m sorry, but congratulations, whichever the case is.’ And it’s the same thing here,” Robreno said. “It’s always in a way unpleasant; on the other hand, you know, everyone got at least something out of the case — finality for the employer and some money for Mr. Becker,” Robreno said. In the suit, Becker, now 57, said ARCO Chemical Co. fired him in 1993 after 23 years on the job as a research scientist. Becker claimed that after he turned down an early retirement package in 1991, his supervisors tried to nudge him out by writing poor performance reports — for the first time in his career. He claimed that supervisors told him that the company “wanted younger people in management” and that the younger scientists had complained that veterans were getting all the merit pay. Matos told the first jury that Becker tried to address the issue through ARCO’s “Employee Problem Resolution” program. But two years after he filed the internal complaint, she said, supervisors complained that he was spending too much time on his age-discrimination case. That’s when they sent him to the office psychologist, Wood said. Wood interpreted the referral as an effort to portray Becker as an “off-balance” malcontent, but said the psychologist found nothing wrong with his client. In March 1994, Arco fired Becker. In the trial, Becker testified that two guards, carrying his personal effects on a cart, escorted him to the door the same day. The first jury awarded him $186,095 in back pay, $380,000 in front pay and $170,000 in compensatory damages. On Friday, Wood refused to discuss the settlement and the fact that it was made public by the filing of the transcript. “All I’m allowed to say is that the case has been amicably resolved,” Wood said. Lillie, too, was mum, saying, “I have to have no comment due to the confidentiality clause in the settlement.”

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