Settling the Confusion: Applying Federal Common Law in Settlement Enforcement Proceedings Arising From Federal Claims

Denlow, Morton, Zajac, Jonny | December 1, 2012

Today, many federal court cases are resolved by means of a settlement agreement. When a dispute arises regarding the formation, interpretation, and enforcement of those settlement agreements, a federal judge must resolve whether state or federal law governs the enforcement proceeding. Given the current lack of clarity in this area, this Article advocates for uniform federal choice of law principles in settlement enforcement proceedings where a federal question is involved. The federal courts have an institutional interest in creating uniform rules to govern the behavior in the courts. Uniformity in settlement enforcement proceedings would be consistent with the independent and self-regulating nature of the courts. Additionally, there is a strong federal interest in promoting the settlement of federal lawsuits and enforcing valid settlements. There may also be some federal statute-specific policies that require the use of federal common law when the underlying claims in a settlement are based on that statute. Part I of the Article discusses relevant Supreme Court case law and illustrates the confusion amongst the circuits. Part II argues that the federal courts have an institutional interest in governing their own affairs sufficient to support the application of federal common law of settlements. Part II describes the identifiable federal policy in favor of settlements. The Article ultimately proposes that the development of a uniform federal common law on settlement enforcement would address the current situation.