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Litigation

DEAF CLIENT SUES HIS LAWYER FOR MISREADING HIS SIGN LANGUAGE

A deaf former client is suing his attorney for legal malpractice for allegedly mistaking his sign language and settling a discrimination suit for $207,500 instead of the $200 million he had asked for.

James Wang, age 49, claims his lawyer Andrew Rozynski exaggerated his understanding of sign language and confused his sign for “million” with “thousand” while settling a deal in a suit brought by Wang against his former employer, IBM.  Wang, a software engineer, sued IBM in 2013 after accusing the firm of firing him for being deaf.

Wang asserts that he was shocked to see a payment of just $207,500 in the settlement papers in 2014 after mediation.  Mr. Wang refused to accept the offer - but IBM argued that his claim of a sign-language miscommunication was not credible and demanded a judge enforce the agreement.  The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted IBM’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement.  Mr. Wang’s petition for certiorari before the United States Supreme Court was denied.

The mediation session took place on April 9, 2014. At the mediation session were Wang, Mr. Rozynski, his co-counsel in the case, IBM’s in-house and outside counsel, the mediator, and an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. The mediation session began at 10:00 a.m. The ASL interpreter left at approximately 4:00 p.m., but the mediation session continued. The mediation session could proceed without the ASL interpreter because Mr. Rozynski is fluent in ASL. Thus, he communicated with his client and facilitated communication with the mediator. Wang alleged he did not participate directly in the settlement negotiations; rather, his attorneys negotiated on his behalf.

At approximately 5:00 p.m., counsel believed they had reached a settlement agreement. One of IBM’s attorneys prepared a two-page Memorandum of Understanding to memorialize the material terms of the agreement indicating that IBM would make a total settlement payment in the amount of $207,500.00.  Wang asserts he did not read the document carefully because he was hungry and that the agreement was signed by Mr. Rozynski without his permission.

On May 8, 2014, Mr. Rozynski emailed Wang a copy of the Release to sign. Wang claimed that, upon reviewing the Release, he was "shocked" to see the amount of the settlement was $207,500; he believed he had settled the case for $207 million.  According to Mr. Wang, he told Mr. Rozynski several times, both before and during the mediation session, he wanted to settle the case for at least $200 million. But, Wang contended, Mr. Rozysnki repeatedly misunderstood his settlement demands because the ASL signs for thousand and million are very similar.

The district court held that Mr. Wang’s alleged failure to read the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at the end of the mediation session, even if true, was no basis for invalidating that agreement. The court found that the MOU could not express the parties' intent to be bound more clearly, was preliminary only in form as it contained all material terms, and was fully binding.  The court rejected Wang’s contention that it was only an agreement to agree.

The district court did not find credible Wang’s claim that he repeatedly told Mr. Rozynski he would not settle for less than $200 million. Judge Vincent L. Briccetti stated in his opinion: 

“No person-let alone someone as sophisticated as plaintiff, who is fluent in multiple languages and worked as a software engineer for one of the country's largest technology companies-could plausibly believe defendant would settle this case for $200 million. Indeed, before the mediation session Mr. Rozynski informed plaintiff he had a "10% or less" chance of winning at trial. Moreover, $200 million is approximately 3,000 times greater than plaintiff's annual salary [of $65,000] at the time of his termination.”

Mr. Wang, representing himself, is suing Mr Rozynksi's firm Eisenberg & Baum LLP for legal malpractice at Manhattan Supreme Court and is demanding unspecified damages.


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Lexis Advance subscribers can view the docket for this case at: https://advance.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1000516&crid=dd08e103-b99b-4e97-bda2-10a121bda435&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fdockets%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A5NBK-K1V1-DXDT-G0CY-00000-00&pddocid=urn%3AcontentItem%3A5NBK-K1V1-DXDT-G0CY-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=343330&pdteaserkey=sr0&ecomp=z4ntk&earg=sr0&prid=a12ed591-1ab7-494a-8dd5-632123432d32

Lexis subscribers can access the opinion granting IBM’s motion to enforce at: Wang v. IBM, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165515 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 7, 2014)

Lexis Advance subscribers can find the opinion at:  Wang v. IBM, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165515 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 7, 2014)

 

Author:  Gabriela N. Nolen, Lexis-Nexis Case Law Editor

 

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