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Can a Mediated Settlement Agreement be set aside for Duress?

A rabbi in New Jersey was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his role in a conspiracy to kidnap and beat husbands who didn’t agree to a religious divorce. See Barbara Boyer Rabbi gets 10 years for arranging divorces with beatings, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 15, 2015, available at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/new_jersey/20151216_Rabbi_gets_10_years_for_arranging_divorces_with_cattleprods_and_beatings.html?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link. In short, in Orthodox Judaism, a husband must consent to a divorce. The rabbi used “beatings, stun guns, and an electric cattle prod” to be sure these husbands consented to their wives’ request for a divorce. Id.

Thankfully, in Texas civil law, people don’t need their spouse’s permission to get a divorce. Nonetheless, duress and coercion still may appear in divorce proceedings when the parties attempt to settle their disputes, though a quick search of Texas cases revealed no situations involving a divorce and a cattle prod. Duress is “some kind of threat [that] renders a person incapable of exercising free agency and unable to withhold consent.” Crowson v. Crowson, No. 03-11-00795-CV (Tex. App.—Austin Dec. 13, 2013, pet. denied) (memorandum opinion). Coercion occurs when “someone is compelled to perform an act by force or threat.” Id. The difference between the two might be more semantical than practical, and the two are often pled together. They are relevant in a divorce setting because they are one of the few ways a party may avoid enforcement of a mediated settlement agreement.

A mediated settlement agreement or MSA is said to be “more binding than a basic written contract.” In re Marriage of Joyner, 196 S.W.2d 883, 889 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2006, pet. denied). An MSA is the result of mediation between the parties and an impartial mediator. Tex. Fam. Code § 6.602. An MSA is not subject to revocation by any party, and the parties are entitled to a judgment from the court that mirrors the terms found in the MSA. Id. But a party may avoid enforcement if he or she can prove that the MSA was entered into under duress or coercion. Thus if in mediation a husband only agrees to grant his wife a religious divorce after being threatened or beaten by his rabbi, he may be able to renege on his promise.

In Crowson, the ex-wife tried to avoid enforcement of the MSA. No. 03-11-00795-CV. Prior to the mediation, her husband had assaulted her. Id. She developed PTSD from the assault and was experiencing symptoms during the mediation—being near her attacker made her scared and she could not stop thinking about the assault, making it difficult to focus and understand what was going on. Id. She was also distracted by the news that she received at mediation that the district attorney would be dropping the charges against her soon to be ex-husband. Id. She argued that she was under duress and coercion at the mediation and that therefore the MSA she signed should not be enforced. Id.

The court determined that despite her fear and anxiety, there was no force or threat or evidence that the ex-wife lacked free will. Id. The past violence and her fear was not enough. To avoid enforcement of the MSA, the court would have needed to see evidence that the violence had occurred or threats had been made to induce her to sign the MSA to the extent that it overcame her free will. While it may be a high bar, it will most likely be met by a cattle prod-wielding rabbi torturing a reluctant husband into submission.

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