Monday, October 16, 2017
Court of Appeal:
Settlement Between Yeager, Wife With Lawyers Improperly Sealed
Broke the Sound Barrier 70 Years Ago, Trained Astronauts
By a MetNews Staff Writer
CHARLES E. “CHUCK” YEAGER
Former Air Force Brigadier General
The Fifth District Court of Appeal held Friday that court documents relating to a settlement between a law firm and two of its former clients, former Air Force Brigadier General Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager and his wife, were improperly sealed by the trial court.
The court noted public interest in Yeager. Last Saturday marked 70 years from the date when he became the first person to officially break the sound barrier.
The law firm, Wild, Carter & Tipton of Fresno “has failed to show a substantial probability that an overriding interest will be prejudiced if the record does not remain sealed,” Justice Rosendo Peña Jr. declared.
Peña announced that the court ordered the trial court records, and those filed in the Court of Appeal, unsealed, on its own motion, on Sept. 8.
Reasons put forth by the Yeagers, acting in pro per, as to why the settlement should not be enforced—such as pressure put on them by their lawyer and the inability to hear on the part of Charles Yeager, 94—were rejected, and the judgment by Fresno Superior Court Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan, pursuant to the settlement, was affirmed.
On May 6, 2014, the parties reached a settlement, the terms of which were recited, on the record. Kapetan on Aug. 25 granted the law firm’s motion to enforce the judgment and said she would fashion a “very bare bones” written judgment based the transcript of the May 6 hearing.
She ordered sealed the judgment, her order granting the law firm’s motion, the transcript of the May 6 hearing, handwritten notes made on May 6 as to the terms, and other documents.
That was impermissible, Peña said, explaining:
“The First Amendment guarantees the press and the public the right of access to criminal and civil trials….
“Under rule 2.550 of the California Rules of Court, the court may order a record sealed only upon making express findings that ‘(1) There exists an overriding interest that overcomes the right of public access to the record; [¶] (2) The overriding interest supports sealing the record; [¶] (3) A substantial probability exists that the overriding interest will be prejudiced if the record is not sealed; [¶] (4) The proposed sealing is narrowly tailored; and [¶] (5) No less restrictive means exist to achieve the overriding interest.’ ”
The existence of a confidentiality agreement is not enough to warrant sealing, he said, absent a showing that harm would ensue from disclosure.
“Here, the parties agreed to keep the terms of the settlement agreement confidential, and although the terms of the agreement appear to be innocuous, this is a newsworthy case, Peña wrote, noting:
“General Yeager is to some extent a public figure, and this case received some media attention.”
Aside from breaking the sound barrier, Yeager commanded fighter squadrons during the Vietnamese War, and trained early astronauts.
Injury Not Apparent
The jurist added that “it is unclear how serious injury would result to either party from lifting the seal,” noting:
“The sealed records disclose no trade secrets, financial information, or product information. The parties have not shown disclosure would result in a breach of any privilege, such as the attorney-client privilege, nor do the sealed records contain information likely to be embarrassing.”
The jurist continued:
“In our view, the settlement appears to be a routine agreement. One that, by its express terms, permits the parties to disclose to outside sources that a settlement was reached, even though the terms of the settlement are confidential. As such, it appears the only harm that would result from lifting the seal would be the obvious: it would undermine the parties’ right to contract. Case authority suggests, however, this alone is insufficient to show a substantial injury would result from public disclosure.”
The law firm—the oldest in Fresno, founded in 1893—contended that reputational harm would result from disclosure. However, Peña pointed out, each side’s contentions about the other had already been made public by the pleadings.
Wild, Carter & Tipton was suing for unpaid legal bills amounting to more than $270,000 and the Yeagers sued the lawyers for malpractice.
Prior to the settlement, the law firm released a statement which said, in part:
“While Wild, Carter and Tipton recognize General Yeager as of one of our Country’s most prominent military heroes, who with his deceased wife Glennis, established a military and aviation legacy, his fame and legacy are no excuse for the manner in which his current wife, Victoria D’Angelo (Yeager), a one-time actress, has treated the legal system and the professionals she has employed in the General’s name. Since the General married Ms. D’Angelo [in 2003], she has embroiled the General in a multitude of lawsuits. The public record is that before his marriage to Ms. D’Angelo, General Yeager had never been a party to a civil action. Since then, General Yeager now finds himself embroiled in some 17 past and present lawsuits, many against the very attorneys Ms. D’Angelo-Yeager hired on the General’s behalf.”
The case is Wild, Carter & Tipton v. Yeager, F070631.
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company