Personal Injury Release Held Broad Enough to Cover Employment Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, and Retaliation Claims

In Gracia v. City of NY, 16-CV-7329, 2017 WL 4286319 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2017) (J. Caproni), the court held that a release signed by plaintiff – a female NYPD officer – to resolve a personal injury slip-and-fall case was broad enough to encompass claims for gender discrimination sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation.

In January 2015, plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit. In June 2016, she settled that case for $10,000. As part of that settlement, she executed a general release, in which she agreed to:

[R]elease and forever discharge the City of New York, and all past and present officers, directors, managers, administrators, employees, agents, assignees, lessees, and representatives of the City of New York, and all other individually named defendants and entities represented and/or indemnified by the City of New York, collectively the “RELEASEES”, from any and all claims, causes of action, suits, debts, sums of money, accounts, controversies, transactions, occurrences, agreements, promises, damages, judgments, executions, and demands whatsoever, known or unknown, which [Plaintiff] had, now has or hereafter can, shall, or may have, either directly or through subrogees or other third persons, against the RELEASEES for, upon or by reason of any matter, cause or thing whatsoever that occurred through the date of this RELEASE ….

The release permitted plaintiff to carve out specific claims if she identified them, which she did not do.

Before signing the release, in April 2016, plaintiff had filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in which she alleged claims of gender discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation.

Plaintiff subsequently received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, and filed the instant lawsuit. After answering, defendants and then moved (1) to amend their answer, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15, to assert the affirmative defense of “waiver and release”, and for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c).

The court granted defendants’ motion.

With respect to judgment on the pleadings, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the release was “ambiguous”:

The general release is not ambiguous. It clearly applies to all claims Plaintiff had against the City and its agents as of the time she executed the general release, even if those claims are unrelated to the slip and fall and even if she was not aware of such claims or had not yet pursued them. Moreover, contrary to Plaintiff’s contention, the second paragraph of the general release, which allows Plaintiff to carve out specific claims from the general release, is not ambiguous as to whether it applies to future actions not yet filed. The second paragraph explicitly identifies “pre-litigation claims” and asks the Plaintiff to identify them by the “dates of incident.” Piercey Decl. Ex. B. A number of courts have found identical or nearly identical general releases to be unambiguous. See, e.g., Charlery v. Dep’t of Educ. of City of New York, No. 15-CV-7994 (JPO), 2017 WL 2124447, at *1, 3 (S.D.N.Y. May 15, 2017); Hackshaw v. Urquiaga, No. 15-CIV-4005 (ER), 2016 WL 6534253, at *1, 3 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 2, 2016); Staples v. Officer Acolatza, No. 14-CV-3922 (WHP), 2016 WL 4533560, at *2-3 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 9, 2016). Because Plaintiff’s discrimination claims arise exclusively from conduct that occurred from 2013 through 2015, see Compl. ¶¶ 18-42, which was before Plaintiff signed the general release, and because those claims were not specifically excluded from the general release, Plaintiff’s discrimination claims are covered by the terms of the general release. (Emphasis in original.)

While an employee may waive Title discrimination and retaliation claims, explained the court, such a waiver must be done “knowingly and voluntarily”. This determination is based on the “totality of the circumstances”, including (but not limited to) the following factors:

(1) the plaintiff’s education and business experience, (2) the amount of time the plaintiff had possession of or access to the agreement before signing it, (3) the role of plaintiff in deciding the terms of the agreement, (4) the clarity of the agreement, (5) whether the plaintiff was represented by or consulted with an attorney, and (6) whether the consideration given in exchange for the waiver exceeds employee benefits to which the employee was already entitled by contract or law.

Applying these factors, the court held that plaintiff executed the release knowingly and voluntarily. In reaching this conclusion, it noted (inter alia) the qualifications that plaintiff must have had in order to become an NYPD officer, the fact that plaintiff was represented by counsel in the tort action, her receipt of a settlement payment, and the “exceedingly clear” terms of the release.

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