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LARAMEE v. JEWISH GUILD FOR BLIND

October 29, 1999

MARCELLA LARAMEE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE JEWISH GUILD FOR THE BLIND A/K/A JGB HEALTH FACILITIES, INC., AND LOCAL 1199, DRUG, HOSPITAL AND HEALTH CARE EMPLOYEES UNION, SEIU AFL-CIO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein, District Judge.

OPINION & ORDER

Defendant The Jewish Guild for the Blind ("JGB") has moved pursuant to Fed. R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss plaintiff's claims for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), the Rehabilitation Act (the "RHA"). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), and the New York State Human Rights Law (the "HRL").*fn1 Because this Court finds that plaintiff "knowingly and voluntarily" released defendant from these claims, defendant's motion is granted, and plaintiff's complaint is dismissed. In addition, JGB's motion for sanctions against plaintiff and her attorney pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 is denied.

Facts

Laramee was employed by JGB as a secretary from 1982 until March 13, 1998. (Complaint at ¶ 4, Opp. at 10). Laramee alleges that, beginning in early 1996, she was "harassed and criticized in an ongoing manner by both supervisors and co-workers" at JGB. (Complaint at ¶ 12). Specifically, she contends that unspecified individuals (1) removed from her desk and publically displayed sanitary products and undergarments; (2) made unspecified disparaging remarks about her weight, hair, eyeglasses, and dress; and (3) pressured her to join Weight Watchers. (Id.). Moreover, Laramee contends that she has been "diagnosed with morbid obesity" and that JGB has discriminated against her on the basis of this disability or perceived disability. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-6). In particular, Laramee alleges that JGB has failed to reasonably accommodate her disability by refusing to provide her with an appropriate chair for switchboard work, a smokefree environment, and a suitable parking area. (Id. at ¶ 13).

Sometime in mid-1997, Laramee requested that Local 1119 represent her in an arbitration of a claim brought against JGB concerning JGB's allegedly discriminatory treatment of Laramee. (Id. at ¶ 22). As required by the collective bargaining agreement, the union voted on whether to arbitrate Laramee's grievance and, by a majority vote, the matter was accepted for arbitration. (Id. at ¶ 23).

On March 13, 1998, Laramee resigned from JGB "for personal reasons." (Id. at ¶ 26). She received a proposed severance agreement (the "Agreement") from JGB two weeks later, (Id. at ¶ 28), and signed the Agreement three and one-half weeks after receiving it. (Id. at ¶ 31). At all times during this period, Laramee was represented by counsel. Pursuant to the Agreement, Laramee received 20 weeks of severance pay and one year of health care coverage. (Id. at ¶ 27; Agreement at ¶¶ 2, 3). The Agreement also provides that:

  Laramee hereby releases and discharges the Guild from
  any liabilities, obligations or claims of any nature
  whatsoever, except for the specific obligations of
  the Guild under this Agreement, including, but not
  limited to, claims arising out of or in connection
  with her employment by the Guild or the termination
  thereof. . . . Laramee acknowledges and agrees that
  she is entering into this Agreement freely and
  voluntarily and with a full understanding of its
  terms. Laramee further acknowledges and agrees that
  she has been fairly represented by the Union.

(Agreement at ¶¶ 6, 8). In return, the union agreed to withdraw with prejudice the arbitration that it had commenced on behalf of Laramee. (Id. at ¶ 7).

Discussion

I. Motion to Dismiss

JGB has moved pursuant to Fed. R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Laramee waived the claims that she has now brought against JGB when she signed the Agreement. When deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court may consider documents attached to the complaint as exhibits or incorporated in it by reference. See Brass v. American Film Techs., Inc., 987 F.2d 142, 150 (2d Cir. 1993) (citing Cortec Indus., Inc. v. Sum Holding L.P., 949 F.2d 42, 47-48 (2d Cir. 1991)). Accordingly, the Court may consider the terms of the Agreement in deciding this motion.

Pursuant to New York law, the validity of a release is governed by principles of contract law, and a release that is clear and unambiguous and which is knowingly and voluntarily entered into will be enforced. See Pampillonia v. RJR Nabisco, Inc., 138 F.3d 459, 463 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Skluth v. United Merchants & Mfrs., Inc., 163 A.D.2d 104, 106, 559 N.Y.S.2d 280, 282 (1st Dept. 1990)). The essential inquiry in determining the validity of a release of a claim brought pursuant to the federal civil rights statutes - other than the Older Worker's Benefit Protection Act (the "OWBPA") - is whether, considering the "totality of the circumstances," the individual's waiver of his or her right can be characterized as "knowing and voluntary." See Bormann v. AT & T Communications, Inc., 875 F.2d 399, 402-03 (2d Cir. 1989); Baba v. Warren Management Consultants, Inc., 882 F. Supp. 339, 344 (S.D.N.Y.), aff'd, 89 F.3d 826 (2d Cir. 1995). This standard "is somewhat more stringent than the analysis called for under ordinary [New York State] contract law[] for determining whether a release of discrimination claims was executed knowingly and voluntarily." Lambertson v. Kerry Ingredients, Inc., 50 F. Supp .2d 163, 168 (E.D.N.Y. 1999) (quoting Nicholas v. Nynex, Inc., 929 F. Supp. 727, 730 (S.D.N.Y. 1996)). Accordingly, if Laramee has waived her federal claims, she has also waived her New York State law claims.

The balance of those factors in this case weighs heavily in favor of upholding the validity of the release. The first factor, plaintiff's education and business experience, neither favors nor disfavors plaintiff. Although there is some dispute as to Laramee's degree of sophistication, accepting all of plaintiff's allegations as true - that Laramee was employed in a secretarial position and had a high school education - this factor, while not weighing heavily in JGB's favor, does not warrant invalidating the release. See Reid v. IBM Corp., No. 95-1755, 1997 WL 357969, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. June 26, 1997) (business studies in ...


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