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Allen v. Chanel, Inc.

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 4, 2013

ANU ALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CHANEL INC., Defendant.

Christopher H. Thompson, The Law Offices of Christopher Thompson, West Islip, NY, Plaintiffs Counsel.

Lorie Elizabeth Almon, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, New York, NY, Defendant's Counsel.

OPINION AND ORDER

ROBERT P. PATTERSON, Jr., District Judge.

On September 6, 2012, Plaintiff Anu Allen ("Allen") filed this action against her former employer, Chanel, Inc. ("Chanel"), alleging employment discrimination, harassment, and wrongful termination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, et seq., the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 290, et seq. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, including back pay, front pay, and lost benefits, as well as recoupment of her legal costs.

On November 12, 2012, Defendant, based on a "Separation and Release Agreement" alleged to have been exectuted by the parties, moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted or, alternatively, pursuant to Rule 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff submitted answering papers on December 4, 2012. Defendant submitted its reply papers on December 10, 2012. Oral argument was held on December 13, 2012.

For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's motion to dismiss is converted to a motion for summary judgment and denied.

I. Facts[1]

Beginning on or about May 10, 1993, Defendant first employed Plaintiff as the main executive receptionist at Defendant's corporate headquarters. (See Compl. ¶ 9; Def.'s Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss ("Def.'s Mem.") at 3.) Subsequently, she became the Office Services Coordinator, and later, the Samples Coordinator for the Fashion Division.[2] (See id. ¶¶ 11-12.) Plaintiff alleges that she suffered and reported multiple instances of discrimination during her employment. On or about February 28, 2012, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment with the company.[3] (See id ¶ 12; Def.'s Mem. at 4.)

Upon terminating Plaintiff, Defendant presented Plaintiff with "a hard copy of a letter agreement titled Separation and Release Agreement, '" (the "Chanel Separation and Release Agreement"), dated February 28, 2012. (Def.'s Mem. at 1; see also Tr. of Oral Arg. on Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss ("Tr.") at 11, Dec. 13, 2012.) The Chanel Separation and Release Agreement is styled as a letter from the Defendant to the Plaintiff setting forth the terms and conditions of Plaintiff's separation from the company. (See Def.'s Mem. at 1-2; Tr. at 11.) The Chanel Separation and Release Agreement stated that Plaintiff's "regular wages up to and including the Termination Date... [as well as unused] vacation time... shall be provided [to you] regardless of whether you sign this Agreement." (Decl. of Laurie E. Almon ("Almon Decl."), Ex. B ¶ 2, ECF No. 10.)

The Chanel Separation and Release Agreement granted Plaintiff a separation payment somewhat in excess of what she would have otherwise received under her employment contract in exchange for Plaintiff's acceptance of the terms and conditions outlined in the Chanel Separation and Release Agreement. (See Almon Decl., Ex. B ¶¶ 2-3; see also Def.'s Mem. at 1-2.) Specifically, Paragraph 3 of the Chanel Separation and Release Agreement, which is entitled "Additional Consideration, " states:

In return for your signing (and not revoking) this Agreement, which contains a general release of claims, ... as is described in detail under Paragraph 4 below, ... the Company will provide you with the following benefits: [...] You agree that the payments and benefits provided to you in this Paragraph 3... are in full discharge of any and all of the Company's liabilities and obligations to you... and complete consideration for your promises and undertakings under this Agreement, including, but not limited to, your release of claims as set forth in Paragraph 4....

(Almon Decl., Ex. B ¶ 3.) In turn, Paragraph 4 of the Chanel Separation and Release Agreement, which is entitled "General Release of Claims, " states that Plaintiff releases her claims against the company, "including, but not limited to" the causes of action listed in Paragraph 4. (Id. ¶ 4 (emphasis added).) Specifically, Paragraph 4 declares that:

For and in consideration of the payments and benefits to be provided to you..., you... hereby forever release and discharge [Defendant]... from any and all claims... including, but not limited to, claims of discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, ... sex, sexual orientation, age, ... and any other legally protected characteristic... and any and all claims under any contract, statute, regulation, agreement, duty or otherwise.

(Id. (emphasis added).) The Chanel Separation and Release Agreement explicitly states that it "may be modified only by a writing signed by both parties." (Almon Decl. Ex B ¶ 9; see also Def.'s Mem. at 5.)

The Chanel Separation and Release Agreement was pre-signed by Defendant's representative before it was presented to Plaintiff. (See Def.'s Mem. at 1; Tr. at 11.) Under the heading "Agreed to and Accepted, " a blank space was left for Plaintiff to sign, if she "agree[d] with the terms and conditions of this Agreement." (Almon Decl., Ex. B at 7; see also ¶ 10.) The document provides Plaintiff with twenty-one days to consider its terms and seven days to revoke it after signing. (See Almon Decl., Ex. B ¶ 10.) The Chanel Separation and Release Agreement became "effective on the eighth (8th) day after [Plaintiff] sign[ed] it." (Id.) The Chanel Separation and Release Agreement advises Plaintiff to "consult with an attorney of [her] choice before signing this Agreement." (Almon Decl. Ex. B ¶ 10; see also Def.'s Mem. at 5.)

On or about March 19, 2012, Plaintiff initialed each page, signed the last page, and returned to Defendant a full version of the Separation and Release Agreement. (See Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 1; Def.'s Mem. at 2; see also Almon Decl., Ex C.) Before initialing, signing, and returning the agreement to Defendant, however, Plaintiff retyped page three and altered the content of Paragraph 4 ("General Release of Claims"). (See Almon Decl., Ex. D; see also discussion supra at 3.) Prior to the list of potential discrimination and harassment claims covered by Paragraph 4, Plaintiff's version ("Plaintiff's Release") changed the first two letters of the word "including" to read "excluding." (See Pl.'s Mem. at 1; Def.'s Mem. at 2.) Thus, Paragraph 4 of Plaintiff's Release states, in relevant part:

For and in consideration of the payments and benefits to be provided to you..., you... hereby forever release and discharge [Defendant]... from any and all claims... excluding, but not limited to, claims of discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, ... sex, sexual orientation, age, ... and any other legally protected characteristic... and any and all claims under any contract, statute, regulation, agreement, duty or otherwise.

(Almon Decl., Ex. C ¶ 4 (emphasis added); see also Almon Decl., Ex. D ¶ 4 (comparing the Chanel Separation and Release Agreement and Plaintiff's Release).) Despite this material change to its content preserving Plaintiff's right to bring the listed claims, Paragraph 4 of Plaintiff's Release ...


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