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Friar v. Syntron Material Handling, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

August 1, 2018




         After filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and receiving a “right-to-sue” letter, John Friar filed his Complaint [1] in this Court alleging that his former employer, Syntron Material Handling, LLC, wrongfully fired him because of his race and age. Friar is an African American male over the age of sixty. Now before the Court is Syntron's Motion for Summary Judgment [14] requesting judgment in its favor, and dismissal of all of Friar's claims with prejudice.[1] The issues are fully briefed and ripe for review.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Friar worked for Syntron and its predecessor company from May, 1974 until he was terminated in May, 2015. At the time of his termination, Syntron informed Friar that he was being terminated as part of a reduction-in-force along with about twenty other employees. Syntron presented a Severance and Release Agreement to Friar, which he executed. Syntron also presented severance benefits totaling $16, 628.76 to Friar, which he accepted.

         According to Friar, he was told during his termination meeting that his termination did not have anything to do with his performance, and that his position was simply being eliminated as part of a company-wide reduction-in-force. Shortly after his termination, Friar observed a classified advertisement seeking applicants for his former position. Friar now alleges that the real reason Syntron fired him was because of his race and age, and that the reduction-in-force justification provided to him was mere pretext to hide the real reason. Friar further alleges that he would not have signed the Severance and Release Agreement if he had known that his position was not being eliminated, and that he was instead being fired because of his age, race, or performance.

         Syntron argues that the Severance and Release Agreement bars Friar's complaint because he waived any right to sue under the Agreement. Thus, the issue now before the Court is whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to both whether the Agreement is valid, and if so, whether it acts to bar Friar's claims.

         Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 governs summary judgment. Summary judgment is warranted when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

         The moving party “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the non-movant, “but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little, 37 F.3d at 1075. When such contradictory facts exist, the Court may “not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000).

         Severance and Release Agreement

         As this Court, and the Fifth Circuit, has previously held, “A release waiving rights under Title VII must be both knowing and voluntary.” Young v. Domtar Paper Co., LLC, No. 1:11-CV-236-SA, 2012 WL 2160442, at *2 (N.D. Miss. June 13, 2012) (quoting Rogers v. Gen. Elec. Co., 781 F.2d 452, 454 (5th Cir. 1986)). An employee may validly release only those Title VII claims arising from “discriminatory acts or practices which antedate the execution of the release.” Id. Under this approach, the moving party has the burden of “establish[ing] that his opponent signed a release that addresses the claims at issue, received adequate consideration, and breached the release”. Id. (citing Williams v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 23 F.3d 930, 935 (5th Cir. 1994)). Once this is established, “the opponent has the burden of demonstrating that the release was invalid because of fraud, duress, material mistake, or some other defense.” Id. The Court examines the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the releasor has established an appropriate defense. Id. (citing O'Hare v. Global Natural Res., Inc., 898 F.2d 1015, 1017 (5th Cir. 1990)). The following factors are relevant in determining whether the employee has established a defense to the validity of the release:

(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 [the] 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 consideration given in exchange for the waiver exceeds employee benefits to which the employee was already entitled by contract or law.

Id. (citing Smith v. Amedisys, Inc., 298 F.3d 434, 441 (5th Cir. 2002)). “No single factor is necessarily dispositive in this analysis.” Id. (citing Uherek v. Houston Light & Power Co., 997 F.Supp. 789, 792 (S.D. Tex. 1998)).

         Any waiver must also be “knowing and voluntary” within the context of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. as amended by the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA) 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). Under these statutes, “to constitute a knowing and voluntary waiver, the release must meet specific statutory requirements such as specifically referring to the ADEA, advising the individual to consult with an attorney, and providing a grace period to consider signing the agreement.” McDaniel v. Momentive Specialty Chemicals, Inc., No. 4:13-CV-1235, 2014 WL 2722746, at *2 (S.D. Tex. May 29, 2014) (citing Blakeney v. Lomas Info. Sys., Inc., 65 F.3d 482, 484 (5th Cir. 1995); 29 U.S.C. §§ 626(f)(1)(B), (E), (F)). The ADEA requirements are the “minimum” that need to be established for a waiver to be considered knowing and ...

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