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Trefethen v. Liberty Mutual Group, Inc.

United States District Court, First Circuit

May 31, 2013

Margaret Trefethen, Plaintiff,
v.
Liberty Mutual Group, Inc., Defendant. Opinion No. 2013 DNH 081

ORDER

STEVEN J. McAULIFFE, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Margaret Trefethen, brings this action against her former employer, Liberty Mutual Group, claiming it unlawfully terminated her employment and then coerced her into signing a release of claims. She says the release is unenforceable, and she seeks damages for alleged acts of discrimination and wrongful termination. Liberty Mutual moves for summary judgment on each of Trefethen's claims, as well as on each of its own counterclaims.

Contemporaneous with the issuance of this order, the court has issued its decision in a related case involving Liberty Mutual. See Bryant v. Liberty Mutual Group, Inc., 2013 DNH 77 (D.N.H. May 31, 2013). The claims raised in this case, as well as the arguments advanced to invalidate the release, are substantially similar to those advanced in Bryant. In fact, Trefethen and Bryant are represented by the same counsel. While some of the background facts in the two cases obviously differ, those factual differences are not material. Because the governing legal principles, as well as the court's reasoning, are the same, they need not be repeated at length in this decision.

For the reasons set forth below, as well as those discussed more fully in Bryant, Liberty Mutual's motion for summary judgment is granted with respect to each of Trefethen's claims. Liberty Mutual's counterclaims are, however, dismissed as moot.

Standard of Review

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must "view the entire record in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Griggs-Ryan v. Smith , 904 F.2d 112, 115 (1st Cir. 1990). Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals "no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In this context, "a fact is material' if it potentially affects the outcome of the suit and a dispute over it is genuine' if the parties' positions on the issue are supported by conflicting evidence." Int'l Ass'n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. Winship Green Nursing Ctr. , 103 F.3d 196, 199-200 (1st Cir. 1996) (citations omitted).

Background

Trefethen worked for Liberty Mutual for about 16 months in the early 1980's and returned in 2001. During the course of her employment, she received several promotions. By 2008, she had risen to the position of Treasury Services Specialist in the Cash Controls Unit. But, she says that upon her promotion to that position, Liberty Mutual began making "unreasonable and impossible demands" on her. Plaintiff's Memorandum (document no. 31-1) at 2. And, says Trefethen, her supervisor began to question whether she had the "energy and ability" to perform her job - language Trefethen suggests was code for age-related discrimination. Id . As a result of the job-related stress, Trefethen says she developed shingles, was out of work for a period of time, and filed a Workers' Compensation claim. Yet, she says, "[e]ven after learning that Trefethen had shingles due to stress, [her supervisor] continued to insist that Trefethen handle an impossible work load." Id.

In March of 2009, Trefethen's direct supervisor left (or was fired by) the company and Trefethen was told that she would be assuming even greater job responsibilities. She claims Liberty Mutual "continued to simply increase [her] work load so she couldn't possibly keep up." Id. at 3. In August of 2009, Trefethen received a verbal warning based upon Liberty Mutual's perception that she was not adequately performing her job. In a subsequent meeting with a representative of the human resources department, Trefethen claims she was told that, in essence, the company was setting in motion a plan to fire her. She says she learned that the company's plan would unfold as follows. In the wake of the verbal warning, she would inevitably receive a written warning in 30 days. Then, 30 days later, she would be put on probation and, 30 days after that, her employment would be terminated. Trefethen Deposition (document no. 30-5) at 91. She claims she understood (although she admitted that no one specifically told her) that "the die was cast at that point" and there was no opportunity for her to improve or otherwise avoid being fired. Id. at 91-92.

After she received the warning about her performance, Trefethen worked toward meeting the demands that had been placed upon her. But, she says she soon realized that she had been tasked with meeting unreasonable expectations and was incapable of doing so. Then, at some point in September of 2009, she says the human resources representative informed her that she had three options: first, she could simply quit, but that would preclude her from collecting unemployment benefits; second, she could wait for what she believed was inevitable disciplinary action, after which she assumed she would be discharged for cause - again, precluding her from receiving unemployment benefits; or, finally, she could enter into a "mutual separation agreement" with Liberty Mutual. The advantage of such an agreement was that she would be eligible to receive unemployment benefits, as well as severance benefits. See id. at 94. She told the human resources representative that she would think about it and discuss her options with her husband. Id.

Subsequently, Trefethen contacted human resources and asked how she would go about pursuing the mutual separation agreement. She learned that she would be eligible for severance benefits if she signed an agreement releasing any legal claims she might have against Liberty Mutual. Over the next few days, Trefethen communicated (both orally and by e-mail) with representatives of the human resources department and asked a number of questions about the proposed mutual separation. She also asked if Liberty Mutual would allow her to continue working through October 30, 2009, so she might reach her 10-year service anniversary - a milestone that would allow her to receive additional benefits upon her departure. Id. at 96. Liberty Mutual agreed.

On September 20, 2009, Trefethen notified Liberty Mutual that she would like to pursue the "mutual separation" proposal, with her final day of work being October 30 (at the same time, however, Trefethen was pursuing two other job openings within the Liberty Mutual organization). A few days later, Liberty Mutual sent her a letter, confirming the arrangement and explaining that she would receive payment for all accrued but unused vacation time and personal holidays; she was eligible for insurance benefits under COBRA; if she wished to be eligible for severance benefits, she would have to execute a release of claims against Liberty Mutual; and the decision to sign the release and accept severance pay is entirely voluntary. See Letter from Valencia Augusta to Margaret Trefethen dated September 23, 2009 (document no. 30-8) ("Your decision to accept or reject this additional separation consideration is entirely voluntary and will in no way affect your receipt of the regular benefits outlined above (i.e., salary and vacation pay and group benefits)."

On or around October 30, Trefethen received the release of claims. Among other things, that agreement provided that she:

1. Acknowledged that, absent her signature to the agreement, she was not entitled to severance benefits;
2. Knowingly and voluntarily released any claims she might have against Liberty Mutual as of the date of the agreement, including more than 20 specifically identified state and federal statutory and common law claims;
3. Had not relied upon any representations, promises, or agreements outside of those set forth in the severance agreement itself;
4. Had 45 days within which to review, consider, and sign the agreement;
5. Had been advised to consult with an attorney prior to signing the agreement; and
6. Had an additional seven days after signing the agreement to rescind it.

See Severance Agreement and General Release ("Severance Agreement") (document no. 30-3). She reviewed the document, discussed it with her husband, and, on November 4, 2009, she signed it and returned it to Liberty Mutual. She did not rescind the agreement within the seven-day period provided to her. Accordingly, Liberty Mutual paid her all severance benefits to which she was entitled. The last payment was made on February 12, 2010. More than a year later - on March 29, 2011 - Trefethen brought this action against Liberty ...


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