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Bryant v. Liberty Mutual Group, Inc.

United States District Court, First Circuit

May 31, 2013

Terry Bryant, Plaintiff,
v.
Liberty Mutual Group, Inc., Defendant. Opinion No. 2013 DNH 077.

ORDER

STEVEN J. McAULIFFE, District Judge.

In her ten-count amended complaint, Terry Bryant asserts that her former employer, Liberty Mutual Group, 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 unlawful discrimination and wrongful termination. Liberty Mutual moves for summary judgment on each of Bryant's claims, as well as on each of its own counterclaims. That motion is granted with respect to Bryant's claims. But, for the reasons discussed below, Liberty Mutual's counterclaims are dismissed.

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). Nevertheless, if the non-moving party's "evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, " no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and "summary judgment may be granted." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986) (citations omitted).

The key, then, to defeating a properly supported motion for summary judgment is the non-movant's ability to support his or her claims concerning disputed material facts with evidence that conflicts with that proffered by the moving party. See generally Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). It naturally follows that while a reviewing court must take into account all properly documented facts, it may ignore a party's bald assertions, unsupported conclusions, and mere speculation, see Serapion v. Martinez , 119 F.3d 982, 987 (1st Cir. 1997), as well as those allegations "which have since been conclusively contradicted by [the nonmoving party's] concessions or otherwise, " Chongris v. Board of Appeals , 811 F.2d 36, 37 (1st Cir. 1987). Moreover, the nonmoving party cannot create a dispute concerning material facts by simply submitting an affidavit that contradicts her earlier deposition testimony (or answers to interrogatories) without providing an adequate explanation for that discrepancy. See Colantuoni v. Alfred Calcagni & Sons , 44 F.3d 1, 4-5 (1st Cir. 1994). See also Torres v. E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co. , 219 F.3d 13, 20 (1st Cir. 2000).

Background

Bryant graduated from high school in 1975 and then attended Anderson School of Business, where she took a few college courses before entering the workforce. She held various retail sales positions, worked as a special education aide in the Milton, New Hampshire, school system, and was a purchasing agent for Cabletron Systems. While at Cabletron, she received a number of promotions, rising to the position of "Senior Worldwide Noninventory Buyer."

In September of 2005, she began working for Liberty Mutual as a supervisor, overseeing the work of four other employees. In the winter of 2010, Liberty Mutual says it became concerned about a substantial backlog of work in Bryant's department. On February 10, 2010, two of Bryant's supervisors expressed those concerns to her. A week later, on February 17, a representative from Liberty Mutual's human resources department informed Bryant that, because of the substantial volume of unprocessed work in her department, the company was going to initiate disciplinary action.

According to Bryant, the representative from the human resources department then informed her that she had three options: allow the disciplinary process to proceed and await its outcome, voluntarily quit, or agree to a mutual separation. Bryant claims she was told that if she did not affirmatively elect one of those options before the close of business, she would be fired for gross misconduct. Moreover, says Bryant, based on what she had observed during her tenure at Liberty Mutual, she believed if she allowed the disciplinary process to proceed she would inevitably be fired for cause and, therefore, be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Similarly, she realized that if she voluntarily quit, she would not receive unemployment benefits. Accordingly, she thought her only viable option was to agree to a mutual separation agreement.

Bryant did not, however, make an immediate decision as to how she wished to proceed. Instead, she says she told the human resources representative that she "would consider the mutual separation." Bryant Deposition, Volume II (document no. 54-7) at 93 and 96. Accordingly, she asked Liberty Mutual to send her the relevant paperwork so she could review it and discuss it with her husband. Id. at 93, 99-101. Despite her assertion that she was told she would be discharged for "gross misconduct" if she did not affirmatively elect one of the three options that day, Bryant was not fired. In fact, she testified that no one at Liberty Mutual ever fired her or told her that she was "fired." Bryant Deposition, Volume I (document no. 54-5) at 101.

The following day, Liberty Mutual e-mailed Bryant a collection of documents. It was explained to Bryant that upon separation from Liberty Mutual she would receive all salary and vacation pay to which she was entitled, and she was informed of the availability of insurance benefits under COBRA. She was also told that Liberty Mutual would provide her with severance benefits if she elected to sign the enclosed severance agreement and general release. Among other things, the agreement provided that Bryant:

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 forty-five 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 revoke her assent.

See Severance Agreement and General Release (document no. 5-3) ("Severance Agreement").

Bryant read the Severance Agreement, discussed it with her husband, and signed it on February 18, 2010. She claims, however, that she was coerced into signing the document because a representative of Liberty Mutual told her she would be terminated for cause if she did not sign and return the document immediately. Again, however, that proved not to be the case. Bryant did not return the signed document to Liberty Mutual for approximately two weeks. Bryant Deposition, Volume II, at 133. She says she delayed returning the document because she had questions about it that she wished to discuss with her contact in the human resources department. Id. at 135.

At some point after Bryant signed and returned a copy of the Severance Agreement, a representative of the company informed Bryant that she would be sending along a virtually identical version of the agreement for Bryant's signature. She explained that the original agreement had been updated and, in any event, Bryant had neglected to initial the final page of the document she provided to Liberty Mutual.[1] Notwithstanding her claims about coercion, duress, and threats of termination, Bryant also signed the updated severance agreement on March 10, and she returned that document to Liberty Mutual a week later - approximately one month after she received the original version.

Parenthetically, the court notes that neither party's behavior is consistent with Bryant's assertion that Liberty Mutual coerced and/or fraudulently induced her to sign the Severance Agreement. She was not pressured to sign it at her workplace. Instead, a copy of the Severance Agreement was sent to her home, by e-mail. She had ample time to review the document, discuss it with her husband as she wished, consider her options, and, if she chose, consult an attorney. If Liberty Mutual had been trying to coerce her into signing the Severance Agreement without first considering its implications, and prior to contacting an attorney, it is unlikely that it would have afforded her so much time for reflection. Nor is it likely that Liberty Mutual would have given her additional time by seeking her signature to a "revised" release that contained only minor, non-substantive changes.

Despite the assertions of duress and coercion raised in her amended complaint and her legal memorandum, Bryant testified at her deposition that she chose the "mutual separation" option presented by Liberty Mutual and signed the Severance Agreement because she wanted to preserve her ability to collect unemployment benefits.

Can I just be very blunt and honest, because I think it will just get this done? I signed this document because I needed unemployment [benefits], because I didn't know where my next job was coming from. And when you're faced with a choice, you walk out or you get fired, and in both of those cases you're not going to get unemployment, in both of those cases; [if signing the ...

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