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Stevens v. Liberty Mutual Group Inc.

United States District Court, First Circuit

July 29, 2013

Isabel Stevens
v.
Liberty Mutual Group Inc.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

PAUL BARBADORO, District Judge.

Isabel Stevens, a former Associate Financial Analyst in the financial department at Liberty Mutual Group Inc. ("Liberty Mutual"), signed a Severance Agreement and General Release ("Agreement") upon her separation from Liberty Mutual releasing all legal claims against her employer in exchange for severance pay. She subsequently filed suit alleging violations of various federal and state anti-discrimination laws relating to her discharge. Liberty Mutual answered the complaint, denying liability and asserting counterclaims against Stevens for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and fraud. Liberty Mutual now moves for summary judgment, arguing that Stevens waived her claims when she knowingly and voluntarily executed the Agreement, and, even if Stevens did not waive her claims, Liberty Mutual is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Liberty Mutual also moves for summary judgment with respect to its counterclaims.

Stevens objects to Liberty Mutual's motion, arguing that the Agreement is unenforceable because she was fraudulently induced to sign it and was under duress at the time. She also argues that the defendant's motion for summary judgment should be denied because the parties dispute material facts. Because I conclude that the severance agreement and general release are enforceable, and Stevens' claims are within the scope of the release, I grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 49) with respect to Stevens' claims against Liberty Mutual without reaching the merits of those claims. I deny the motion with respect to Liberty Mutual's counterclaims against Stevens.[1]

I. BACKGROUND[2]

Stevens graduated from Traip High School in Kittery, Maine, in 1969. Tr. 79. She never attended college, but successfully completed courses in Excel and Access while employed at Liberty Mutual. Tr. 79-80.

Stevens started working at Liberty Mutual as a part-time employee in May 1991 and transitioned to full-time employment within three months. Tr. 17. She initially held a data entry supervisory position in the disbursements department. Tr. 18. Beginning in 2005, she worked as an associate financial analyst and continued in that position until 2010 when she separated from Liberty Mutual. Tr. 18-19.

In 2009, Stevens spoke with her supervisor, Terry Bryant, to express her concern that her workload was too heavy. Tr. 23-24. Bryant told Stevens that she would talk to management, and, a month later, Stevens learned that management had instructed Bryant to conduct a work study to evaluate her workload. Tr. 24-25. Following completion of the work study, management concluded that Stevens had too much work. Tr. 25.

Around the same time, Stevens began experiencing medical problems, including a lump in her nose that caused bleeding, and learned that she needed surgery for a deviated septum. Tr. 43. Liberty Mutual approved Stevens' medical leave for February 9, 2010, to February 22, 2010. Tr. 28, 44. Based on the work study, Stevens believed that her workload would be reduced when she returned from medical leave. Tr. 26.

While Stevens was on medical leave, her supervisor, Bryant, separated from Liberty Mutual. Subsequently, Bryant made several statements to Stevens that made Stevens believe Liberty Mutual was seeking to get rid of older employees. Although Sara Cotter, Stevens new manager, told Stevens that Stevens did not have to worry about losing her job, Tr. 31, Bryant told Stevens: "Remember what I told you, that they're after the older people." Tr. 32. Stevens believed Bryant was implying that Stevens might be fired because of her advanced age, despite Cotter's assurances to the contrary. Tr. 32. Bryant also told Stevens that she heard that the company "wanted to get rid of the older people and that I was targeted." Tr. 36. Bryant told Stevens that two other older women were being targeted. Tr. 39-40.

Stevens also believed that Liberty Mutual wanted to get rid of older employees because she heard a statement made by another employee, Mark Griffin, that Bill McQuillan (also an employee) was "too old, he shouldn't be working here still." Tr. 145-46.

On February 19, 2010, Stevens emailed Cotter and Jennifer Berrios, another manager, to let them know that her doctor had cleared her to return to work, but had told her that she would need to have a stress-free work environment. Tr. 46-47. Stevens and Liberty Mutual agreed that upon her return, Stevens would work part-time processing W-9s, which was less complicated work than the work she performed prior to her surgery. Tr. 47-48. On February 22, 2010, Stevens returned to work part-time, Tr. 48, though her salary stayed the same. Tr. 52. Stevens and Liberty Mutual agreed that she would continue processing W-9s on a part-time basis until her doctor cleared her for full-time work. Tr. 48. Cotter told Stevens that, once she went back to full-time work, her workload would be the same as it was before she went on medical leave, in spite of the fact that Bryant had promised Stevens a workload reduction. Tr. 27. Stevens also learned that, once she resumed full-time employment, she would be assigned two additional hours of work per week on top of the duties she performed prior to taking medical leave. Tr. 112.

Stevens said that when she returned on February 22, "[s]omething had changed." Tr. 49-50. According to Stevens, "[t]he other supervisors weren't talking to me and... my thought was that they were trying to get rid of me and the other supervisors knew about it and they would - they were just ignoring me. The people who used to say hello to me didn't say anything to me." Tr. 50.

After her return to Liberty Mutual and in anticipation of having to resume her full-time duties plus two additional hours of work, Stevens met several times with Janna Pasquini, Principal Human Resources Generalist, to discuss her options, given that her workload was not going to change even though "it was a proven fact that it was too much work for one person." Tr. 63-65. Pasquini suggested that Stevens retire or look into getting another job. Tr. 64. Stevens asked if there were any positions available in the financial department, and Pasquini's "automatic answer was, No.'" Tr. 64.

On March 1, 2010, Stevens emailed Cotter to tell Cotter that she was looking for other available positions in the company and considering retirement. Tr. 65. Stevens said that she was looking into these options at Pasquini's suggestion. Tr. 66. Before Pasquini's suggestion, Stevens planned to retire at age 62 or when she was financially able to do so. Id . At some point, Stevens came to work early to look at the job board, and her badge was rejected. Tr. 67. Stevens believed she was being fired, though, in fact, her badge had not been programmed to work on the particular door she tried to enter. Tr. 67-68. After exploring her options, Stevens concluded that there were no suitable positions posted, but she would not retire. Tr. 67.

Around March 15, 2010, Stevens' doctor cleared her for work without restrictions. Tr. 48-49. She resumed the duties she performed prior to taking medical leave, and was never assigned the additional two hours of work per week that her supervisors had told her to expect. Tr. 113. Stevens was unable to recall any unreasonable demands that Berrios made on her after she returned from medical leave. Tr. 141.

In a meeting with Pasquini around March 20, Pasquini told Stevens that Stevens "had three choices" if she felt she could not perform her duties. Tr. 75. Stevens could (1) quit and forgo unemployment benefits; (2) continue working while undergoing performance management (Stevens understood this option to mean that she would be let go for gross misconduct and would not be able to collect unemployment); or (3) sign a severance agreement and collect severance pay and unemployment benefits. Tr. 75. Pasquini reiterated these three options on March 30, 2010. Tr. 84.

Stevens discussed the options with her boyfriend. Tr. 89. They concluded that she could not quit or undergo performance management because either option would require Stevens to forgo unemployment benefits, which they could not afford to do. Tr. 89.

On April 6, Stevens' supervisors confronted her about her work performance for the first time since she began working for Liberty Mutual. Tr. 55. On that day, Stevens had a 10:00 a.m. meeting scheduled with Cotter, but she had to leave the office around 9:15 a.m. for a doctor's appointment and could not find Cotter or Berrios to tell them that she was leaving work for the appointment. Tr. 55. In the past, when Stevens forgot to inform a supervisor that she needed to leave the office for an appointment, it had not been a problem, and she did not expect it to be a problem on April 6. Tr. 56.

Stevens returned to work at 10:15 a.m., after her doctor's appointment, and stopped by Cotter's desk where the meeting was supposed to take place. Tr. 59. Cotter was not at her desk, so Stevens went back to her own desk. Tr. 60. A short time later, Cotter came to Stevens' desk and asked her to come to Berrios' office with her. Once there,

Jen started yelling at me right away - she didn't give me a chance to explain what happened - saying how it was against policy to leave without telling a manager and that she had to miss a meeting because of my not being able to meet with Sara and that she felt that I was not doing my work and asked me if I had the energy and the ability to do my work.

Tr. 60-61. Berrios told Stevens to return to her desk. Stevens said she felt "mortified." Tr. 61. Stevens returned to her desk, and Cotter stayed in the office with Berrios. Tr. 61.

That afternoon, Cotter brought Stevens into Berrios' office and gave Stevens a verbal warning for leaving the office without telling anyone and failing to talk frequently enough during meetings. Tr. 69-70. Berrios was not present at that meeting. Cotter told Stevens to write down the substance of the warning. Stevens was aware of the company policy prohibiting employees from leaving without telling a supervisor, but was unaware of any policy requiring her to speak during meetings. Tr. 71. Stevens believed "that verbal warnings meant that they want to get rid of you." Tr. 71.

The next day, Stevens told Pasquini that she had received a verbal warning, and Pasquini's "first words were, Then you should take the severance agreement, ' so [Stevens] felt like [she] was being forced to do [so]." Tr. 73. Pasquini reiterated the three options Stevens had, and Stevens said in response, "Well, then you might as well bring the paperwork today." Tr. 136-37. Pasquini then told her, "I'll call you back and let you know what time we'll be there so you can do the severance." Tr. 73.

At the deposition, defendant's counsel asked Stevens, "And what is your basis for saying that Janna [Pasquini] forced you and tricked you into signing the release? What was the force and what was the trick?" Tr. 149. Stevens responded, "The force was that she didn't give me any other choice. She said, Do this, this or this, ' and none of the choices w[as] viable for me." Tr. 149. Pasquini "didn't say we'll try and find you another job, you know, or anything like that to help me." Tr. 150.

Stevens testified that she did not want to continue working after receiving the verbal warning. She believed that the warning meant that Liberty Mutual was trying to force her out of her position, and Stevens did not know of any avenue through which to challenge the verbal warning.

Around 9 a.m. on April 7, 2010, Stevens wrote an email to Irene Earle-Rice, a Senior Benefits Consultant, stating, "I have decided today is my last day at work. Would you please send me the necessary paperwork to start retirement?" Tr. 137. Nonetheless, Stevens testified at her deposition that when she was presented with the agreement in the afternoon on April 7, she did not want to end her employment with Liberty Mutual, and she had no intention of doing so. Tr. 93.

Pasquini presented Stevens with the severance agreement and Valencia Augusta, the Human Resources Manager for the financial department, was present as a witness. Tr. 93-95. When Pasquini presented the Agreement, Pasquini explained that Stevens "needed to sign it in order to get unemployment." Tr. 95.

Stevens did not read the agreement during the meeting, but Pasquini noted the provision in the document that stated, "Notwithstanding the foregoing or Section 6 below, employee is not waiving his or her right to bring claims that cannot be released as a matter of law." Tr. 100. Pasquini ...


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