Release Bars Sexual Harassment, Battery, Negligent Hiring, and Negligent Supervision Claims

A recent Appellate Division, Second Department decision, Sicuranza v. Philip Howard Apts. Tenants Corp. (decided 10/22/14), held that the plaintiff’s claims of sexual harassment, battery, negligent hiring, and negligent supervision were barred by a release executed by the plaintiff as part of a separation agreement she entered into with her former employer, nonparty Cooper Square Realty, Inc. The court therefore affirmed the Supreme Court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s case under CPLR 3211(a).

Here is the law relating to releases, as summarized by the court:

Generally, a valid release constitutes a complete bar to an action on a claim which is the subject of the release. A release is governed by principles of contract law, and one that is complete, clear, and unambiguous on its face must be enforced according to the plain meaning of its terms.

The plain language of a release is controlling, regardless of one party’s claim that he [or she] intended something else. Where the scope of the release is unambiguous, the court may not look to extrinsic evidence to determine the parties’ intent. Whether or not a writing is ambiguous is a question of law to be resolved by the courts.

Applying the law, the court held that the complaint was properly dismissed:

Here, the plain language of the subject release unambiguously bars all claims that the plaintiff had against her former employer, Cooper, as well as any claims that she had against any entity for which Cooper served as an agent. Since the defendants established, as a matter of law, that they fell within the definition of “Company Releasees” as that term was defined in the subject release, the Supreme Court properly granted the defendants’ motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a) to dismiss the complaint.

One take-away from this decision is that an employee presented with a release contained in a separation agreement must carefully consider all aspects of a release – including not only what claims are being released, but also against whom those claims are being released – before signing it. As illustrated by this case, a release may be applied against certain entities, even though they are not explicitly named as a released party.