Title VII Claims Barred By Settlement Agreement; Duress Claim Rejected

In Cantey v. Mount Vernon City School District, 16-cv-2669, 2018 WL 3315574 (S.D.N.Y. July 5, 2018), the court dismissed claims asserted by plaintiff -an African American Jehovah’s witness – that she suffered discrimination on the basis of her race and religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At the center of this dispute is whether a settlement agreement signed by plaintiff precluded her from pursuing this case. In particular, the plaintiff “essentially argues that the Settlement Agreement is void because she signed it under duress and did not sign it knowingly and voluntarily.”

As to the issue of duress, the court summarized the law:

To prove [ ] duress, a party seeking to void a contract must plausibly plead that the release in question was procured by (1) a threat, (2) which was unlawfully made, and (3) caused involuntary acceptance of contract terms, (4) because the circumstances permitted no other alternative. … Additionally, the duress at issue must have originated from the defendant. … A mere demonstration of financial pressure or unequal bargaining power will not, by itself, establish economic duress. … Moreover, a person claiming duress must act promptly to repudiate the contract or release or he will be deemed to have waived his right to do so.

Plaintiff alleged duress by undue influence of her attorney, not defendant. This, the court held, was fatal to her claim of duress. The court also noted that plaintiff testified (inter alia) that she understood that she had a right of refuse to settle the case, she was not threatened into signing the agreement, and did not revoke the agreement per its terms.

The court next rejected plaintiff’s argument that she did not knowingly and voluntarily waive her claims. In evaluating that argument, the court cited and applied the eight factors set forth in Bormann v. AT&T Communications, Inc., 875 F.2d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 1989):

(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; (6) whether the consideration given in exchange for the waiver exceeds employee benefits to which the employee was already entitled by contract or law; [7] whether [the] employer encourage[d] or discourage[d] [the] employee to consult an attorney; and [8] whether the employee had a fair opportunity to do so.

Applying these factors, the court rejected plaintiff’s position. It noted, for example, that “the length of her employment by the District highly suggests that she exceeds what is required to satisfy the first Bormann factor, particularly because even plaintiffs with minimal education and work experience have been found capable of understanding an agreement,” that she had sufficient time to review the agreement (21 days plus another 7-day revocation period), that the agreement was “clear and unambiguous,” and that she had an opportunity to, and did, consult an attorney before signing the agreement.

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