United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
January 30, 2004.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES
The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARVEY BARTLE, III, District Judge
This action concerns an alleged breach of a settlement agreement
("settlement agreement") between plaintiff, Darlene Burnett, and her
former employer, the United States Postal Service. The settlement
agreement, which the parties signed on September 27, 2000, terminated
plaintiff's discrimination claim filed with the Postal Service's Equal
Employment Opportunity (EEO) office. Before the court is the motion of
defendant John E. Potter, Postmaster General of the United States,*fn1
for summary judgment.
We may grant summary judgment only if there is no genuine issue of
material fact and the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a
matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Substantive law determines which
facts are material. Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute
is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a
verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 254. We review all
evidence and make all reasonable inferences from the evidence in the
light most favorable to the non-movant. See Wicker v. Consol. Rail
Corp., 142 F.3d 690, 696 (3d Cir. 1998). The non-moving party may
not rest upon mere allegations or denials of the moving party's pleadings
but must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for
trial through the use of its own affidavits and depositions. Lujan
v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990).
The material facts are undisputed. Plaintiff Darlene Burnett began
working at a Pennsylvania office of the United States Postal Service in
1996. From August 1998 through January 1999, plaintiff worked at an annex
to the Southeastern Processing and Distribution Center ("Southeastern
P&DC") in Oaks, Pennsylvania, where she processed mail. On January
24, 1999, plaintiff stopped working because she suffered from swelling in
both hands as a result of a job-related injury. Thereafter, Dr. Harold J.
Einsig found that she exhibited signs of early carpal tunnel syndrome.
When plaintiff returned to work in May 1999, she was assigned to what
is called the nixie section of the Southeastern P&DC. In the nixie
section, employees perform functions such as taping torn mail and hand
stamping mail with "return to sender" markings. It is a common assignment
for injured employees. The
terms of plaintiff's reassignment were governed by the American
Postal Workers Union Collective Bargaining Agreement (the "Collective
Bargaining Agreement"), which provides in relevant part that the
"provisions and conditions for reassignment to temporary or permanent
light duty . . . will be the responsibility of each installation head
to implement . . . after local negotiations." Collective Bargaining
Agreement, at Art. 13, § 1(B).
Plaintiff claims that she was re-injured after working in the nixie
section for two or three days. She sought treatment from a physician who
placed restrictions on her work activity and instructed her to rest for
one hour after each hour of work performed. Between December 1999 and
around August 2000, plaintiff's pain and medical restrictions were such
that she was unable to perform many of the functions of her assignment in
the nixie section. As a result, in August 2000, plaintiff was assigned to
the Absence Control Office, where she received calls from employees who
were not reporting to work and logged relevant information related to
In or around October 1999, plaintiff filed a complaint with the United
States Postal Service EEO Complaints Processing Office, alleging
discrimination based on her physical disabilities bilateral
carpal tunnel disease and aggravation of cervical degenerative disc
disease. Plaintiff, in her EEO complaint, claimed that her assignment
to the nixie section aggravated her condition. She was counseled and
right to file a formal EEO complaint of discrimination on October
1, 1999. She did so on October 6.
On September 27, 2000, before the agency had issued a determination on
plaintiff's EEO discrimination claim, she and the Postal Service entered
into a settlement agreement. In exchange for withdrawing her EEO claim
and waiving her right to proceed upon her disability discrimination claim
raised in the EEO complaint, the settlement agreement provided in
pertinent part that plaintiff
will not be moved from her current limited duty
assignment in the Absence Control Office until and
unless she either voluntarily transfers to another
facility, voluntarily bids to another position to
which she is otherwise qualified or her medical
restrictions change and she returns to full duty.
Should the Absence Control position be eliminated
[plaintiff] will have input onto any newly
proposed Limited duty assignment.
Settlement Agreement at ¶ 2. It was during the settlement
negotiations that plaintiff obtained the addition of the last sentence of
the above-quoted paragraph, that is that "[s]hould the Absence Control
position be eliminated [plaintiff] will have input onto any newly
proposed Limited duty assignment."
Plaintiff worked in the Absence Control Office until May 2001, at which
time she began experiencing pain in her wrists again. She did not work
from May 2001 until April 2002. In January 2002, the Absence Control
Office closed as part of the Postal Service's national directive to
centralize absence control functions through the Attendance
Control/Resource Management Database.
When plaintiff returned to work on April 3, 2002, she was assigned to
the nixie section. Richard J. Falcone, the Light Duty Coordinator and
Attendance Supervisor at the Postal Service's Southeastern P&DC, had
determined that plaintiff's assignment to this work met the medical
restrictions in the disability certificate from plaintiff's doctor. The
certificate limited her to "very light duty" for four hours per day, with
no lifting or extreme use of the affected extremity and no repetitive use
of the affected extremity.
Plaintiff claims that her work in the nixie section aggravated her
medical condition. In October 2002, she provided the Postal Service with
new medical restrictions, which limited her to strict sedentary work with
no repetitive use of either arm. The Postal Service then advised
plaintiff that it would be unable to accommodate her new medical
Around August 17, 2002, plaintiff sent a letter to Administrative Judge
Donna Nutter-Rodwell at the Lancaster District EEO Office alleging that
the Postal Service was not complying with the settlement agreement.*fn2
Her complaint alleging breach of the settlement agreement made its way
through the EEO administrative process, and she eventually received her
sue letter on May 22, 2003.*fn3 She timely filed the instant
action on July 10, 2003.
Plaintiff claims that the Postal Service violated the settlement
agreement because she did not "have input onto any newly proposed Limited
duty assignment" when her position in the Absence Control Office was
eliminated. Settlement Agreement at ¶ 2. She maintains that her
placement in the nixie section in 2002 violated the terms of the
The Postal Service counters that summary judgment is appropriate
because it complied with all relevant terms of the settlement agreement.
It maintains that the word input is not facially ambiguous and
that plaintiff was allowed input because she gave the Postal Service
disability certificates from her doctor setting out her medical
restrictions. The Postal Service further contends that it considered such
restrictions and accommodated plaintiff's needs "until such time that it
was unable to accommodate them." Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 11.
The relevant Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Regulation
provides that "[a]ny settlement agreement knowingly and voluntarily
agreed to by the parties, reached at any stage of the complaint process,
shall be binding on both parties." 29 C.F.R. § 1614.504(a). The
thus constitutes a contract between plaintiff and the Postal
Service, to which ordinary rules of contract construction apply. See
Williams v. Metzler, 132 F.3d 937, 946 (3d Cir. 1997) (citations
omitted). Because "[t]his settlement agreement involves a right to sue
derived from a federal statute . . ., federal common law principles
govern construction of the contract." Id. Thus, we must look to
common law contract principles to determine if a genuine factual dispute
exits with regard to whether the Postal Service has violated the terms of
the settlement agreement.
Federal common law principles of contract interpretation mandate that
where a contract is not ambiguous, and "can be interpreted only in one
way, the court interprets the contract as a matter of law." Allied
Erecting & Dismantling, Co., Inc. v. USX Corp., 249 F.3d 191,
201 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotations omitted). However,
where a contract provision is ambiguous, we must interpret the provision
in a manner consistent with the dominant purpose of the contract.
Williams, 132 F.3d at 947 (citations omitted). In so doing, we
"should consider the situation of the parties, the attendant
circumstances and the ends they sought to achieve." Id.
(citations omitted). If the entire contract is "susceptible to more than
one reading, the fact finder resolves the matter." Allied, 249
F.3d at 201 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
In the instant case, the parties disagree about whether plaintiff had
input regarding her assignment to the nixie section after the Absence
Control Office was closed. The word input means "advice,
opinion, comment." WEBSTER'S NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY 625 (9th ed.
1990). It is not an ambiguous term. Defendant specifically cites three
occasions after the Absence Control Office was closed where plaintiff
provided the Postal Service input in the form of medical restriction
information from her doctor April 2002, May 2002, and October
2002. Plaintiff does not dispute the fact that she submitted these
medical restrictions to the Postal Service. In her deposition, she in
essence agreed that she considered these submissions to be input. She
stated that she knew that "the medical [sic] would speak in reference to
the next position that [she] would get." Burnett Dep. at 55.
To the extent that input requires consideration of the advice, opinion,
or comment, the Postal Service came forth with evidence that it
considered plaintiff's medical restrictions. Mr. Falcone assigned
plaintiff to the nixie section in April 2002 only after considering her
disability certificate. He "determined that [she] could work in the nixie
area because her medical restrictions on lifting weight would not be
violated by lifting a letter to repair tears . . .[he] also
determined that the nixie area would not result in extreme use or
repetitive use of her affected extremities because [she] could work at
her own pace." Falcone Decl. at ¶ 8. Plaintiff has not produced any
evidence to the contrary. Input surely does not mean that the
advice, opinion, or comment must be accepted or must result in a
favorable outcome for the person providing the input.
Plaintiff simply makes a bare allegation that she was not allowed to
give input to the Postal Service. However, she does not dispute that she
provided it with her medical restriction information. This was clearly
input. Nor does she come forward with any evidence that the Postal
Service failed to consider the information she submitted.
Finally, because plaintiff has not raised a triable issue of fact on
her breach of settlement agreement claim, she cannot proceed with her
disability discrimination claim. The settlement agreement provides that
plaintiff agrees to waive "her right to bring or proceed on any claim,
appeal, or lawsuit in any administrative or legal forum,. . . federal
or state court, regarding any issue raised in [her October 1999 EEO
complaint] or any other claim which arose prior to July 21, 1999."
Settlement Agreement at ¶ 1. Plaintiff is thus precluded from
bringing a disability discrimination claim against defendant.
AND NOW, this day of January, 2004, for the reasons set forth in the
accompanying Memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED that:
(1) the motion of defendant for summary judgment is GRANTED; and
(2) judgment is entered in favor of defendant John E Potter, Postmaster
General of the United States and against plaintiff Darlene Burnett.