Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

BURNETT v. POTTER

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


January 30, 2004.

DARLENE BURNETT
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES

The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARVEY BARTLE, III, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

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. Page 2 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 Page 3 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 their absences.

  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 received her Page 4 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. Page 5

  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 restrictions.

  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 right to Page 6 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 settlement agreement.

  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 settlement agreement Page 7 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). Page 8

  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 Page 9 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. Page 10

  ORDER

  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.


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.