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Gregory v. Derry Township School Dist.

January 11, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sylvia H. Rambo United States District Judge


In this civil rights action, Plaintiff Rhauni Gregory has brought suit against her former employer, former co-workers, union officials, and the parent of one of her students for alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 based upon her assertion that she was subjected to discriminatory treatment because of her race, which adversely affected the terms and conditions of her employment. Before the court is Defendants Derry Township School District, Timothy Quinn, Cindy Goldsworthy, Michael Murphy, William Parrish, and Beulah Chabal's (collectively the "School District Defendants") motion for judgment on the pleadings, (Doc. 7), which was converted to a motion for summary judgment by order of court on November 4, 2009, (Doc. 18). At issue in the case is the validity of a release signed by Gregory upon her resignation as a teacher from the Derry Township School District ("the District"). On December 1, 2009, the court held an evidentiary hearing on the School District Defendants' motion, and permitted the parties to file supplemental briefing on the issues raised at that hearing. The motion is now ripe for disposition, and for the reasons that follow it will be granted.

I. Facts

The following facts are drawn from the evidentiary hearing held on December 1, 2009, and are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Gregory is a certified English teacher currently employed by the School District of Lancaster. (Doc. 22, Dec. 1, 2009, Tr. of Proceedings ("Tr.") at 12:3-4; 12:16-17.) Gregory has a Bachelor's Degree from LeMoyne College and a Masters Degree from Syracuse University. (Id. at 12:7-8; 12:14-15.)

In February 2004, Gregory was hired by the District as a long term substitute high school English teacher. (Id. at 12:21-24.) Subsequently, Gregory was offered a three-year contract as a high school English teacher effective at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year. (Id. at 13:3-6.) Gregory continued to work as a teacher through the expiration of her contract in June of 2007. (Id. at 13:7-15.) Throughout the time Gregory was a teacher with the District, she was a member of the Hershey Education Association-the teacher's union. (Id. at 13:16-17.)

In December 2006, Gregory was evaluated by Defendant Michael Murphy, the building principal. (Id. at 14:11-13.) Gregory's evaluation was not favorable, and she was placed on an intensive assistance track. (Id. at 15:25-16:3.) Gregory disagreed with Murphy's assessment that she performed unsatisfactorily, or that she needed to be placed on an intensive assistance track. (Id. at 15:13-16:17.) After some back and forth between Gregory's union representatives and the District, a final version of an assistance plan was approved and implemented; no one from the Hershey Education Association or the Pennsylvania State Education Association ("PSEA")-the parent union-voiced any objections to the final plan. (Id. at 17:4-7.)

From both parties' perspective the plan did not go well. Gregory contends that the plan became overly oppressive and unrealistic, (Id. at 18:10-12), whereas the District takes the position that Gregory simply did not comply with the terms of the assistance plan, (Id. at 44:13-14). At some point, Gregory was told that her contract would not be renewed at the end of the 2007 school year, and that she would not be granted tenure. (See id. at 34:5-8.) Throughout the spring of 2007, Gregory kept in contact with her local union representatives, specifically Penny Arnold, as well as a representative from the PSEA, Tom Ferguson. Gregory expressed continued frustration with the manner in which the plan was being implemented, and she discussed with Ferguson whether she should resign her employment. (Id. at 70:1-71:14.) When it became clear that Gregory would not be granted tenure, and that she had become overwhelmed by the pressure associated with the improvement plan, Gregory's representatives began negotiating with the District to allow her to resign in lieu of termination. (Id. at 71:18-24.)

The negotiations centered around the timing of Gregory's resignation, the continuation of her medical benefits, a positive letter of reference, and the immediate cessation of the improvement plan for the remainder of the school year. (Id. at 71:18-72:13.) Ultimately, the union negotiated a Separation Agreement and General Release ("Release") and severance package for Gregory in exchange for her resignation. The Release was executed in April 2007. It provided that Gregory would resign her employment effective at the end of June 2007, and in exchange, the District would provide extended health insurance coverage for Gregory and her family through December 31, 2007, or until she found other employment, whichever came first, and a positive letter of reference. (See id. at 20:24-21:1.; Doc. 5-2 (Release).) The Release also included the following language releasing all claims against the District and its employees:

5. Release: In consideration of the monetary benefits extended to Gregory under the terms of this Agreement, benefits to which Gregory acknowledges that she would not otherwise be entitled, Gregory agrees for herself, her heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns to forever release and discharge Derry Township and its directors, officers, agents, and employees, past and present, collectively or individually, from any and all claims, demands, causes of actions, losses and expenses of every nature whatsoever, known or unknown, arising out of her employment with Derry Township, along with any claims arising up to and including the date on which this Agreement was executed by the parties.

These claims include, but are not limited to, breach of express or implied contract, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional harm, libel, slander, claims under the Pennsylvania Wage Payment Collection Law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, any tort claim, any federal, state or municipal statute or ordinance relating to unlawful discrimination, including any wrongful discharge claim with may be cognizable under the laws of any state.

Gregory and the Union further acknowledge and agree that they will not file any grievances with regard to Gregory's separation, as long as Derry Township complies with the terms of this Agreement. (Doc. 5-2 (Release) ¶ 5.) Gregory signed the Release on April 19, 2007. (Id.; Tr. at 21:17-18.)

Gregory contends that notwithstanding the plain language contained in the Release, that she should be permitted to pursue her claims in the instant suit because the Release constitutes an invalid waiver of her federal civil rights, and that she signed it under extraordinary pressure and duress. According to Gregory, on April 19, 2007, while she was still in her classroom teaching, she received a call from Dr. Timothy Quinn in the superintendent's office stating that he would be over to her classroom to review the Release with her and have her sign it. (Tr. at 24:20-23; 25:10-13.) According to Gregory she took about fifteen minutes to read the Release before she signed it. (Id. at 28:6-8.) During that entire time, Dr. Quinn sat next to her. (Id.) She asked him questions about the agreement, some of which he did not know how to answer. (Id. at 28:14-16; 36:9-10.) However, Quinn assured Gregory that Tom Ferguson had already seen the agreement and approved of its contents. (Id. at 23:17-21.) Gregory was unable to articulate at the evidentiary hearing what questions she had about the agreement that went unanswered before she signed it. She stated the following, in response to the court's questions:

THE COURT: Ms. Gregory, you said that you had some questions about the agreement?


THE COURT: Do you know what those questions were? THE WITNESS: I do not remember all the specifics. A lot of it was with the language, the document itself.

THE COURT: You don't recall what the language was that you had some concerns about?

THE WITNESS: No. I asked several questions, but I don't remember all of them right now. (Tr. at 38:20-39:4.)

When asked during the hearing by counsel for the District whether she was told that she was required to sign the agreement that day, Gregory did not provide a specific answer. The following exchange occurred:

Q: Did Dr. Quinn say, you need to sign this agreement right now or else?

A: He said, here's the pen. As soon as you sign it, all the hardships that have been placed upon you will end; no more observations, no more harassments, no more reports, no more drop-ins, etc., etc.

Q: Did you say to Dr. Quinn, well, before I sign this, I want to talk to Mr. Ferguson again or one of my building reps?

A: I had tried to contact Mr. Ferguson in the time for

Dr. Quinn to drive over to my classroom, and he never got back to me until the following week. (Id. at 24:24-25:9.) In response to her own attorney's questioning about why she did not take more time to read the release or consult ...

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