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Phillips v. Potter

June 30, 2010

SUZANNE PHILLIPS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Defendant John E. Potter, Postmaster General, United States Postal Service, makes this post-trial renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) and/or motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to alter or amend the judgment*fn1 rendered by me after a jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on her breach of contract claim and against her on her Title VII retaliation claim. (Docket No. 116). Specifically, Defendant argues that the jury's verdict on Plaintiff's breach of contract claim is not supported by legally sufficient evidence. Plaintiff opposes Defendant's motion. After careful review of the submissions of the parties, Defendant's motion is denied.

First, Defendant suggests that there was insufficient evidence introduced at trial regarding the terms of the contract at issue -- a "Release and Stipulation for Compromise Settlement" that the parties signed in December 1999 to settle Plaintiff's previous lawsuit against the Postal Service. See Def.'s Br. at 3-4. According to Defendant, the only evidence introduced concerning the specific terms of the contract consisted of the following narrowly stipulated facts:

Plaintiff filed a previous employment discrimination action against the Postal Service. This case was resolved in December, 1999, by a settlement agreement between the parties. Among the provisions contained in the settlement agreement are the following:

A. The parties agree that the settlement shall not constitute an admission of liability or an admission of a violation of any law, rule or regulation by the defendant, nor shall it constitute evidence of an admission by the defendant as to any issue of law or fact raised by this matter....

B. [D]efendant, the Postmaster General, agree[s] that neither he nor his employees will use against plaintiff Phillips any of her actions taken to protect her rights under federal law in terms of promotion, transfer, the grant of benefits or salary raises or any other term or condition of her employment with the defendant.

Tr. Trans. of 3/2/10 at 36-37.Defendant argues that although Plaintiff referred to Part B above as a "non-retaliation" provision, she did not introduce any other provisions of the contract, any evidence explaining the meaning of the above provisions, or any evidence of the circumstances surrounding the contract's formation. Def.'s Br. at 4-5. Defendant's argument is without merit.

As an initial matter, Defendant moved in limine to exclude introduction of the parties' settlement agreement on the grounds that it would cause unfair prejudice and had the potential to mislead the jury. I granted Defendant's motion, over Plaintiff's objections, and excluded the agreement from evidence, with the exception of the above-quoted clauses. See August 19, 2009 Order of Court (Docket No. 85) at 9-10. Accordingly, Defendant's attempt to attack the breach of contract verdict based on Plaintiff's failure to introduce evidence concerning other terms of the agreement or the circumstances surrounding its formation is disingenuous at best.

Whether or not Plaintiff failed to introduce additional evidence concerning the meaning of the contract provision at issue also is not fatal to the verdict. As Plaintiff correctly notes, the meaning of a clear and unequivocal written contract must be determined by its contents alone, without reference to extrinsic aids or evidence. See Steuart v. McChesney, 444 A.2d 659, 661 (Pa. 1982). Here, the meaning of the subject provision is plain: Defendant agreed not to "use against" Plaintiff any of her protected activity "in terms of promotion, transfer, the grant of benefits or salary raises or any other term or condition of her employment with defendant." Nothing in this provision requires that the contractually prohibited actions be "materially adverse" or otherwise rise to the level necessary to prove Title VII retaliation.*fn2

Second, Defendant argues that, even if there was sufficient evidence regarding the settlement agreement itself, there was no legally sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that Defendant breached that agreement. Here, Defendant contends that the contract language tracks Title VII and that because the jury did not find Title VII retaliation in this case, "there could not be any breach of the so-called 'non-retaliation' provision of the Settlement Agreement." Def.'s Br. at 5-6. Again, I disagree.

As set forth above, the contract language does not incorporate Title VII or track Title VII's anti-retaliation provision. Thus, the jury was entitled to find a breach of contract if it found that Defendant used Plaintiff's protected activity against her with respect to the terms or conditions of her employment even if Defendant's conduct did not rise to the level of a materially adverse action under Title VII. Indeed, when pressed about this issue at trial after a question indicated the jury was leaning towards such a finding, the government insisted that the finding was one the jury could make:

THE COURT: If that's so, if it is retaliation, and these claims are coextensive then, you know, maybe the plaintiff is right. Maybe this is it. Maybe the breach of contract can only be retaliation.

MR. KOVAC: No. But, they are finding -- well, according -- we are assuming that they are finding no retaliation according to that question because they said if we mark no on no retaliation, so then what they are ...


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