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Simon v. Barrett Steel Energy Products, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

April 30, 2018




         This employment discrimination case is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion”) [Doc. # 9] filed by Defendant Barrett Steel Energy Products, Inc. (“Barrett Steel”), seeking summary judgment based on a prior settlement of all claims in this lawsuit. Plaintiff Anthony Simon filed a Response [Doc. # 11], and Defendant filed a Reply [Doc. # 12]. Having reviewed the full record and the applicable legal authorities, both governing and persuasive, the Court grants Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In January 2014, Plaintiff began working for Defendant in its warehouse. In the fall of 2015, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging discrimination based on his African-American race. In connection with the EEOC proceeding, the parties engaged in mediation on October 27, 2015. During a reduction in force involving multiple employees, Plaintiff's employment with Barrett Steel terminated on November 23, 2015. On April 19, 2016, Plaintiff amended his EEOC Charge of Discrimination to include a retaliation claim. Plaintiff alleged that his employment was terminated because he refused to settle his claims against Barrett Steel during the October 2015 mediation.

         In December 2015, Plaintiff's Attorney Darian Howard and counsel for Barrett Steel exchanged emails regarding a settlement agreement based on a monetary payment to Plaintiff in exchange for Plaintiff's release of all claims against Barrett Steel. Plaintiff subsequently refused to sign the release and obtained new counsel. Plaintiff's new attorney sent Defendant's counsel a demand letter dated January 14, 2016. See January 14, 2016 Demand Letter, Exh. I to Motion. Defense counsel responded that Plaintiff, while represented by Attorney Howard, accepted Barrett Steel's settlement offer and the matter was concluded. See January 14, 2016 Email, Exh. I to Motion.

         Plaintiff, represented by his new attorney, filed this lawsuit on December 20, 2017. He asserts claims of race discrimination under Title VII, disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and retaliation under Title VII. Plaintiff also asserts corresponding claims under Texas state law. Defendant filed the pending Motion for Summary Judgment, asserting with supporting evidence that Plaintiff settled his claims in December 2015. The Motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for decision.


         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandates the entry of summary judgment against a party who fails to make a sufficient showing of the existence of an element essential to the party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc); see also Curtis v. Anthony, 710 F.3d 587, 594 (5th Cir. 2013). Summary judgment “should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23; Curtis, 710 F.3d at 594.

         In deciding whether a genuine and material fact issue has been created, the court reviews the facts and inferences to be drawn from them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Reaves Brokerage Co. v. Sunbelt Fruit & Vegetable Co., 336 F.3d 410, 412 (5th Cir. 2003). A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant. Tamez v. Manthey, 589 F.3d 764, 769 (5th Cir. 2009) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). The non-movant's burden is not met by mere reliance on the allegations or denials in the non-movant's pleadings. S e e Diamond Offshore Co. v. A&B Builders, Inc., 302 F.3d 531, 545 n.13 (5th Cir. 2002); Chambers v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 428 Fed.Appx. 400, 407 (5th Cir. June 15, 2011). Likewise, “conclusory allegations” or “unsubstantiated assertions” do not meet the non-movant's burden. Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co., 530 F.3d 395, 399 (5th Cir. 2008). Instead, the nonmoving party must present specific facts which show “the existence of a genuine issue concerning every essential component of its case.” Firman v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 684 F.3d 533, 538 (5th Cir. 2012) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In the absence of any proof, the court will not assume that the non-movant could or would prove the necessary facts. Little, 37 F.3d at 1075 (citing Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990)).


         Issues regarding the validity or enforceability of agreements to settle federal claims are decided based on federal law. See Quesada v. Napolitano, 701 F.3d 1080, 1083 (5th Cir. 2012) (Title VII claims); Fulgence v. J. Ray McDermott & Co., 662 F.2d 1207, 1209 (5th Cir. 1981); Mid-S Towing Co. v. Har-Win, Inc., 733 F.2d 386, 389 (5th Cir. 1984); Lozano v. Metro. Transit Auth. of Harris Cty., 2016 WL 3906295, *2 (S.D. Tex. July 19, 2016) (Miller, J.). Under federal law, settlement agreements are contracts. See Guidry v. Halliburton Geophysical Servs., Inc., 976 F.2d 938, 940 (5th Cir. 1992); Lozano, 2016 WL 3906295 at *2. A contract requires an offer, acceptance, and a meeting of the minds on all essential terms. Ibe v. Jones, 836 F.3d 516, 524 (5th Cir. 2016); Lozano, 2016 WL 3906295 at *3.

         Acceptance of an offer occurs when there is “manifestation of assent that occurs in any reasonable manner.” See Chen v. Highland Capital Mgmt., L.P., 2012 WL 5935602, *2 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 27, 2012). A meeting of the minds on all essential terms of a settlement agreement is generally present “where the parties have agreed upon the monetary amount of the settlement payment and the fact that plaintiffs will release specific claims.” See In re Deepwater Horizon, 786 F.3d 344, 357 n.26 (5th Cir. 2015); Neurovision Med. Prods., Inc. v. Medtronic Pub. Ltd. Co., 2017 WL 1247139, *3 (E.D. Tex. Apr. 5, 2017). Under federal law, a settlement agreement need not be reduced to writing to be enforceable. See E.E.O.C. v. Phillip Servs. Corp., 635 F.3d 164, 167 (5th Cir. 2011).

         In this case, the uncontroverted evidence shows that Barrett Steel offered Plaintiff - and other employees subject to the November 2015 reduction-in-force - a severance payment. Barrett Steel offered Plaintiff, who then was represented by attorney Darian Howard, a different severance agreement that would release all claims against Barrett Steel except Plaintiff's race discrimination claim that was pending before the EEOC. Plaintiff did not accept the revised severance agreement by the deadline. See December 2015 Email String, Exh. A to Motion.

         Barrett Steel then offered Plaintiff a settlement that would involve a payment more than double the previously-offered amount in exchange for a full release of all claims. See Letter dated December 15, 2015, Exh. B to Motion. Attorney Howard responded by email on December 18, 2015, at 5:50 p.m., that “Mr. Simon wants to sign at [redacted] and will release all claims.” See Howard Email, Exh. C to Motion. Nine minutes later, Attorney ...

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