October 4, 2019

Applying the terms of a settlement agreement settling a disciplinary action

During the course of Plaintiff's disciplinary hearing Plaintiff, represented by counsel, entered into a settlement agreement with the appointing authority [Employer] acting "on its own behalf and on behalf of its present and former ... employees." 

The settlement agreement provided that the Employer would discontinue the disciplinary proceeding and remove a letter of disciplinary charges from the Plaintiff's personnel file while Plaintiff agreed to retire from his employment with the Employer and to release the Employer and its employees "from all claims or causes of action he may have or claim to have . . . including any and all claims in any way arising out of, or related to, his employment with the Employer, or his separation from that employment."

Subsequently Plaintiff commenced an action to recover damages for defamation, alleging that the individuals [Defendants] named in his complaint, also employees of the Employer, had falsely accused him of actions that led to the disciplinary charges that were preferred by the Employer against him.

Defendants move to dismiss the complaint, submitting a copy of the settlement agreement that had been executed by the Plaintiff in connection with the discontinuance of the disciplinary proceeding that had been brought against him. Notwithstanding Plaintiff's argument to the contrary, Supreme Court granted the Defendant's motion "for failure to state a cause of action" and Plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division explained that [1] the terms of the release contained in the settlement agreement clearly and unambiguously encompass Plaintiff's action and [2] Plaintiff failed to allege any unlawful or wrongful threat by the Employer that could serve as the basis of a claim of duress, which was the only ground the plaintiff alleged to void the release. Thus, opined the Appellate Division, "the release executed by the [Plaintiff] should be enforced according to its terms."

The Appellate Division noted the following elements with respect to a release or settlement agreement that will be enforced by a court:

1. "A release is a contract, and its construction is governed by contract law;"

2.  "A party may move for judgment dismissing one or more causes of action asserted against him [or her] on the ground that . . . the cause of action may not be maintained because of . . . [a] release";

3 "Where . . . the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the signing of a release is a jural act 'binding on the parties';"

4.  "Generally, a valid release constitutes a complete bar to an action on a claim which is the subject of the release"; and

5. "Although a defendant has the initial burden of establishing that it has been released from any claims, a signed release shifts the burden ... to the plaintiff to show that there has been fraud, duress or some other fact which will be sufficient to void the release."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2019/2019_06588.htm

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The Discipline Book - A concise guide to disciplinary actions involving public officers and employees in New York State. For more information click on http://booklocker.com/books/5215.html

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