561 F.3d 709 (7th Cir. 2009), 08-1346, Hampton v. Ford Motor Co.

Docket Nº:08-1346.
Citation:561 F.3d 709
Party Name:Collette HAMPTON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:April 06, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
 
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561 F.3d 709 (7th Cir. 2009)

Collette HAMPTON, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 08-1346.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.

April 6, 2009

Argued Nov. 3, 2008.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Ernest T. Rossiello, Attorney (argued), Ernest T. Rossiello & Associates, P.C., Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Kathleen M. Nemechek, Attorney (argued), Berkowitz, Oliver, Williams, Shaw and Eisenbrandt, Kansas City, MO, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before KANNE, EVANS, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

KANNE, Circuit Judge.

Collette Hampton worked the night shift at Ford Motor Company's Chicago assembly plant, where she was allegedly harassed and discriminated against by her coworkers. On October 16, 2006, she accepted a voluntary buyout package, agreeing to terminate her employment with Ford in exchange for $100,000. As one condition of the package, Ford required Hampton to release any and all claims against Ford related to her employment and arising prior to the execution date. After signing the release and cashing the check, Hampton filed a lawsuit against Ford based on conduct occurring prior to October 16, 2006. The district court granted summary judgment in Ford's favor, finding that the buyout agreement validly released her claims; Hampton appeals that judgment. We agree with Ford that Hampton knowingly and voluntarily signed a release that encompassed her claims. Therefore, summary judgment in Ford's favor is warranted.

I. BACKGROUND

It is no secret that the American automotive industry has had its share of difficulties in recent years. In 2006, facing a deteriorating market for American automobiles, the Ford Motor Company agreed with the United Auto Workers 1 to offer a one-time, systemwide buyout to certain qualified hourly employees. The goal of the program was to reduce Ford's workforce without imposing layoffs and to provide its employees with an incentive to resign voluntarily. The buyout program included a variety of packages, ranging

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from encouraging early retirement to providing a subsidized college education.

A. The STEP Program and Waiver Agreement

The buyout package at issue in this case was called the Special Termination of Employment Program (STEP). Under the STEP, an eligible employee who agreed to terminate his or her employment received a lump sum payment of $100,000, minus the applicable withholdings. To enroll, Ford required the employee to sign an Application and Waiver Agreement (" the Waiver" ), in which the employee released any and all claims against Ford as a condition of receiving the $100,000. The Waiver stated, in pertinent part:

I have decided voluntarily to terminate my employment under the terms and conditions of the STEP. In consideration of the benefits to be provided as described in the summary, I waive and release any and all rights or claims I may have against the Ford Motor Company, its agents or employees and agree not to institute any proceedings of any kind against Ford Motor Company, its agents or employees relating in any way to my employment or the termination of my employment, provided, however, I do not waive my rights or claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

This waiver does not waive any rights or claims that may arise after this waiver is signed or if it is not permitted by law....

I hereby acknowledge that I am voluntarily applying for this STEP payment.... I have read and reviewed this STEP Application and Waiver Agreement carefully and to my satisfaction.

The terms and scope of this Waiver are at the center of this case.

Ford notified all eligible employees of the buyout program well in advance of the enrollment period. Ford also provided its employees with written materials describing the available packages and the procedure for participating, along with a copy of the Waiver. According to these documents, an employee could enroll in the buyout any time between October 16 and November 27, 2006, and the effective termination date for participating employees would be January 1, 2007. If an employee signed up, but failed to complete the termination process, Ford would consider the employee to have withdrawn the STEP application. Thus, the employee had the option to rescind or withdraw her application any time before December 31, 2006.

B. Plaintiff-Appellant Collette Hampton

In early 2004, Collette Hampton began working the night shift on the " chassis line" at Ford's Chicago assembly plant. Beginning that summer, Hampton allegedly suffered ongoing sexual harassment and discrimination by her coworkers. In May 2005, after retaining legal counsel, she submitted a statement concerning her alleged harassment to Ford management. Ford investigated her claims and found them to be uncorroborated, yet it agreed to move Hampton to the " motor line" in mid-August 2005. Hampton did not experience any harassment after switching job duties. On December 7, 2005, she filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that she was harassed and discriminated against by her coworkers on the " chassis line."

In early August 2006, while awaiting response to her EEOC charge, Hampton learned of Ford's voluntary buyout program and decided she wanted to participate. Toward the end of August, Ford planned to lay off a number of employees

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-including Hampton-in a seniority-based reduction in force. Faced with upcoming unemployment, Hampton naturally considered the buyout to be an attractive alternative. She asked her UAW representative to inquire about her eligibility and, if necessary, negotiate with Ford to allow her to participate.

On October 2, 2006, Ford sent Hampton a letter confirming that she would be eligible for the STEP and notifying her of an informational meeting on October 10, which she...

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