Bledsoe v. Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation Dist.

Decision Date22 January 1998
Docket NumberNo. 96-5375,96-5375
Citation133 F.3d 816
Parties7 A.D. Cases 1433, 11 NDLR P 291, 11 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C 953 Mark BLEDSOE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. PALM BEACH COUNTY SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellee, Board of County Commissioners for Palm Beach County, Defendant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Isidro M. Garcia, West Palm Beach, FL, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Mark L. Gross, Marie K. McElderry, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, DC, Gary Phelan, Garrison, Phelan, Levin-Epstein & Penzel, New Haven CT, Andrew H. Kayton, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Fla., Inc., for amicus curiae.

Richard Hunt McDuff, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Before DUBINA and BARKETT, Circuit Judges, and HILL, Senior Circuit Judge.

DUBINA, Circuit Judge:

Appellant, Mark Bledsoe ("Bledsoe") appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to the Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation District ("District"), on Bledsoe's claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. Section 12131 ("Title II") and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. Section 701, et seq. This case involves an issue of first impression in our circuit: whether Title II of the ADA encompasses employment discrimination. We answer the question in the affirmative and, accordingly, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Bledsoe was employed as a Resource Technician for the District from January 1988 until his termination in October of 1992. In his employment, Bledsoe had to spend a large portion of his time walking, surveying, and performing manual labor in the fields. While performing his duties, on February 26, 1990, Bledsoe sustained an injury to his knee for which he made a claim for workers' compensation benefits. Based on the advice of his doctors that he should refrain from excessive walking and walking on uneven terrain, Bledsoe requested some form of accommodation from his supervisor. In response, the District offered Bledsoe the position of Resource Conservationist, but he rejected the offer. In October 1992, the District terminated Bledsoe.

Subsequent to his termination, Bledsoe settled his workers' compensation case with Palm Beach County. 1 The joint settlement agreement entered into by the parties contained the following partial release provision:

As further consideration for the aforementioned payment, the Employee/Claimant agrees and does hereby release, discharge, and surrender any and all claims, whether or not asserted, against the Employer/Carrier or Servicing Agent, or any of its officers, agents, servants, employees, directors, successors, assigns, and any other person or entity so connected to the Employer/Carrier or Servicing Agent, of any nature whatsoever, excepting only (1) future medical pursuant to other provisions of this agreement, or (2) penalties, interest or attorneys' fees which might be due because of failure to pay order approving this Joint Petition within 30 days.

R1-34-Exh. A.

Bledsoe filed suit on June 24, 1994, against the District and Palm Beach County alleging that both of those entities were his "employer" within the meaning of Title I of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act and had violated his rights protected by those acts. Specifically, Bledsoe alleged that he had a disability within the meaning of the law, that the defendants had failed to accommodate his disability, and that the defendants discharged him as a result of his disability. Palm Beach County filed a motion to dismiss arguing that it was not Bledsoe's "employer" for purposes of the claims and that it had been released from the claims by virtue of Bledsoe's partial release of his workers' compensation benefits. After consideration, the district court determined that Palm Beach County was not Bledsoe's employer and, therefore, summary judgment should be entered for it on all claims. Bledsoe has not appealed the district court's disposition that the County was not his employer.

The litigation continued against the District. Because the District alone did not have the requisite number of employees to effect coverage under Title I of the ADA, 2 Bledsoe sought leave to amend the complaint to bring his claim under Title II, and the district court granted leave. The District filed a motion for summary judgment arguing first that Title II of the ADA does not apply to discrimination in employment and second, that the partial release in Bledsoe's joint settlement agreement with the County released his claims against the District. Bledsoe opposed the motion. The district court entered summary judgment for the District on both Bledsoe's ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims. Bledsoe then perfected this appeal.


Bledsoe raises two issues for our review: (1) whether the district court properly concluded that the workers' compensation release bars Bledsoe's federal claims of employment discrimination; and (2) whether the district court properly determined that Title II of the ADA does not apply to discrimination in employment. We review the district court's order granting summary judgment de novo. Parks v. City of Warner Robins, Ga., 43 F.3d 609, 612 (11th Cir.1995). After conducting our review, we conclude that the district court improperly found that the workers' compensation release barred Bledsoe's federal claims of employment discrimination and that Title II does not encompass employment discrimination.

A. Workers' Compensation Release

In its determination that the workers' compensation release barred Bledsoe's ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, the district court relied on F.M. v. Palm Beach County, 912 F.Supp. 514 (S.D.Fla.1995), aff'd F.M. v. County Comm'rs, 84 F.3d 438 (11th Cir.1996)(Table). On appeal, Bledsoe contends that the district court erred in relying on F.M. v. Palm Beach County. He argues that the issue should have been analyzed under this circuit's decision in Puentes v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 86 F.3d 196 (11th Cir.1996). Bledsoe is correct.

The Supreme Court has stated that an employee can waive his "cause of action under Title VII as part of a voluntary settlement agreement" if "the employee's consent to the settlement was voluntary and knowing." Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 52 n. 15, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 1022 n. 15, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). The same principles should be equally applicable to waiver of rights under Title II of the ADA. See Rivera-Flores v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Caribbean, 112 F.3d 9 (1st Cir.1997). The waiver of such remedial rights, however, "must be closely scrutinized," and a court must look to the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the release is knowing and voluntary. Puentes v. United Parcel Service, 86 F.3d at 198.

In Puentes, the plaintiffs, at the time of their terminations, were offered substantial severance packages and the ability to resign "for personal reasons" on the condition that they execute unambiguous release agreements waiving all employment discrimination claims arising out of their terminations. Both plaintiffs executed the agreements, but later filed suit against UPS alleging racial and national origin discrimination. UPS moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. On appeal, this court reversed, concluding that a jury should decide whether the releases were knowingly and voluntarily executed.

The Puentes court explained that the following factors bear on whether a release is knowing and voluntary:

the plaintiff's education and business experience; the amount of time the plaintiff considered the agreement before signing it; the clarity of the agreement; the plaintiff's opportunity to consult with an attorney; the employer's encouragement or discouragement of consultation with an attorney; and the consideration given in exchange for the waiver when compared with the benefits to which the employee was already entitled.

86 F.3d at 198 (quoting Beadle v. City of Tampa, 42 F.3d 633, 635 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 515 U.S. 1152, 115 S.Ct. 2600, 132 L.Ed.2d 846 (1995)). When reviewing these factors in Puentes, the court determined that the plaintiffs did not have sufficient time to consider their release agreements and neither plaintiff had consulted with an attorney. The court also noted that neither plaintiff had any role in deciding the terms of the agreement; the plaintiffs were simply handed printed forms. 86 F.3d at 199. These factors raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether plaintiffs voluntarily and knowingly executed the release agreements. Accordingly, the issue could not be resolved by summary judgment.

The factors set forth in Puentes should have been considered by the district court in this case. The district court should not have summarily adopted a decision from another case, even though it dealt with the exact same release form. Each factor should be independently analyzed. In applying the Puentes factors, we conclude that a jury question exists about whether Bledsoe voluntarily and knowingly released ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims. The language of the release indicates that Bledsoe was only settling his claim for wage loss benefits under the workers' compensation law. There is nothing in the release that suggests or mentions a waiver of federal discrimination claims. Additionally, there was no evidence in the record of any consideration given to Bledsoe in exchange for his allegedly waiving his rights under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. Moreover, Bledsoe and his counsel provided affidavits to the district court stating that the only matters released were benefits for wage loss available under the workers' compensation law, thus creating an issue of...

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