Salami v. Jubilee Ass'n of Md.

Decision Date02 July 2021
Docket NumberCivil Action No. TDC-20-3532
PartiesSAKIRU SALAMI, Plaintiff, v. JUBILEE ASSOCIATION OF MARYLAND, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland
MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Sakiru Salami, a former employee of Defendant Jubilee Association of Maryland, Inc. ("Jubilee"), has filed this civil action alleging that he was subjected to a hostile work environment, discriminatory termination, and retaliation in the workplace, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (2018). Jubilee has filed a breach-of-contract counterclaim alleging that Salami breached a severance agreement in which Salami waived his right to bring claims under Title VII. Presently pending before the Court are Jubilee's Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment, and Salami's Motion to Dismiss the Counterclaim. Having reviewed the submitted materials, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, Jubilee's Motion will be GRANTED, and Salami's Motion will be DENIED AS MOOT.

BACKGROUND
I. Employment History

Salami, a citizen of Maryland who is of Nigerian national origin, first started his employment with Jubilee, a Maryland-based non-profit organization, in July 2005. While employed at Jubilee, Salami received a number of awards and never received any infractions. Salami was most recently promoted to the position of Director of Program Services, a role in which he reported to Steven Keener. Salami alleges that during a meeting in January 2020, Keener made discriminatory statements based on national origin and color, including that he did not trust Salami's team because "it was full of blacks and Africans." Compl. ¶ 9, ECF No. 1. Keener made similar statements during regular meetings with Salami, which generally occurred twice a week.

At one point, Keener created a new position with supervision over Salami and two other directors, and instead of publicly posting the opening, Keener picked a white person to fill the position.

On March 10, 2020, Salami attended a staff meeting, which included members of the management team, during which he was questioned about supposed favoritism he displayed toward African immigrants in the hiring and firing process. Salami believed that these questions stemmed from an incident that occurred two weeks earlier during which Salami had opposed the firing of two African employees. Salami considered these inquiries "irrelevant, prejudicial, and discriminatory" and raised concerns about these questions to the members of the management team at the meeting. Id. ¶ 19.

The next day, on March 11, 2020 at approximately 3:45 p.m., Salami was called into a meeting with Keener and two Human Resources ("HR") Directors. During this meeting, Keener informed Salami that he was being terminated for yelling at the staff meeting the day before. Keener put before Salami a Severance Agreement ("the Agreement") that offered to pay Salami $10,000 in exchange for a release of legal claims. When Salami objected that this was not an adequate remedy for someone with 17 years of service without a single infraction, Keener allegedly stated that he "did not care" how Salami felt and informed him that he had to leave thepremises by 5:00 p.m. or he would call the police to escort him out. Joint Record ("J.R.") 22, ECF No. 22-1. Salami went back to his office to speak with his team about the termination. He then called his wife, who advised him to pack his belongings, sign the Agreement, and leave. Salami asked Keener if he could come back the next day to pack up his belongings and documents, but Keener denied this request. Salami then returned to his office and called his wife a second time, who again advised him that he should "take whatever [he] can," sign the Agreement, and leave. J.R. 23. Salami then signed the Agreement, met with Keener and the HR Director about his team, and left the premises before 5:00 p.m.

According to Salami, throughout these events he was "confused, shaking, and disoriented" with "little sense of what to do," and at no time prior to signing the Agreement did he read the document in full because he was "distraught and distressed." J.R. 22-23. At no time did Keener advise Salami to seek the advice of an attorney. Salami asserts that the threat that the police would be called was a "significant factor in [his] reasoning for signing" the Agreement. J.R. 22.

After his termination, during March 2020, Salami filed an application for unemployment benefits with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation ("DLLR"), Division of Unemployment Insurance. In opposing this application, Jubilee's HR Department submitted a letter to the DLLR that used terms and phrases such as "Nigerian gang," "[t]he issue with Nigerians," and "Nigerian issue." Compl. ¶ 31.

Salami alleges that his termination was unjustified because another Jubilee employee, Uju Chukwuka, was not fired even though she had engaged in verbal abuse toward others that resulted in a complaint to HR and in "tirades which are demonstrably worse than any supposed misconduct Plaintiff engaged in." Id. ¶¶ 26-27. Salami's position was subsequently filled by a white person.

II. Severance Agreement

The Agreement signed by Salami granted him a $10,000 severance payment in exchange for a general release covering "all claims arising out of or in relation to [Salami's] employment with Jubilee," including all claims for wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation "arising under any federal, state, or local law, such as claims, to the extent allowed by law, arising under Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964." J.R. 7. The Agreement provided a period of 21 days "from the date [Salami] first received a copy of this Agreement to decide whether to accept its terms." J.R. 10. It also provided that if Salami signed the Agreement, he would have a period of seven calendar days after the date of signature within which he could "revoke [his] acceptance of the Agreement." J.R. 10.

In addition, the first paragraph of the Agreement stated:

Please be advised that, by signing this agreement you will be releasing Jubilee, to the extent allowed by law, from all legal claims you now have, regardless of whether you are currently aware of them. Therefore, Jubilee advises you to take this Agreement home and read it and consult with an attorney before you sign this document. You will have seven days after signing to revoke your agreement.

J.R. 6. Further, the signature page of the Agreement included the following:

I acknowledge, warrant, and agree that:
1. I have been advised to discuss all aspects of this Agreement with my private attorney and/or other individuals of my choice who are not associated with Jubilee to the extent that I desire . . .;
2. I have read the Agreement carefully and fully understand the significance of all its provisions;
3. I sign this Agreement voluntarily and accept all obligations contained in it in exchange for the consideration I will receive pursuant to the Agreement.

J.R. 11. Just above the signature line, the Agreement stated in all capital letters "The undersigned further state that each has carefully read the foregoing agreement, knows the contents thereof,freely and voluntarily assents to all the terms and conditions thereof, and signs the same as his or her own free act." J.R. 11. Under this statement, Salami signed his name and listed the date as March 11, 2020. Salami received the $10,000 payment by direct deposit.

III. Procedural History

On July 14, 2020, Salami filed a charge of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). On September 3, 2020, the EEOC informed Salami that it was unable to conclude that there was an actionable violation and issued a right-to-sue notice. Salami filed the Complaint in this case on December 4, 2020. In the Complaint, Salami alleges discriminatory discharge on the basis of national origin and color, a hostile work environment, and retaliation under Title VII. Jubilee has filed a counterclaim alleging that Salami breached the Agreement by filing the present lawsuit.

DISCUSSION

In its Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment, Jubilee seeks dismissal or summary judgment on the grounds that (1) Salami's claims are barred by the terms of the Agreement; (2) Salami failed to exhaust administrative remedies on the hostile work environment and retaliation claims; and (3) Salami has failed to state a plausible claim for relief on his discriminatory discharge claim. In turn, in his Motion to Dismiss, Salami seeks dismissal of Jubilee's counterclaim on the grounds that the Agreement is not valid because he did not knowingly and voluntarily sign it.

I. Legal Standards

Both Motions seek dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). To defeat a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the complaint must allege enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).A claim is plausible when the facts pleaded allow "the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Legal conclusions or conclusory statements do not suffice. Id. The Court must examine the complaint as a whole, consider the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005).

With its Motion, Jubilee attaches a Joint Record of documents compiled by the parties, including the Agreement and affidavits by Keener and Salami. Typically, when deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court considers only the complaint and any attached documents "integral to the complaint." Sec'y of State for Defence v. Trimble...

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