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Garrison v. Minnesota Department of Revenue

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 17, 2019

Peter Garrison, Plaintiff,
Minnesota Department of Revenue et al., Defendants.


          Wilhelmina M. Wright United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on the March 8, 2019 Report and Recommendation (R&R) of United States Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer. (Dkt. 174.) The R&R recommends granting Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff Peter Garrison filed timely objections to the R&R.[1] For the reasons addressed below, the Court overrules Garrison's objections, adopts the R&R, and grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND [2]

         Garrison is an employee of the Minnesota Department of Revenue (MDOR). His allegations in this employment discrimination lawsuit relate to a three-year period from about 2012 until early 2015, during which Defendant Linda Craigie supervised Garrison in MDOR's Out-of-State Unit. Garrison's complaint[3] describes multiple negative interactions with Craigie, which Garrison attributes to Craigie's racial bias. Garrison alleges that he was suspended multiple times without cause and ultimately demoted with a commensurate reduction in salary.

         After Garrison filed a charge of race discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Garrison's union filed grievances on his behalf. MDOR held a grievance meeting at which Garrison and two union representatives were present, and the parties discussed settlement options. Garrison requested rescission of the disciplinary actions against him and assignment to a new supervisor. Over the next six weeks, the parties negotiated revisions to the settlement agreement, some of which were proposed by Garrison and incorporated into the final agreement. Pursuant to the final settlement agreement, Garrison was reassigned to an office in Arden Hills, Minnesota, with a new supervisor, the length of his suspension was reduced, and he was reimbursed for lost wages attributable to the suspension reduction. The final agreement also provided that Garrison:

fully and completely releases [MDOR] and the State of Minnesota, and all of their past and present agents, representatives, officers, and employees, in their official and individual capacities, from any and all claims, differences, demands, rights, and causes of action with respect to all of the above-described matters in dispute between the parties[.]

Garrison, along with his union representatives, and Defendant Kathy Zieminski, MDOR's Human Resources Director, executed the settlement agreement in March 2015.

         Garrison commenced this action in August 2016 against MDOR and three of its employees-Craigie, Zieminski, and Pam Evans (MDOR's Director of the Sales and Use Tax Division). Garrison's second amended complaint includes the following remaining claims: (1) a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Craigie, in her individual capacity, for Craigie's alleged violation of Garrison's right to equal protection, (2) claims against MDOR and Craigie, in her official capacity, for race discrimination and maintaining a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, and (3) a retaliation claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) against Craigie and Evans in their official capacities.


         The R&R recommends granting Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to all of the remaining counts. The R&R concludes that Garrison released all but one of his claims as part of the settlement agreement he executed with MDOR. Further, the R&R also concludes that, because Garrison has failed to present evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact as to any of his remaining claims, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as to all of Garrison's claims, including his claim that Defendants retaliated against him through their implementation of the settlement agreement.

         A district court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which specific objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In doing so, the district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” Id.; accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3); LR 72.2(b)(3). Garrison first objects to the R&R's conclusion that the release of his claims is valid and enforceable. Garrison also objects to the R&R's conclusion that he has failed to provide evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact as to any of the remaining claims.[4]

         Under Minnesota law, a settlement agreement is a contract. State ex rel. Humphrey v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 713 N.W.2d 350, 355 (Minn. 2006). Because the law encourages settlement of disputes, agreements settling disputes are generally presumed valid, including those that involve the release of claims. Sorensen v. Coast-to-Coast Stores (Cent. Org.), Inc., 353 N.W.2d 666, 669 (Minn.Ct.App. 1984). A release of claims is invalid only when the party challenging the release demonstrates that the agreement was executed under circumstances establishing either that the party did not intend to release claims or that insufficient consideration supports the agreement. Id.

         The R&R concludes that the factual record “clearly demonstrates that Garrison entered the [settlement] agreement[] intentionally, willingly, and for sufficient and negotiated consideration.” As to Garrison's intent, the language in the release is clear and uncomplicated and Garrison was represented by two union representatives during negotiations preceding the execution of the settlement agreement who also were parties to the final agreement. See generally Sorenson, 353 N.W.2d at 669 (identifying factors supporting the validity of a release such as the clarity and simplicity of language in the release and whether a party was represented). And, as the R&R concludes, the record is “devoid” of any evidence that would raise a genuine issue of material fact that Garrison's execution of the agreement was the product of coercion or duress. See generally Id. at 670 (stating that duress caused by economic coercion may show the absence of intent to release claims).

         The R&R also concludes that Garrison received sufficient consideration in support of the release of his claims. It is not clear, under Minnesota law, whether consideration supporting a release of claims must be “adequate” or whether the parties merely must have exchanged “something of value” between them. See Chappell v. Butterfield-Odin Sch. Dist. No. 836, 673 F.Supp.2d 818, 830-31 (D. Minn. 2009) (discussing the lack of clarity in Minnesota law). The R&R concludes, however, that consideration was sufficient under either legal standard. In exchange for entering the settlement agreement and releasing his claims, Garrison was transferred to a new supervisor and received a reduction in the length of his suspension. Both ...

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