E-Alert Case Updates
Fourth Circuit Dismisses Employment Discrimination Lawsuit Because Plaintiff Was Found to Have Waived His Right to Bring a Claim Pursuant to a Settlement Agreement
Sundersingh Bala v. Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
Sundersingh Bala, a man of Indian origin, had been employed in the accounting department of the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (“DCR”) since 1985. Over the years, he had filed numerous employee grievances with the Department of Employee Dispute Resolution (“EDR”) alleging discrimination based on national origin, race, and age. Bala’s name was included on a list of employees considered for termination as part of a series of layoffs pursuant to budget reduction for state agencies. When he was selected to be laid off in 2009, Bala claimed that the DCR violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by engaging in a retaliatory discharge due to his numerous discrimination complaints in grievances and court proceedings.
Under Virginia law, employees file complaints with the EDR for the dispute resolution process. VA. CODE ANN. § 2.2-3006. These grievances are first dealt with by a three-step internal review process. If an employee is still not satisfied with the resolution they can then request a hearing with a neutral arbiter. The decision of the hearing officer is then appealable to Virginia state circuit court. Bala consolidated his 2009 grievances and was not satisfied with the initial three-step process, which found that the DCR has not discriminated. He then requested a hearing, which found a violation and directed the DCR to reinstate Bala to his former position. Bala, however, had already begun working with the DCR as an hourly employee in 2010 and was receiving benefits since his termination. Because his hourly wages and early retirement benefits would have been offset against any back pay, he decided it would be best to resolve the situation by agreement. The DCR and Bala negotiated and entered into a settlement agreement on July 7, 2011.
Bala agreed to “waive any rights accorded to him pursuant to the hearing officer’s decision of February 1, 2011, including his reinstatement to his former salaried position.” The parties declared that the terms had been carefully read, fully understood, and agreed to voluntarily. In October of 2012, however, Bala subsequently bought this Title VII claim for discrimination and retaliation based on his race and national origin.
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted summary judgment to the DCR because the Court found Plaintiff released his retaliatory discharge claim in the Settlement Agreement he entered into on July 7, 2011. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s opinion. The Court held that Bala could not seek a remedy through a lawsuit after knowingly and voluntarily relinquishing the underlying claim by way of Settlement Agreement.
The Court noted that Congress created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) as a mechanism to resolve claims through conference, conciliation, and persuasion before the aggrieved party is allowed to file suit. Further, voluntary compliance is the preferred means in handling unlawful discrimination claims. Thus, a knowing and voluntary waiver of claims through settlement is permitted. Moreover, under contract principles, the intent of the parties was clear from the unambiguous terms. The Settlement Agreement concerned and resolved the matter now alleged in Bala’s Title
VII lawsuit. Plaintiff was precluded from bringing this suit, as it would allow him to get a “second bite at the apple.”
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