JEFFERSON v. CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF YOUTH AUTHORITY

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Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 2, California.

Mary J. JEFFERSON, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF YOUTH AUTHORITY et al., Defendants and Respondents.

No. E026915.

Decided: March 26, 2001

Law Offices of Leo James Terrell and Leo James Terrell, Beverly Hills, for Plaintiff and Appellant. Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, David S. Chaney, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Silvia M. Diaz, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, and Angela Sierra, Deputy Attorney General, for Defendants and Respondents.

OPINION

1. Introduction

Plaintiff Mary J. Jefferson appeals judgment entered in favor of defendants California Department of Youth Authority (CYA) and Larry Berg (defendants) following the trial court's ruling granting defendants' motion for summary judgment.   The court granted summary judgment on the ground plaintiff's sex discrimination claim was barred by a workers' compensation compromise and release of all claims (release).

The fundamental issue here is whether the release bars plaintiff's discrimination claim.   Plaintiff contends the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because the release does not expressly waive her discrimination claim.   Plaintiff alternatively argues that a triable issue of fact exists because the release is ambiguous as to whether the release encompassed the discrimination claim or was limited solely to the release of workers' compensation claims.

We reject plaintiff's contentions and conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting summary judgment.   The general release states that plaintiff waived all claims and plaintiff failed to provide any evidence to the contrary.   Even though the release consisted of a workers' compensation preprinted form release, this fact alone does not raise a triable issue of fact as to whether plaintiff intended to waive civil as well as workers' compensation claims since the release is a general release which expressly waives all claims related to the underlying injury and there is no language excluding discrimination claims.   We affirm the judgment below.

2. Facts and Procedural Background

The undisputed facts established that, from September 1992 to February 1994, plaintiff was employed by the CYA to work part-time at Heman G. Stark Youth Training School as a teacher's assistant in the high school classroom of Larry Berg. Plaintiff claims that, while plaintiff was working in Berg's classroom, Berg and his students regularly used derogatory language when referring to females, such as “bitch,” “whore,” and “slut.”   Plaintiff was offended by such language and complained to Berg and his supervisors. Nevertheless, the sexually offensive conduct continued.

As a result of plaintiff's complaints, on February 18, 1994, she was told not to return to Berg's classroom.   Two days later her doctor recommended that she not return to work due to work-related stress.   Meanwhile she received a memorandum dated February 22, 1994, advising her that she had been reassigned to another classroom which was next door to Berg's classroom.   Plaintiff never returned to work after receiving the memorandum.

Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim dated March 10, 1994, describing her injury as “adjustment disorder with anxious mood, psychological factors affecting physical condition of hypertension and allergies.”   She indicated in her workers' compensation employee's report of injury that her injuries were caused by “(sexual harassment) sexually degrading words used to describe females, by Mr. Larry Berg and wards [students].  (Hostile work environment) No classroom policies to control the behavior of the wards in the classroom.   The environment was unsafe without policies, offensive, hostile and intimidating.”

In October 1994, plaintiff filed a California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) 1 sex discrimination claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against defendants.   Plaintiff alleged that she was “subjected to work-environment sex harassment․ The harassment was verbal in nature which created an offensive and hostile working atmosphere.”   The DFEH issued right-to-sue letters on October 27, 1995.

On July 9, 1996, plaintiff settled her workers' compensation claim against CYA and signed a workers' compensation compromise and release.   Plaintiff testified during her deposition that she read the entire release before signing it and was represented by counsel at the time.

The release states that plaintiff “releases and forever discharges said employer [CYA] ․ from all claims and causes of action, whether now known or ascertained, or which may hereafter arise or develop as a result of said injury, ․”

Incorporated in the preprinted form release is a typed attachment adding the following terms to the release:  “The Applicant desires to avoid the hazards of litigation and the defendants wish to buy their peace․ The settlement is to compensate for all aspects of all injuries included herein.  [¶][A]pplicant agrees that this release will apply to all unknown and unanticipated injuries and damages resulting from such accident, and all rights under Sections 1542 of the Civil Code of California are hereby expressly waived.  [¶] ․ [¶] [A]pplicant agrees that this release extends to and covers ․ employees of the defendants․”

Pursuant to the terms of the workers' compensation settlement, plaintiff resigned from her employment with the CYA on June 6, 1996.   Plaintiff testified that she believed that the state would not agree to the settlement unless she did so.   On August 2, 1996, the workers' compensation appeals board approved the release.

Plaintiff filed the instant civil lawsuit against defendants on August 23, 1996, allegedly “to remedy defendants' employment practices and policies of harassment and discrimination based upon sex.”   Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment as to the sole remaining cause of action, the second cause of action for FEHA sex discrimination.   All other causes of action had previously been dismissed either by the court or voluntarily by plaintiff.

The trial court granted defendants' summary judgment motion on the ground “the release executed by Jefferson bars her complaint as a matter of law.   The release referred to matters that were clearly outside the scope of worker's compensation.   Having accepted the benefit of the payment of $49,500.00, the Plaintiff cannot avoid the express terms of the release.”   The court entered judgment in defendants' favor, and plaintiff timely filed a notice of appeal.

3. Summary Judgment Standard of Review

Plaintiff contends the trial court erred in granting defendants' motion for summary judgment.  “Summary judgment is properly granted to a defendant if it shows either that one or more essential elements of the plaintiff's cause of action cannot be separately established or that there is an affirmative defense which bars recovery, and the plaintiff fails to set forth specific facts showing a triable issue of material fact as to that cause of action or defense.” 2  “An appellate court independently reviews the questions of law presented and whether the papers raise triable issues of fact.” 3

4. Discussion

 Plaintiff asserts the trial court erred in concluding, as a matter of law, that plaintiff's FEHA cause of action was barred by the workers' compensation compromise and release.

 Generally, “a written release extinguishes any obligation covered by the release's terms, provided it has not been obtained by fraud, deception, misrepresentation, duress, or undue influence.” 4  When a person capable of reading and understanding such a release signs it, he or she is bound by its provisions and estopped from claiming they are contrary to his or her intentions or understanding.5  But assent to a release agreement is necessary in order for it to be binding.   Hence, if it can be established that the plaintiff did not in reality assent to it, i.e., due to fraud or duress, she is not estopped from claiming the release is not binding for want of assent.6

 In the instant case, plaintiff asserts that she never intended to abandon her FEHA discrimination claim.   But absent fraud, deception, misrepresentation, duress, or undue influence, this assertion does not raise a triable issue as to intent.7  “If [she] signed the release on the mere unspoken belief that the release did not encompass such claims, despite express language in the release to the contrary, [she] may not now rely on [her] unspoken intention not to waive these claims in order to escape the effect of the release.” 8  Our objective in construing the language of the release is to determine and effectuate the intention of the parties.9  “It is the outward expression of the agreement, rather than a party's unexpressed intention, which the court will enforce.” 10

Plaintiff further argues that her FEHA claim is not barred by the release because the release did not expressly release liability for the FEHA violations;  it only pertained to workers' compensation claims.

 Standard contract principles apply here.11  In the instant case, during the summary judgment motion hearing, the parties conceded that there was no extrinsic evidence to aid in interpreting the release.   Plaintiff argued, nevertheless, that there was a triable issue of fact based on the form of the release, i.e., it was a preprinted workers' compensation form compromise and release.  “Where the evidentiary facts are undisputed, and only the inferences to be drawn therefrom are disputed, an appellate court must independently construe the written language.  [Citations.]” 12  This court must thus construe the release as a question of law subject to independent appellate review.

In arguing that the release bars plaintiff's FEHA claim, defendants rely heavily on Skrbina.13  But Skrbina is not dispositive of the instant case due to significant factual differences.   The terms of the Skrbina release much more explicitly refer to employment claims as being encompassed by the release.   Also the Skrbina release was not on a preprinted workers' compensation compromise and release form.   Rather, it was a severance agreement and release.

Plaintiff, on the other hand, relies heavily on Asare v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co.14 and Murray v. Oceanside Unified School Dist.15 for the proposition that the release in the instant case does not bar plaintiff's FEHA claim.   Plaintiff's reliance on Asare,16 however, is misplaced for the same reasons expressed in Winet v. Price:17  “In Asare, a workers' compensation release form which released all claims was held inapplicable to a later title VII discrimination lawsuit.   However, the evidence in Asare suggested that the attorneys for the parties expressly discussed the issue of whether the release would apply to the title VII claim and agreed it would not.   Here, however, there is no evidence that any discussion was held, much less an agreement made, intending that the scope of the release would not encompass future malpractice claims.” 18

In the instant case, there is no evidence that any discussion was held or an agreement made that the parties intended that the release not encompass plaintiff's FEHA claim.   Furthermore, in the instant case, the release contains an attachment stating that liability is released as to claims against coemployees.   Such clause indicates the release encompassed civil claims as well as workers' compensation claims because, if the release were limited to workers' compensation related claims, there would be no need to mention coemployees since coemployees are not subject to workers' compensation liability.19

The Murray v. Oceanside Unified School Dist.20 decision, relied on by plaintiff, is also of little, if any, assistance in this case.   It merely stands for the proposition that a claim for harassment based on sexual orientation is not barred by the workers' compensation exclusive remedy doctrine.21  We recognize that it is well established that FEHA claims are not normally barred by the workers' compensation exclusive remedy doctrine.22  This, however, is of little significance in determining whether the workers' compensation release encompassed FEHA claims.

Plaintiff argues that since the FEHA claim did not fall within the realm of workers' compensation, such claim was not barred by the release under Delaney v. Superior Fast Freight.23  On first glance, Delaney is remarkably similar to the instant case.   Upon closer examination we determine it to be distinguishable, and we take issue with its holding that a general release executed in settlement of a workers' compensation claim may reasonably be interpreted as not releasing civil claims involving the same injuries and work-related circumstances.

In Delaney the plaintiff sued his employer for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress based on allegations that his supervisor and coworkers were harassing and discriminating against him based on his sexual orientation.   Plaintiff also filed a workers' compensation claim based upon injuries to his psyche and continuing trauma, resulting from sexual orientation harassment and discrimination.   After the trial court granted the defendant employer's motion for summary judgment, and during the pendency of plaintiff's appeal, plaintiff settled his workers' compensation claim and executed a compromise and release.   On appeal, the employer argued that the release barred the plaintiff's emotional distress claim.

The Delaney court concluded that since neither party indicated whether the release encompassed the plaintiff's civil claims, the plaintiff's emotional distress claims were not necessarily barred and thus a triable issue of fact existed as to the intent underlying the settlement.24  In reaching this conclusion, the Delaney court stated:  “While it would not be impossible for employees possessed of such emotional distress claims to knowingly agree to abandon them at the same time they settle their workers' compensation case, the form release in issue here does not compel such a conclusion.   That is to say, while its language is very broad, encompassing all claims and causes of action arising from the injury suffered, that expansive language is simply that which appears on all standard workers' compensation forms.  [Citations.]  It is preprinted and makes no specific reference to potentially independent civil rights or remedies.” 25  The Delaney court thus concluded that the release “may reasonably be understood as releasing only those claims which traditionally fall within the scope of the workers' compensation system․” 26 The Delaney court further concluded that the intent underlying the release constituted a question of fact.

Delaney is distinguishable from the instant case because, here, the release contained an attachment stating that liability was released as to claims against coemployees.   As noted above, such clause indicates the release encompassed civil claims as well as workers' compensation claims since employees are not subject to workers' compensation liability.

Furthermore, we give little credence to the Delaney holding since we disagree with the Delaney court's conclusion that a triable issue existed as to whether the release encompassed the plaintiff's civil claims.   The only authority cited in Delaney in support of such conclusion consists of Labor Code provisions and case law which provide that emotional distress injury claims are preempted by workers' compensation.   We thus are of the view the Delaney holding is not well founded in case law or statutory authority.

Here, we rely on the rationale expressed in Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co.,27 Winet v. Price,28 and In re Mission Ins. Co.,29 wherein these courts have stated that, when a releasor is aware of a claim which he does not intend to relinquish, the releasor has a duty to specify in the release that it is not waived by the release agreement.   In Mission, supra, the court stated:  “ ‘[W]hen the language of a contract is plain and unambiguous it is not within the province of a court to rewrite or alter by construction what has been agreed upon․’ [Citation.] ․” 30

In Edwards, the plaintiff made an uninsured motorist claim.   The plaintiff ultimately settled the claim with his insurer and executed a general release of all claims.   The plaintiff then sued his insurer for insurance bad faith on the grounds the insurer delayed payment and underpaid his uninsured motorist claim.   In opposition to the insurer's motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff argued that plaintiff intended only to release the insurer from the uninsured motorist personal injury claims, and not the insurance bad faith claim.

The trial court in Edwards granted the defendant insurer's summary judgment motion on the ground the plaintiff was barred from bringing his civil action pursuant to the general release.   The court of appeal affirmed, noting that “Appellants urge us to interpret the plain language in their release agreements discharging respondents from ‘any and all claims, demands, actions and causes of actions' to mean ‘all claims except claims for bad faith․ Under the circumstances presented here, we decline to rewrite appellants' release agreements to include a concept they failed to enunciate at the time they accepted the terms of the settlement with their insurer.” 31  The Edwards court added that, “Because appellants knew they had a claim for unfair practices against respondents, they had a duty to specifically exclude that claim from the release agreement.   Otherwise, by releasing ‘all’ claims, appellants gave the misleading impression that they were abandoning their threatened bad faith action in return for respondents' payment .” 32

Here, also, we reject plaintiff's attempt to escape a comprehensive release by claiming it was not plaintiff's intention to release the defendant from all claims.33  “Those engaged in contract law and litigation are in great need of the availability of ironclad and enforceable general releases.   We deal in this case with a release that is about as complete, explicit and unambiguous as a general release can be.   Our decision to uphold the release and enforce it in accord with its literal terms is in harmony, we believe, with a beneficial principle of contract law:  that general releases can be so constructed as to be completely enforceable.” 34

The fact that the settled matter was brought in a different forum (i.e., workers' compensation) than that of other known claims, such as plaintiff's FEHA claim, does not render the general release inapplicable to claims in other forums.   All known claims relating to an injury or incident means all such claims unless stated otherwise.   To conclude otherwise would result in the erosion of the effectiveness, reliability, and predictability of a general release.   Parties would be deprived of the peace of mind such a release is intended to bring.   If a releasor is aware of potential claims in other forums, the burden should be placed upon the releasor to specify in the release nonrelinquishment of such claims, particularly when the releasor is represented by counsel.

We are thus in disagreement with the Delaney's conclusion that a broad general waiver of all claims in a workers' compensation compromise and release, in which there is no mention of civil claims or remedies, in and of itself raises a triable issue of fact as to whether the parties intended the release to bar civil claims.

 Rather, we conclude that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, language in a workers' compensation release stating that all claims are waived means just that, unless the release specifies otherwise.   The fact that such broad general release terms are contained in a preprinted worker's compensation form release does not raise a triable issue as to whether the words stated in the release mean something else, particularly when, as here, both parties are represented by counsel and a FEHA claim has been filed with the DFEH and right to sue letter has been issued prior to execution of the release.

In the instant case, the general release explicitly stated it applied to all known and unknown claims, including civil claims against coemployees.   Plaintiff failed to specify in the release that her discrimination claim was not subject to the general release. Accordingly, we conclude the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment based on its finding that plaintiff's discrimination claim was barred by the general release as a matter of law.

5. Disposition

The judgment is affirmed.   Defendants are awarded their costs on appeal.

FOOTNOTES

1.   Government Code section 12900, et seq.

2.   Skrbina v. Fleming Companies (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1353, 1365, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 481, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 437c, subdivisions (n) and (o)(2).

3.   R.J. Land & Associates Construction Co. v. Kiewit-Shea (1999) 69 Cal.App.4th 416, 424, 81 Cal.Rptr.2d 615.

4.   Skrbina v. Fleming Companies, supra, 45 Cal.App.4th at p. 1366, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 481.

5.   Skrbina v. Fleming Companies, supra, 45 Cal.App.4th at p. 1366, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 481.

6.   Skrbina v. Fleming Companies, supra, 45 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1366-1367, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 481.

7.   Skrbina v. Fleming Companies, supra, 45 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 481.

8.   Skrbina v. Fleming Companies, supra, 45 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 481, citing Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co. (1988) 205 Cal.App.3d 1164, 1167-1168, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807.

9.   Winet v. Price (1992) 4 Cal.App.4th 1159, 1167, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554, citing Pacific Gas & E. Co. v. G.W. Thomas Drayage etc. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 33, 38, 69 Cal.Rptr. 561, 442 P.2d 641.

10.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th at p. 1166, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554, citing Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co., supra, 205 Cal.App.3d at p. 1169, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807.

11.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th at p. 1165, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554.

12.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th at p. 1166, footnote 3, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554.

13.   Skrbina v. Fleming Companies, supra, 45 Cal.App.4th 1353, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 481.

14.   Asare v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co. (1991) 1 Cal.App.4th 856, 2 Cal.Rptr.2d 452.

15.   Murray v. Oceanside Unified School Dist. (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 1338, 95 Cal.Rptr.2d 28.

16.   Asare v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., supra, 1 Cal.App.4th 856, 2 Cal.Rptr.2d 452.

17.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th 1159, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554.

18.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th at p. 1167, footnote 4, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554.

19.   Labor Code section 3600;  State Compensation Ins. Fund v. Brown (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 188, 200, 38 Cal.Rptr.2d 98;  Cal. Workers' Compensation Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 2000) section 1.38, page 24, section 1.44, pages 29-30.

20.   Murray v. Oceanside Unified School Dist., supra, 79 Cal.App.4th 1338, 95 Cal.Rptr.2d 28.

21.   Murray v. Oceanside Unified School Dist., supra, 79 Cal.App.4th at p. 1363, 95 Cal.Rptr.2d 28.

22.   Accardi v. Superior Court (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 341, 353, 21 Cal.Rptr.2d 292.

23.   Delaney v. Superior Fast Freight (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 590, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 33.

24.   Delaney v. Superior Fast Freight, supra, 14 Cal.App.4th at pp. 599-600, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 33.

25.   Delaney v. Superior Fast Freight, supra, 14 Cal.App.4th at p. 599, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 33.

26.   Delaney v. Superior Fast Freight, supra, 14 Cal.App.4th at p. 599, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 33.

27.   Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co., supra, 205 Cal.App.3d 1164, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807.

28.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th 1159, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554.

29.   In re Mission Ins. Co. (1995) 41 Cal.App.4th 828, 48 Cal.Rptr.2d 209.

30.   In re Mission Ins. Co., supra, 41 Cal.App.4th at pp. 837-838, 48 Cal.Rptr.2d 209, citing Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co., supra, 205 Cal.App.3d at p. 1167, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807.

31.   Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co., supra, 205 Cal.App.3d at p. 1167, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807.

32.   Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co., supra, 205 Cal.App.3d at p. 1169, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807.

33.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th at p. 1168, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554.

34.   Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th at p. 1173, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554.

GAUT, J.

RAMIREZ, P.J., and RICHLI, J., concur.

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