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Wastak v. Lehigh Valley Health Network

June 10, 2003


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 00-cv-04797) District Court Judge: Honorable Herbert J. Hutton

Before: Rendell, Ambro and MAGILL,*fn1 Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge


Argued March 10, 2003


John Wastak appeals from an order entered in the District Court on March 27, 2002, granting summary judgment in favor of his former employer, defendant Lehigh Valley Health Network, with regard to Wastak's allegations of age discrimination. The District Court held that Wastak's suit was precluded by a valid release agreement, pursuant to which Wastak, in exchange for various benefits, waived his right to assert any claims arising out of his employment or termination. We will affirm.


In January of 1990, Lehigh Valley Health Network hired John Wastak as the Administrator for its Department of Psychiatry. Wastak held the position for eight years, during which time Wastak believed that Lehigh Valley was satisfied with his performance, and that his employment was secure.

Sometime in 1997, Wastak began negotiations to lease office space for the Department. That December, however, the Psychiatry Department Chair, Dr. Michael Kauffman, directed Wastak to cease the discussions. Subsequently, the Department engaged in the lease negotiations with a different employee as its representative.

On March 12, 1998, Lehigh Valley fired Wastak, who was fifty-seven years old at the time. Dr. Kauffman indicated that the termination was a result of Wastak's conducting inappropriate lease negotiations. Wastak was given a proposed Separation Agreement and Release ("Release"), along with a letter explaining and supplementing its provisions. The Release states, in pertinent part:

Wastak... herein agrees that [he will not] file a charge, complaint, lawsuit or other claim against [Lehigh Valley]... for any acts, omissions or statements arising out of any aspect of Wastak's employment or termination of Wastak's employment with [Lehigh Valley]. By way of example only and without limiting the immediately preceding sentence, Wastak promises not to file a claim or lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (29 U.S.C. § 621), Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Civil Rights Act of 1991, Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001 et seq., and any other state or federal equal employment opportunity law or statute. In addition, Wastak agrees not to file any cause of action or claim relating to the breach of an oral or written contract, misrepresentation, defamation, interference with contract and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, and any other common law claims and all claims for counsel fees and costs.

The Release also relevantly provided that (1) if litigation was brought in violation of the covenant not to sue, the prevailing party would be entitled to reasonable costs and attorneys' fees; (2) performance of each party was contingent on the other party's compliance with the terms of the agreement; (3) the Release contained all the promises and understandings of the parties; (4) Wastak was advised by Lehigh Valley to seek an attorney; (5) Wastak had twenty-one days within which to sign the Release, and (6) Wastak could revoke acceptance of the Release within seven days of signing.

In exchange for his execution of the Release, Lehigh Valley offered Wastak income protection for a period of thirty-six weeks, paid biweekly. Under the provisions of the agreement, Wastak was guaranteed remuneration equivalent to his Lehigh Valley salary, whether or not he secured other employment during the benefits period. Thus, if Wastak accepted lower-paid employment prior to the end of the period, Lehigh Valley would cover the difference in salary, but Wastak's benefits would terminate if he was able to secure employment at a salary equal to or exceeding his salary at Lehigh Valley. Lehigh Valley also promised Wastak the free use of a professional outplacement firm.

As noted above, the Release provided that Wastak could sign the agreement anytime within twenty-one days, and Lehigh Valley advised Wastak to consult an attorney before signing. Unfortunately, however, Wastak's attempts to secure counsel were unsuccessful as, for various reasons, none of the three lawyers Wastak contacted could or would represent him. Nonetheless, Wastak signed the Release.

The day of his termination, Lehigh Valley told Wastak that it intended to hire a replacement for him. Nine months later, in December of 1998, Wastak, who was then fifty-eight, learned that Lehigh Valley had replaced him with a forty-four year old woman. Then suspecting that he was fired as a result of age discrimination, Wastak secured legal counsel, and on July 20, 1999 — 495 days after his termination — filed an age discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Under 29 U.S.C. § 626(d)(2), however, the EEOC charge was required to be filed within 300 days of the accrual of the cause of action. On March 1, 2000, the EEOC dismissed the charge as untimely.

That August, Wastak filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, claiming age discrimination in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. §§ 951, et seq. ("PHRA"), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623 et seq. ("ADEA"). A month later, Lehigh Valley removed the action to the federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In an opinion dated March 27, 2002, the District Court granted Lehigh Valley's Motion for Summary Judgment on the basis of the Release. The District Court rejected Wastak's claims that the waiver was void under the provisions of the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, 29 U.S.C. § 626 ("OWBPA"), or that the agreement was otherwise invalid because he did not enter into it knowingly and voluntarily. According to the District Court, the Release executed by Wastak and Lehigh Valley was legally valid, and by its plain language barred the suit by Wastak under the PHRA or ADEA. Wastak then filed this timely appeal.

The District Court had jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1367, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Our review of a district court's grant of summary judgment is plenary, and we apply the same standard as the district court. See Abramson v. William Paterson College of N.J., 260 F.3d 265, 276 (3d Cir. 2001). Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is ...

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