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Schmidt v. Shah

March 17, 2010

JOSEPH JAMES SCHMIDT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RAJIV SHAH, ADMINISTRATOR, UNITED STATES AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION*fn1

This action arises out of Plaintiff Joseph James Schmidt's employment with the United States Agency for International Development ("USAID"), which ended in March 2008 when Schmidt resigned from the agency. Prior to his resignation, Schmidt filed an employment discrimination complaint with the agency that was ultimately resolved through a settlement agreement. Schmidt brings this action pro se against Defendant Rajiv Shah in his official capacity as USAID Administrator claiming, inter alia, that the settlement agreement is invalid, that USAID employees improperly forced his resignation from the agency, and that Schmidt has suffered from various acts of discrimination. Schmidt also has filed an action under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking certain information from USAID related to this case, which is also pending before this Court. See Schmidt v. Fore, Civil Action No. 08-2185 (D.D.C. filed Dec. 16, 2008).

Presently pending before the Court is Defendant's [12] Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment. Schmidt filed a brief in opposition, to which Defendant filed a reply, and Schmidt filed a surreply without leave of Court. After briefing on this motion became ripe, Schmidt filed a [17] Motion Requesting Removal of Specific Workers' Compensation Items from Plaintiff's Civil Complaint, to which no opposition was filed. Schmidt subsequently filed three submissions with additional material addressing the merits of Defendant's dispositive motion, along with a [22] Motion for Acceptance of Plaintiff's Supplemental Filings. Defendant filed a brief in opposition to this latter motion, and Schmidt filed a reply.

For the reasons explained below, the Court shall DENY Schmidt's motion to accept supplemental materials, GRANT Schmidt's motion to remove specific workers' compensation items from his Complaint, and GRANT Defendant's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Specifically, the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction over Schmidt's claims relating to workers' compensation and any claims based on the settlement agreement. The Court also finds that the release of claims in the settlement agreement bars Schmidt from litigating the remainder of his claims, with the exception of an alleged FOIA violation and a claim for retaliation based on testimony given as a witness in an employment discrimination investigation. The Court shall dismiss the FOIA claim without prejudice in light of the related action pending before this Court and dismiss the surviving retaliation claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

The following facts are drawn from the allegations in the operative complaint,*fn2 as well as any exhibits attached to or incorporated by the operative complaint.*fn3

1. Schmidt's Employment with USAID

Plaintiff Joseph James Schmidt was an employee of the United States Agency for International Development ("USAID" or "the agency") from December 26, 1994 to March 19, 2008. Compl. at 1. In June 2006, Schmidt began experiencing problems at the agency relating to discrimination, harassment, and hostile work environment.*fn4 Id. On or about November 7, 2006, Schmidt filed a formal complaint with the USAID's Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") Office.*fn5 Id. During this time, Schmidt began experiencing physical problems, including chest pains, constant headaches, and trouble breathing. Id. at 2. One of Schmidt's doctors determined that Schmidt was suffering from stress in the workplace. Id. Schmidt began taking a series of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and other medications that were prescribed by his doctors. Id. One of these doctors was Dr. Allan Melmed, who treated Schmidt from March 2007 through July 2008. Id.

In April 2007, USAID suspended Schmidt's security clearance without notice and claimed that Schmidt's prescription drug use presented a risk to Agency employees. Id. After a six-week stint on paid administrative leave, Schmidt was allowed to return to work "following a thorough investigation." Id. However, the stress of the suspension took its toll on Schmidt. In June 2007, Schmidt's thoughts of suicide seemed to intensify. Id. After consultation with his wife and Dr. Melmed, Schmidt hospitalized himself at Virginia Hospital Center's Psychiatric Ward for two weeks in early July 2007. Id. Schmidt was diagnosed with severe depression, severe anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Schmidt remained on very heavy dosages of prescription drugs, which made it very difficult for him to function at home and at work. Id. By February 2008, Schmidt's condition had deteriorated to the point where he could barely function, and USAID placed him on extended, indefinite sick leave. Id.

2. Settlement Negotiations

In early March 2008, USAID indicated that it would engage in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in order to resolve Schmidt's EEO complaint. Compl. at 2. Schmidt corresponded with Andrew Herscowitz, a USAID attorney, regarding a possible settlement. Id. at 2-3. Herscowitz asked Schmidt if he would agree to be terminated at USAID and possibly obtain disability benefits. Id. at 3. Schmidt, however, was not interested in applying for disability and informed Herscowitz that he wanted to return to work when his health had improved. Id. Herscowitz told Schmidt that if he returned to work, there was a possibility that he would be terminated and have his security clearance revoked. Id. During the first half of March 2008, Herscowitz acknowledged that he had discussed Schmidt's health situation with Schmidt's supervisor, Ms. Charity Benson. Id. Schmidt claims that Herscowitz made his life "unbearable and miserable" and that Herscowitz's "constant phone threats became commonplace" and caused his emotional and mental condition to deteriorate. Id.

In mid-march 2008, Ms. Benson called Schmidt to ask when he might be returning to work. Compl. at 3. She told Schmidt that he would not be given time during work hours to visit his doctors. Id. at 3-4. Schmidt explained to her that he had been allowed 4-8 hours off per week from November 2006 through January 2008 to attend therapy and medical appointments and that his job performance did not suffer as a result. Id. However, Ms. Benson told Schmidt that he would not be allowed to take appointments during business hours. Id. at 4. Following this phone call, and following "more threats" from Herscowitz, Schmidt claims that he "began falling apart." Id.

Schmidt then received a call from Herscowitz informing him that his identification badge had been deactivated by the USAID Office of Security after Herscowitz told them about Schmidt's health problems. Compl. at 4. Herscowitz told Schmidt that he had actually done him a favor because some agency employees wanted Schmidt's security clearance revoked, and Herscowitz convinced them merely to deactivate Schmidt's ID badge. Id. During this time, Schmidt was at home on extended sick leave. Id. Schmidt has requested that the USAID Office of Security or Office of Human Resources provide him written notification of this action, but they declined to respond to Schmidt's request. Id.

Schmidt eventually ran out of sick and annual leave, and he contemplated suicide. Compl. at 4. Herscowitz offered to assist Schmidt with obtaining further paid administrative leave, but he also pressured Schmidt to resign from the agency. Schmidt claims that he "simply could not take any more of [Herscowitz's] cruel punishment, ridicule and constant threats and experienced a temporary nervous breakdown." Id. Schmidt decided "that working at USAID was not worth my life and that if I attempted to return to work something bad might happened [sic] to me, as they had already deactivated my work ID badge." Id. On March 19, 2008, Schmidt wrote a resignation letter and sent it to his director, informing her that he had been "pressured to quit and faced terrible problems with USAID staff." Id.

Following Schmidt's resignation, Herscowitz continued to negotiate a settlement agreement with Schmidt and the agency. Compl. at 4. Herscowitz ignored many of Schmidt's requests for relief and told him that he was lucky to get anything. Id. When Schmidt had a disagreement with the agency's position, Herscowitz told him he could "take it or leave it" and that Herscowitz was no longer obligated to do anything for Schmidt because he had resigned from the agency. Id. According to Schmidt, Herscowitz controlled the entire settlement process. Id. at 5. Herscowitz eventually suggested that Schmidt retain an attorney to review the draft settlement agreement, and Schmidt did so, paying an attorney for two and a half hours of her time to review the document. Id. However, Herscowitz dismissed the changes suggested by Schmidt's attorney. Id.

In late March 2008, Schmidt agreed to sign the settlement agreement. Compl. at 5. Herscowitz required that Schmidt obtain a signed note from a doctor stating that he was mentally capable of entering into a binding agreement. Id. Schmidt resented this idea but agreed to pass along a form from Herscowitz to his doctor. Id. Dr. Melmed signed the form but left the bottom part of the form, which required the signature of a witness over 18 years of age, blank. Id. Herscowitz told Schmidt that without a witness's signature, the form from Dr. Melmed and the draft settlement agreement signed by Schmidt were "null and void." Id. Herscowitz told Schmidt to return to Dr. Melmed and get a witness to countersign the form. Id. However, Dr. Melmed left on vacation for 7-10 days and was not immediately available. Id. In the interim, Schmidt was unhappy with the settlement and approached Herscowitz and USAID managers about resolving their differences. Id. Herscowitz threatened to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Commission ("EEOC") judge and complain about Schmidt, and he presented the signed settlement agreement and doctor's note to the judge as final. Id. The EEOC judge ruled that it was a valid agreement. Id.

During settlement negotiations, Schmidt took issue with the language in the agreement restricting Schmidt's ability to work in the State Department in the future. Compl. at 5-6. Herscowitz told Schmidt that this provision was added by a senior attorney in his office who did not want Schmidt to work there anymore. Id. Herscowitz also told Schmidt that no one cared whether or not he worked at the StateDepartment and that he could do whatever he wanted. Id. Herscowitz told Schmidt that the agency would never ask for its money back but that Schmidt should stay clear of USAID because they did not want him working there anymore. Id. at 6. Schmidt claims that "[a]fter receiving assurances from Mr. Herscowitz, I decided to sign the settlement agreement with the understanding that I could work for the State Department if I chose to . . . ." Id.

3. The Settlement Agreement

Schmidt signed the final settlement agreement ("Settlement Agreement") on March 26, 2008. See Def.'s Mot., Ex. 1 (Settlement Agreement) at 4. Jessalyn Pendarvis, Director of USAID's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs ("EOP"), signed the Settlement Agreement on behalf of the agency. Id. Under the Agreement, the agency agreed to pay Schmidt $140,000 and to refrain from seeking compensation from Schmidt for any leave deficit that he may have accrued. See id. ¶ 1. In turn, Schmidt agreed to withdraw his administrative complaint in its entirety and cooperate with the agency to ensure that the complaint was dismissed without prejudice. Id. ¶ 2(a). In addition, Schmidt agreed to refrain from seeking to establish any future employment relationship with USAID or the U.S. Department of State and agreed to cooperate fully with USAID to effect the terms of the Agreement. Id. ¶ 2(b)-(c). The parties agreed that the Settlement Agreement shall not in any way be construed as an admission of liability or a statement by either party as to the validity of the parties' legal and factual contentions. See id. ¶ 3.

The Settlement Agreement also contained the following language: [Schmidt's] signature constitutes his agreement to the terms of this Agreement and more specifically his agreement to withdraw or dismiss any action now pending and to refrain from bringing any action that could be brought now or in the future arising from or related to the [EEO] Complaint or any injuries or claims, known or unknown, that [Schmidt] might allege to have suffered as a result of [Schmidt's] employment or association with USAID.

Id. ¶ 4. The Agreement also contained a release:

[Schmidt] waives and relinquishes, for all time, any claims - monetary or non-monetary -, grievances, complaints, actions, causes of action, or other proceedings against USAID, and any USAID officers or employees, in their official capacity, arising from or related to the [EEO] Complaint, based on any events, facts, acts or circumstances arising from or related to matters at issue in the [EEO] Complaint, or arising from or related to his employment with USAID.

Id. ¶ 5. The Agreement contained a merger clause stating that the Agreement "supersedes any and all prior oral or written agreements, if any, regarding this matter" and that the Agreement could not be modified except by written amendment signed by both parties. Id. ¶ 7. The Agreement provided that Schmidt could appeal the disposition of his EEO complaint to the EEOC. Id. ¶ 8.

The Agreement also contained a confidentiality provisionunder which the parties agreed not to divulge the contents of the Agreement to any person other than its signatories. See id. ¶ 10.However, the Agreement does authorize the parties to divulge its contents to individuals who are required to implement any of its terms. Id.

4. Post-Settlement Interactions with USAID

After Schmidt signed the Settlement Agreement, he contacted a friend in the State Department who said his office would love to hire Schmidt for a vacant position as a Grants Officer, which was similar to his job with USAID. Compl. at 6. However, when Schmidt contacted Ms. Pendarvis, the USAID EOP Director, she told Schmidt she was unwilling to change the provision in the Settlement Agreement precluding him from working in the State Department (or any other provision in the Settlement Agreement), regardless of what Herscowitz had told him. Id.

In April 2008, Schmidt formally complained to USAID's EEO Office about his "forced/pressured resignation" and other EEO concerns and allegations. Compl. at 6. Schmidt requested to speak with a USAID EEO counselor, but Pendarvis told Schmidt that he was not entitled to see one because of the Settlement Agreement. Id. Schmidt submitted an administrative complaint alleging, inter alia, that the agency had unlawfully retaliated against him and harassed him in violation of numerous federal regulations and statutes. See Letter from Schmidt to Henrietta Fore, USAID Administrator (May 12, 2008) (attached to Complaint). On May 19 & 29, 2008, Pendarvis dismissed Schmidt's "new" allegations in the entirety and issued Schmidt a notice of right to file a complaint with the EEOC. Compl. at 6. In a June 25, 2008, letter, Pendarvis stated that Schmidt's complaints were in the purview of the EEOC. Id. From July 2008 through September 2008, Schmidt submitted a number of additional EEO allegations to Pendarvis, but she refused to acknowledge them. Compl. at 6.

On May 19, 2008, the agency issued a final decision finding that it was in compliance with the Settlement Agreement. See Schmidt v. Fore, EEOC Appeal No. 0120082791, 2008 WL 4388021, at *1 (E.E.O.C. Sept. 15, 2008) (attached to Complaint) (hereinafter, "EEOC Appeal"). Schmidt had received the $140,000 contemplated by the Agreement on April 21, 2008. See id.*fn6

Schmidt appealed this decision to the EEOC, and on September 15, 2008, the EEOC issued a decision. See id. at 1. According to the EEOC decision, Schmidt had written numerous letters to the agency beginning on April 24, 2008, alleging that the agency was in breach of the Settlement Agreement and requesting that the agency invalidate its terms. See id. at 1. Schmidt had contended that he was coerced into signing the Settlement Agreement and sought EEO counseling regarding a new complaint for constructive discharge and continuing reprisal. Id.

The agency denied it was in breach of the Settlement Agreement or that Schmidt was coerced or under duress when he signed the Agreement. Id. The EEOC affirmed the agency's decision, finding that Schmidt had not presented probative or credible evidence that he was coerced or that otherwise supported his contentions. Id. at 2. The EEOC notified Schmidt of his right to file a civil action in an appropriate United States District Court within 90 days of its decision. See id. at 3.

Schmidt requested reconsideration of the EEOC's decision on September 22, 2008. See Letter from Schmidt to Carlton Hadden, Director, EEOC Office of Federal Operations (Sept. 22, 2008) (attached to Complaint). Schmidt again asserted that the Settlement Agreement was invalid due to fraud, misrepresentation, unethical conduct, and lack of a valid medical note. Id. at 3.

5. Witness Intimidation

Schmidt was named a witness in a separate EEO investigation regarding a former subordinate of Schmidt's. Compl. at 6. Schmidt sent two packets of materials to the EEO investigator. Id. On September 9, 2008, Schmidt received a letter from a USAID attorney asking him to refrain from submitting unsolicited statements and/or documentation to the investigator. Id.; see Def.'s Mot., Ex. 11 (9/9/2008 Letter from James M. Peters to Schmidt).*fn7 The letter also informed Schmidt that the agency would not reimburse him for $24 in expenses resulting from Schmidt's decision to send the materials ...


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