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Washington v. Shell Oil Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

June 12, 2018

GREGORY WASHINGTON
v.
SHELL OIL CO. ET AL.

         SECTION: “H” (5)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          JANE TRICHE MILAZZO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are Defendant Shell Oil Company's (“Shell”) Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 15) and Defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's (“MetLife”) Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 16). For the following reasons, Shell's Motion is DENIED, and MetLife's Motion is GRANTED IN PART.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Gregory Washington is a combat war veteran who alleges that he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) while working for Defendant Shell Oil Company (“Shell”) several years after his service, due in part to a stressful work environment and harassment from coworkers. Plaintiff applied for short term disability based on his PTSD and other diagnoses through Shell's disability plan, which was administered by Defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”). MetLife approved and paid Plaintiff's claim for short term disability benefits. Plaintiff then filed a claim for long term disability, which MetLife denied based on its exclusion for disabilities caused by war. MetLife later denied Plaintiff's appeal of that decision on the ground that the plan excluded injuries that were a result of service in the armed forces. Plaintiff claims that the denial was in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which protects members of the military from discrimination by an employer on the basis of military service.

         After MetLife denied Plaintiff's requests for disability benefits, Plaintiff signed an agreement with Shell in conjunction with an offer of severance. In the agreement, he expressly waived the right to bring suit for any matter pertaining to his employment, including issues involving discrimination based on veteran status (the “Release”). Plaintiff alleges that this waiver was signed under duress, was not knowing, and is in violation of USERRA.

         Plaintiff brings claims against Defendants for violation of USERRA, recission of the Release, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendants have each filed a separate Motion to Dismiss the claims against them. This Court will consider each motion in turn.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead enough facts “to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.”[1] A claim is “plausible on its face” when the pleaded facts allow the court to “draw reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”[2]A court must accept the complaint's factual allegations as true and must “draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor.”[3] The court need not, however, accept as true legal conclusions couched as factual allegations.[4] To be legally sufficient, a complaint must establish more than a “sheer possibility” that the plaintiff's claims are true.[5] If it is apparent from the face of the complaint that an insurmountable bar to relief exists and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief, the court must dismiss the claim.[6] The court's review is limited to the complaint and any documents attached to the motion to dismiss that are central to the claim and referenced by the complaint.[8]

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         A. Shell's Motion to Dismiss

         Shell moves for dismissal of Plaintiff's claims against it seeking rescission of the Release and damages for violation of USERRA. Shell argues that Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed because the Release unequivocally waives his right to bring claims under USERRA. There is no dispute that Plaintiff signed the Release, which, as quoted in the Complaint, unambiguously waived Plaintiff's right to bring a lawsuit for claims arising out of his employment.[9] Indeed, the Release expressly waives Plaintiff's right to bring a claim for discrimination based on veteran-status.[10] The Complaint also admits that Plaintiff knew about his rights under USERRA prior to signing the Release. The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff was paid almost $30, 000 in exchange for signing the release.

         USERRA states that it supersedes any “contract, agreement, policy, plan, practice, or other matter that reduces, limits, or eliminates in any manner any right or benefit provided” by it.[11] It further states, however, that it is not intended to “supersede, nullify or diminish any . . . contract, agreement, policy, plan, practice, or other matter that establishes a right or benefit that is more beneficial to, or is in addition to, a right or benefit provided” by USERRA.[12]“Therefore, the critical inquiry is whether the Release is exempted from the operation of [USERRA] because the rights it provided to [Plaintiff] were more beneficial than the rights that he waived.”[13]

         As Plaintiff correctly points out, Defendant's argument that the Release prevents Plaintiff's claims for violation of USERRA is an affirmative defense. In order to dismiss a claim based on an affirmative defense, the defense “must appear on the face of the complaint.”[14] Defendant argues that the Complaint clearly establishes that the language of the Release was clear and unequivocal and that the Release was made for valuable consideration. Even so, courts have interpreted the waiver of USERRA rights to require a subjective belief that the consideration provided by the waiver agreement was more beneficial than the rights provided by USERRA.[15] The Complaint expressly alleges that Plaintiff could not determine whether the rights provided in the Release were more beneficial than the rights provided by USERRA because of MetLife's failure to provide reasons for its adverse disability benefits decision.[16] He also alleges that he signed the Release “not because he believed that the rights provided in the Agreement were more beneficial than his USERRA rights, but rather because of the severe financial distress and emotional duress he continued to suffer” as a result of the Defendants' actions.[17] A waiver of USERRA rights must “be clear, convincing, specific, unequivocal, and not under duress.”[18] Accordingly, Defendant's affirmative defense does not appear on the face of the Complaint, and Defendant has therefore not shown grounds for dismissal.

         B. MetLife's Motion to Dismiss

         Next, MetLife moves for dismissal of the claims against it for violation of USERRA, recission of the Release, and the state law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. At the outset, MetLife's Motion to Dismiss repeats the arguments made by Shell that were rejected above. However, MetLife also puts forth two additional arguments: (1) that it is not an “employer” under the terms of USERRA and therefore cannot be liable for its violation, and (2) ...


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