On September 9, 2016, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) published new guidelines for approving settlements between employers and employees in whistleblower cases to ensure that those agreements do not contain terms that could be interpreted to restrict future whistleblowing. OSHA reviews settlements between employees and employers to ensure that they are fair, adequate, reasonable, and in the public interest, and that the employee’s consent was knowing and voluntary. The guidance provides that OSHA will not approve settlement agreements that contain provisions that discourage (or have the effect of discouraging) whistleblowing, such as:
- “Gag” provisions that prohibit, restrict, or otherwise discourage an employee from participating in protected activity, such as filing a complaint with a government agency, participating in an investigation, testifying in proceedings, or otherwise providing information to the government. These constraints often arise from broad confidentiality or non-disparagement clauses, which complainants may interpret as restricting their ability to engage in protected activity. The prohibited constraints may also be found in provisions that:
- restrict the employee’s right to provide information to the government, file a complaint, or testify in proceedings based on a respondent’s past or future conduct;
- require an employee to notify his or her employer before filing a complaint or voluntarily communicating with the government regarding the employer’s past or future conduct;
- require an employee to affirm that he or she has not previously provided information to the government or engaged in other protected activity, or to disclaim any knowledge that the employee has violated the law; and/or
- require an employee to waive his or her right to receive a monetary award from a government-administered whistleblower award program for providing information to a government agency.
- Provisions providing for liquidated damages in the event of a breach where those provisions are clearly disproportionate to the anticipated loss to the respondent of a breach, the potential liquidated damages would exceed the relief provided to the employee, or whether, owing to the employee’s position and/or wages, he or she would be unable to pay the proposed amount in the event of a breach.
When OSHA encounters these types of provisions, it will ask the parties to remove those provisions and/or prominently place the following statement in the settlement agreement: “Nothing in this Agreement is intended to or shall prevent, impede or interfere with the complainant’s non-waivable right, without prior notice to Respondent, to provide information to the government, participate in investigations, file a complaint, testify in any future proceedings regarding Respondent’s past or future conduct, or engage in any future activities protected under the whistleblower statutes administered by OSHA, or to receive and fully retain a monetary award from a government-administered whistleblower award program for providing information directly to a government agency.”