If you use standard separation agreements to secure a release and waiver of claims from employees who are laid off, fired, or who otherwise threaten a claim, you might want to review your agreement. In a lawsuit filed recently in Illinois federal court, the EEOC alleges that a company with national operations interfered with its employees’ right to file charges with the EEOC and state fair employment practices agencies by conditioning the employees’ receipt of severance pay on signing an overly broad separation agreement.
According to the EEOC, five separate paragraphs (which are commonly found in separation agreements) are improper:
- Cooperation: Employee agrees to promptly notify the Company’s General Counsel by telephone and in writing if the employee receives a subpoena, deposition notice, interview request or other process relating to any civil, criminal or administrative investigation or suit.
- Non-Disparagement: Employee will not make any statements that disparage the business or reputation of the company or any of its officers or employees.
- Non-Disclosure of Confidential Information: Employee agrees not to disclose to any third party or use for him/herself or anyone else Confidential Information without the prior written authorization of the company.
- General Release of Claims: Employee releases company for any and all causes of action, lawsuits, charges or claims, including any claim of unlawful discrimination, that the employee may have prior to the date of the agreement.
- No Pending Actions; Covenant Not to Sue: Employee represents that he/she has not filed or initiated any complaints prior to signing the agreement and agrees not to initiate or file any actions, lawsuits or charges asserting any of the released claims.
Disclaimer Allowing Workers to Bring Claims to the EEOC Not Enough
Recognizing that employers may not prevent workers from filing charges with the EEOC or participating in EEOC or state agency investigations, the paragraph containing the covenant not to sue contained a sentence stating “[n]othing in this paragraph is intended to or shall interfere with Employee’s right to participate in a proceeding with any appropriate federal, state or local government agency enforcing discrimination laws, nor shall this Agreement prohibit Employee from cooperating with any such agency in its investigation.” In its complaint, the EEOC says this disclaimer is insufficient as it is contained in only one of the paragraphs that contain limits on the employees’ rights.
What does this mean for employers?
It’s important to remember that the Court has not agreed with the EEOC’s allegations—and, in fact, it might reject them outright. Regardless, the risk of such actions is enough to justify a closer look at your standard separation or release agreement. Even an agreement that has been repeatedly reviewed and revised can likely be improved for clarity. Make sure the agreement is understandable, does not contain excessive “legalese,” and it should not contain provisions that interfere with an employee’s right to file a charge with the EEOC or state agency.