Just Because You Sign a Severance Agreement Does NOT Mean You Can't Sue...Sometimes
A recent case out of New York, Johnson vs. Lebanese American University, et al., 2011 NY Slip Op 03658, highlights the fact that not all severance agreements and releases necessarily bar future discrimination claims by the employee who signs the release. In the above-referenced case the plaintiff signed a three-paragraph release that read: "I, the undersigned Robert Johnson do hereby declare that I have received from the Lebanese American University the sum of $4,651.94 as an ex-gratia payment in full settlement of any and all claims and entitlements related to my services of whatsoever nature with the above mentioned University up to June 10, 2008. "I therefore hereby remise, release and completely discharge the Lebanese American University and all its responsible officers of and from all actions or rights that I may ever have against the University in respect of my above mentioned service. "In witness whereof I have signed this full, final and irrevocable Release and Discharge this day of 6/30/08." Sometime after signing this release the plaintiff then filed a discrimination complaint under New York law and the employer sought to have them dismissed per the terms of the release, which the lower court did. However, the New York appellate court found that the release did not bar the plaintiff's claims due to the language in the very short release and the facts surrounding its signing. The plaintiff provided an affidavit claiming he thought that by signing the release he was waiving any claims regarding wages and not discrimination. Ultimately, applying general contract principles, the court viewed the language in favor of the plaintiff and held that the lower court erred in dismissing his discrimination claim. The EEOC has a wonderful guide on severance agreements and waiving discrimination claims.