The Importance of Severance and Release When Terminating Employees

Employers often find it difficult to justify, practically or emotionally, paying severance to an employee being terminated for cause. After all, employers ask, why compensate and reward a worker who broke the rules? It may be easier when the separation is a layoff, yet even under these circumstances, the company’s financial condition may constrain its ability to offer money to a separating employee, getting nothing but goodwill in return.

This Employment Law Bulletin briefly discusses severance and its primary justification: obtaining a release of any future employment law-based claims. We explain why best practices dictate employers set emotions aside in order to secure the protection provided by a release in exchange for a severance payment. We also discuss important issues related to the drafting and implementation of an enforceable severance agreement.

Why Offer Severance

There are sundry reasons an employer may want to offer severance to a separating employee: to reward a worker for years of loyalty; to cushion the blow of an unexpected layoff; to maintain goodwill in the community; or to preserve standing as a competitive, quality employer in the industry.

These are all sound reasons. They explain why employers might consider offering severance in many instances. But the single best reason why employers should offer severance to every terminated employee (i.e., one who is not leaving by her own volition) is the protection that a severance payment, combined with a well-drafted severance agreement, provides against a future claim or lawsuit.

Let’s begin by defining “severance.” In order to support a binding agreement in which the employee waives any claims, the severance must be compensation to which the employee wasn’t already entitled by virtue of her employment. Many employers we work with are surprised to learn that severance does not need to equal several months’ or even several weeks’ pay. This can be a particularly helpful point when considering offering severance to an employee terminated for lying or theft. The investment can be minimal. The peace purchased for merely a few hundred dollars (or less!) is always well worth the investment.

What Severance Buys You

Provided the agreement is properly drafted, signed and otherwise enforceable, the severance payment purchases a promise by the separating employee that she will not bring any claim or lawsuit, in a court or with a government agency, arising out of the employment relationship. Our typical California severance agreement expressly protects against seventeen (17) separate common law causes of action, as well as claims that could potentially be brought under eighteen (18) separate state and federal statutory schemes and regulations.

In fact, the only employment-related claim that cannot be expressly released by way of a severance agreement is one for unpaid wages, which can include reimbursement of expenses, overtime and waiting time penalties. Perhaps most importantly, most reasonably competent lawyers will abandon a claim, regardless of its apparent merits, where a potential client has signed an enforceable severance agreement with the former employer. In this way, for an investment of as little as a few hundred dollars, an employer can avoid incurring attorney’s fees and costs fighting a spurious claim.

The Elements of an Enforceable Severance Agreement

We cannot overstate the importance of having a knowledgeable employment law attorney draft your severance agreement. A severance agreement is a contract. In addition to pitfalls common to every type of contract, there are crucial drafting considerations unique to a severance agreement. This is particularly true if the separating employee is over 40-years-old. An agreement waiving any claims under the Older Workers’ Benefit Protection Act (“OWBPA”) must meet eight (8) statutory requirements, including providing the separating worker a 21-45 day period within which to consider the Agreement before signing it. Even then, the employee has seven (7) days to revoke the agreement. If the employer pays the severance before the expiration of the 7-day period, and the employee revokes the agreement, she may keep the payment and the employer is without recourse to recoup the funds!

In addition to an explicit waiver of any claims that could be brought under federal, state, common law, county, city or local ordinances, a severance agreement can and should provide other protections. Among these, we recommend clauses requiring confidentiality of the severance and prohibiting future disparagement of the employer and its management. It is generally a good idea also to include a clause in which the employee agrees not to apply for employment at any future time; this protects against future claims of discrimination in hiring.

The employee should never be pressured to sign the severance agreement, or to sign it “right away,” as this can provide a duress defense which may undermine the effectiveness of the agreement. It is also a good idea to include a severability clause so that, if an issue arises, a court can later “sever” out any portions of the agreement that are unlawful, rather than rendering the entire agreement unenforceable. A merger clause is also advisable, to prevent a terminated employee from claiming additional terms that are not included on the agreement itself.

Conclusion

California employers should always consider offering a severance when terminating an employee, provided the employee signs a well-drafted severance agreement waiving any claims arising out of the employment relationship. The severance payment need not be sizeable. However, it is crucial that the agreement be drafted properly. Employers with lingering questions should not hesitate to contact their experienced employment law counsel.

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