Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Court concludes that “common slang” does not violate non-disparagement clause in severance agreement

I’ve seldom, if ever, negotiated a separation or settled an employment dispute for an employer without insisting that a non-disparagement clause be part of the signed agreement. The reasoning is simple—it’s not in a company’s best interest to have an ex-employee running around bad-mouthing it or trashing its reputation. The reality, however, is that a clause in a contract is only as good as one’s ability to enforce it when breached. In Ohio Education Assn. v. Lopez (10/19/2010) [pdf], one Ohio appellate court has removed a good deal of the bite from this class of clauses in separation and settlement agreements.

The facts of Lopez are straight-forward. In connection with the resignation of its assistant executive director and general counsel, the Ohio Education Association presented Lopez with a severance agreement. The agreement contained the following non-disparagement language, which is similar to that which you will find in most such agreements:

Employee further agrees not to at any time disparage, defame, or otherwise derogate Employer’s Officers, Executive, Committee Members, employees or agents.

OEA sued Lopez for an alleged breach of that clause by leaving the following voicemail for its outside counsel:

Davey, you never call me anymore. This is el jeffe. Call me sometime. I’m all settled with the OEA so you don’t have to worry about this gag order and all this s___ that slimebag Reardon said to you. So call me…. Bye.

The court of appeals concluded that while the voicemail did breach the non-disparagement clause, the breach was immaterial and therefore not actionable:

Here, the purpose of the separation agreement was to end the employment relationship and resolve all disputes. The nondisparagement provision was a negotiated term of the agreement. The provision OEA alleged Lopez breached uses the terms “disparage, defame, or otherwise derogate.” All of these terms connote harming a person’s reputation or causing one to seem inferior. The term “slimebag” is a common slang expression meaning “[a] despicable person, usually a male.” McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions (4th ed.2006), 323…. This kind of trifling figure of speech is of so little consequence it cannot be said to be material and should be disregarded…. [T]he slang expression is such a part of modern casual speech as to be almost meaningless. OEA could not demonstrate that the message caused any damage to OEA or Reardon.

Because this case requires a showing of actual harm to prove a material breach of a non-disparagement clause, it will make it that much more difficult to enforce these provisions. Nevertheless, they remain an important part of any severance or settlement agreement because: 1) they establish the expectation that ex-employees are to act professionally and business-like when talking about your organization, and 2) protect your business from the malicious speech intended to cause real harm.

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