Tuesday, December 9, 2014

EEOC 0-2 on severance-agreement lawsuits … but does it matter?

Recall that in October, a Chicago federal court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the EEOC against CVS, claiming that the pharmacy retailer’s severance agreements violated Title VII by employing allegedly retaliatory language. That court, however, failed to reach the merits of the case, instead dismissing the EEOC’s claims on procedural grounds (the agency’s failure to engage in pre-suit conciliation), thereby depriving employers guidance on whether certain garden-variety provisions in employment agreements violate Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions. I held out hope that the practical guidance employers seek on this issue would come from a similar lawsuit pending in Colorado.

Last week, a Denver federal court dismissed that other EEOC severance-agreement-as-retaliation lawsuit. Like the earlier CVS dismissal, however, the dismissal in EEOC v. CollegeAmerica Denver was on procedural grounds, and offers little practical import for employers moving forward on this important issue.

Perhaps if there is any solace for employers looking to sue separation agreements to halt future litigation, and not to buy a future lawsuit by the EEOC, employers can look to footnote 3 in the EEOC v. CVS decision:

The “covenant not to sue” provision prohibits an employee from “initat[ing] or fil[ing] … a complaint or proceeding asserting any of the Released Claims.” The general release of claims is set out in ¶ 7 of the Agreement, but that section also includes the caveat that the release does not limit “any rights that the Employee cannot lawfully waive.” However, there is a specific carve out for an employee’s “right to participate in a proceeding with any appropriate federal, state or local government agency enforcing discrimination laws”; and further provides, “nor shall this Agreement prohibit [the employee] from cooperating with any such agency in its investigation.” … The verb participate is defined as “to be involved with others in doing something” and “to take part in an activity … with others.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/participate. It is not reasonable to construe “the right to participate in a proceeding with any appropriate federal … agency,” to exclude the right of the employee from filing an EEOC charge. And, even if the Separation Agreement explicitly banned filing charges, those provisions would be unenforceable and could not constitute resistance to the Act.

In other words, the CVS court, albeit in dicta, believes that the EEOC is chasing an unsupportable claim by arguing that covenants not to file charges violate Title VII’s prohibitions on retaliation.

Employers, however, should not lull themselves into a false sense of security. Neither employer won either of these cases on the merits. For whatever reason, this issue is on the agency’s radar, and it will likely seek another case to prove its point regarding these agreements.

For now, the prudent course of action is to make sure that your agreements clearly and unambiguously, in a provision separate and distinct from the release, waiver, and covenant not to sue, state that employees retain their federally protected rights. I am using something like the following:

Nothing in this Agreement is intended to, or shall, interfere with Employee’s rights under federal, state, or local civil rights or employment discrimination laws to file or otherwise institute a charge of discrimination, to participate in a proceeding with any appropriate federal, state, or local government agency enforcing discrimination laws, or to cooperate with any such agency in its investigation, none of which shall constitute a breach of any of the provisions of this Agreement. Employee shall not, however, be entitled to any relief, recovery, or monies in connection with any such brought against any of the Released Parties, regardless of who filed or initiated any such complaint, charge, or proceeding.