EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2013-2016 Targets Severance Agreements That Prohibit Employees From Exercising Rights

Douglas J. Carroll, Jr. Employee Rights, Employee Rights News, severance agreements

Wisconsin employment law attorneys who focus on employee rights are often called upon to review severance or separation agreements proposed by employers.  At the time of termination, some employers offer severance or separation agreements to employees which provide typically rather modest monetary benefits in exchange for the employee’s release of potential claims against the employer and other terms usually including confidentiality and non-disparagement.

As a Wisconsin employment lawyer serving employees, professionals and executives in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Mequon, Brookfield, and throughout the entire State of Wisconsin, I am often retained to review severance agreements.  For more information on severance agreement review please click here. It is also not uncommon for potential clients who have already signed severance agreements to contact my firm.  I have heard many horror stories about aggressive tactics used by employers to coerce employees into signing a severance or separation agreement at the moment they are fired.  No matter how strong the case may be that the severance agreement is unenforceable and no matter how strong the underlying legal claims may be, the bottom line is that getting out from under the agreement adds a significant level of complexity, burden and risk to the case.  Typically, this translates to a more significant monetary investment in the case by the potential client which can discourage potential clients from moving forward with legal representation.

However, there seems to be a new avenue of recourse for employees who regret signing severance agreements. The EEOC, the federal agency charged with enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws and promoter of equal employment opportunities has identified preserving access to the legal system as one of its priorities in it’s 2013-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan.  The SEP indicates that the EEOC will seek to preserve employee’s access to the legal system by targeting policies and practices that discourage or prohibit individuals from exercising their rights under employment discrimination statutes, or which impede the EEOC’s investigative or enforcement efforts.  One of the EEOC’s focuses has been challenging overly broad waivers and provisions which prohibit or discourage employees from filing or participating in EEOC charges and investigations.  This includes challenging severance and separation agreements.  Indeed, it seems the EEOC’s position is that many terms that are common in severance agreements such as general releases of claims,  confidentiality provisions, covenants not to sue, cooperation clauses, non-disparagement provisions and non-disclosure provisions improperly limit access to the legal system.

Hopefully, the EEOC’s  2013-2016 SEP will encourage employers to revise overly restrictive template agreements and develop strong legal precedent concerning validity of severance agreements. However, it is still and always will be best practice to contact a Milwaukee Employment Attorney if you are presented with a severance package at the time of your termination for a complete evaluation of your potential claims and a review of the proposed agreement.  If you have already signed a severance or separation agreement and wish to challenge its validity, contact a Wisconsin Employment Lawyer or the EEOC for advice.