Severance Agreements In California - Items To Consider

What does the agreement have to be titled?

I was recently asked if the severance agreement needs to have a specific title in order to be valid. The title does not have to contain specific words, and are usually titled "general release" or "severance agreement." The title, unless it is clearly erroneous or confusing, does not change the type of agreement or the rights the parties are agreement to release. The key here is what the parties are actually releasing in the terms of the document. 

What claims can the parties agree to release?

Release of Unknown Claims

The idea of the severance agreement is to buy some certainty that there will be no litigation following the employee’s separation from the company. The employee (and employer for that matter) can waive all known claims. However, in California, for any party to release unknown claims, the agreement needs to be clear and advise the party that they are releasing unknown claims. Ideally, the agreement should set forth section 1542 of the Civil Code, which states:

A general release does not extend to claims which the creditor does not know or suspect to exist in his or her favor at the time of executing the release, which if known by him or her must have materially affected his or her settlement with the debtor.

Release of Age Claims For Older Workers (over 40 years old)

The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990 (OWBPA) provides workers over 40 years old with additional rights. The OWBPA places additional requirements on employers asking “old” employees to waive their potential claims the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Here is a summary of the requirements employers need to meet:

  • The agreement must be written in a manner that the employee can understand.
  • The waiver specifically refers to the employee’s claims or rights under the ADEA.
  • The employee cannot waive claims that have not yet arisen
  • There must be consideration (the employer must give value to the employee which was not already owed to the employee - this has to be present in every severance agreement, not just those releasing age claims)
  • The employee is advised to consult with an attorney
  • The employee is given at least 21 days to consider the agreement (the employer may have to offer up to 45 days – the employer should check with counsel to see if this is necessary); and
  • The agreement may be revoked up to 7 days after it is executed.

Other Provisions To Consider For Severance Agreements

An employer should also consider if the agreement needs to address other issues, such as:

  • Is the release mutual (i.e., the employer and employee are both releasing all claims against each other)?
  • Should there be a non-competition/trade secrets provision?
  • Is the agreement confidential? If so, is there a liquidated damages provision where the parties agree to a certain monetary amount the breaching party will pay?
  • Will the employer provide a reference statement? If so, the language of the statement should be set forth in the agreement.
  • Should there be an arbitration provision to deal with any issues that arise from the severance agreement?
  • Should the employer include a choice of law clause in the agreement that determines which state law will be controlling in the case of a dispute?


 

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Court Holds Employer's Settlement Agreement With Individual Class Members Is Valid

In Chindarah v. Pick Up Stix, Inc. (February 26, 2009) the court of appeal held that employers may enter into settlement agreements with current and former employees over disputed wage claims. At issue in the case was whether the employer’s settlement and release agreements entered into with individual employees settling disputed overtime wages were valid and enforceable under California law. Thankfully for the thousands of employers in California who have entered into settlement agreements regarding wage and hour claims, the appellate court held the agreements are enforceable.

Two former employees of Pick Up Stix sued for claims for unpaid overtime, penalties and interest due to the misclassification of their jobs as exempt from overtime pay. The employer participated in a mediation, but to no success. Stix then decided to approach the putative class members on its own in an attempt to settlement with them individually. Stix offered the putative class members an amount that the employees would have received under the amount offered by Stix during the mediation. More than two hundred current and former employees accepted the settlement amount and signed a general release. The release acknowledged that the employees had spent more than 50% of their time performing managerial duties and agreed “not to participate in any class action that may include …any of the released Claims….” The release also provided:

In exchange for the release from Employee set forth below, the Company will pay Employee by check the gross amount of [varied amounts] less payroll deductions, in full and complete satisfaction of all issues and claims by Employee for unpaid overtime, penalties, interest and other Labor Code violations for the time period of February 28, 1999 through September 2003.

Plaintiffs challenged the settlement agreements arguing that the agreements were void under Labor Code sections 206 and 206.5.

Labor Code section 206.5 provides:

An employer shall not require the execution of a release of a claim or right on account of wages due, or to become due, or made as an advance on wages to be earned, unless payment of those wages has been made. A release required or executed in violation of the provisions of this section shall be null and void as between the employer and the employee. Violation of the provisions of this section by the employer is be a misdemeanor.

In regards to the waivability of overtime rights, Labor Code section 1194, subdivision (a) provides:

Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action the unpaid balance of the full amount of this minimum wage or overtime compensation, including interest thereon, reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.

Plaintiffs argued that the release in this case was void as a matter of law to the extent it releases claims for any wages actually due and unpaid and because it constitutes an agreement to work for less than the overtime compensation actually due and unpaid. The court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument:

The Plaintiffs claim “wages actually due and unpaid” means wages that are disputed, if they are ultimately found to be owing. In other words, the Plaintiffs claim any settlement of a dispute over overtime compensation runs afoul of sections 206.5 and 1194.

The court also noted various federal court cases that have also reached the same conclusion. In Reynov v. ADP Claims Services Group, Inc. (N.D. Cal., Apr.30, 2007), after plaintiff quit his job, he signed an agreement releasing the employer “from ‘all claims, actions, and causes of action, of every kind, nature, and description, which exist as of the date you sign the Letter Agreement, arising out of or related to your employment.’” As consideration for the release, the plaintiff received “substantial compensation to which he was not otherwise entitled, including a severance payment in excess of $29,000.” The plaintiff argued the release was unenforceable under section 206.5. Relying on other state court cases, the Reynov court found that section 206.5 prohibited a release of wages due unless paid in full, and “wages are not due if there is a good faith dispute as to whether they are owed. Because [the employer’s] defense that [the plaintiff] was an exempt employee under California law would, if successful, preclude any recovery for [the plaintiff], a bona fide dispute exists and the overtime pay cannot be considered ‘concededly due.’” (citations omitted)

The court also rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that the newly decided case of Edwards v. Arthur Andersen (2008) supports their position. The Plaintiffs contended that because the Supreme Court found in Edwards that an employee’s statutorily unwaivable indemnity rights under Labor Code section 2802 could not be waived as part of a general release, a dispute over past overtime wages cannot be settled. The court recognized that an employee cannot waive his or her right to overtime pay under Labor Code section 1194 (as well as other statutorily provided rights), but the court also reasoned that there was not statute prohibiting employees from releasing their claims to past overtime as settlement “of a bona fide dispute over those wages.”

In conclusion, the court reasoned the public policy underlying section 1194 to protect worker from employer coercion to forgo overtime is not violated by its holding. The releases here were to settle disputes about whether the employees were properly paid in the past and the agreements did not bar employees from suing over future violations.

The opinion can be downloaded from the court's website here in Word or PDF.
 

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What Is The Appropriate Amount For Severance?

While severance is not required under the law, many employers who are terminating or laying employees off voluntarily offer severance to employees. Usually, the severance is tied to a release of claims that the employee may have against the employer.

I am often asked about the amounts appropriate amounts of severance. The Connecticut Employment Law Blog recently quoted a study about the average weeks of severance for every year of employment offered to employees:

Voluntarily Separated:

  • Top Executives - 2.76 weeks
  • Senior Executives - 2.23 weeks
  • Department Heads/Managers - 1.55 weeks
  • Professional/Technical - 1.39 weeks
  • All other employees - 1.23 weeks

Involuntarily Separated:

  • Top Executives - 3.04 weeks
  • Senior Executives - 2.49 weeks
  • Department Heads/Managers - 1.78 weeks
  • Professional/Technical - 1.60 weeks
  • All other employees - 1.44 weeks

Also, employers in California usually ask the employee for a release of any known and unknown claims the employee may have against the employer. Under California Civil Code section 1542, an employee must specifically waive their right under section 1542 in order to be a valid release of unknown claims.  The agreement itself must recite Civil Code section 1542 and that the employee is waiving their right under this section.  It is also important that the document clearly specify the extent of the release.  For example, does it apply to the employment relationship or to specific claims the employee has asserted against the employer?
 

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