Michele Aiken September 10th, 2008
Most employers have a standard release and waiver that is usually used in conjunction with severance packages for former employees. The former employee agrees not to bring suit against the employer in exchange for the offered severance package. Most release and waivers use broad, inclusive language (as broad as permitted by various employment laws) to ensure that the employer gains the most protection it can. In general, the release and waiver would include language that releases the employer from any claims for employment and/or re-employment by the employee and discharges the employer from any and all causes of actions arising from the employee’s employment. Within this language, specific causes of action and/or statutes are named as examples, including the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
Generally, severance release and waivers are held to be enforceable, provided they comply with specific provisions required by laws such as the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA). However, with regards to waiving ERISA rights, a couple of recent cases indicate that employers need to evaluate their release and waiver language and procedures to ensure that they are getting the maximum protection against ERISA claims by former employees.
In March 2006, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled on Linder v. BYK-Chemie USA Inc. In this case, an executive executed a release and waiver upon termination of employment. However, after termination, he brought suit against his former employer based on the calculations used in the executive’s supplemental executive retirement plan (SERP). The court ultimately found that, in this specific case, the executive was barred from bringing suit by the executed release. However, in its ruling, the court adopted the position that the release of ERISA/benefit claims should require a greater scrutiny than the release of general claims. Therefore, the totality of the circumstances surrounding the release should be reviewed to ensure that the employee’s waiver of claims was voluntary and knowing.
In September 2007, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota ruled on Groska v. Northern States Power Co. Pension Plan. In this case, two employers merged and employees were offered a choice of either competing for remaining positions or terminating employment with severance benefits. The plaintiff, Groska, opted to terminate employment and accept severance benefits, which required the execution of a release and waiver. Groska subsequently filed suit under ERISA, alleging improper claim denial and breach of fiduciary duty. With regard to the improper claim denial allegation, the court found that Groska had knowingly and voluntarily signed the release and waiver, so it was enforceable and barred the claim for improper denial. However, the court did not dismiss the breach of fiduciary claim as barred by the release and waiver. The court held that because ERISA recognizes the plan as a separate and distinct legal entity from the employer/plan sponsor, the release and waiver in favor of the employer did not automatically release the plan. Therefore, participants were still able to bring a claim against the plan itself under ERISA.
These decisions should prompt employers to review their “standard” release and waiver language and their processes for obtaining the executed release from former employees. Since the waiving of ERISA claims can be seen as needing a greater level of scrutiny than general contract claims, employers should evaluate whether the language currently being used provides the greatest shield possible. Additionally, since an employer’s release and waivers may not extend protection to the ERISA plan, the language should be updated to ensure the plan itself is afforded the greatest degree of protection available through the employer’s release and waiver. Benefits counsel can assist employers in reviewing the existing release and waiver language. Please contact our office with any questions or for additional information on how our attorneys can assist you.