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HR Solutions

  

Employee waives harassment claim

under broad waiver with no specifics

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7th Circuit nixes Title VII suit

by former Ford worker

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“…[She] … took paralegal classes

that included, ironically, contracts….”

            As comprehensive as releases in separation agreements tend to be, a practice nurtured both by the profound legalism of human resources management in general, and the statutory command in particular that releases be explicit under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, it comes as a welcome surprise when an employer shifts to a more minimal release and a court binds the employee to it.

            In Hampton v, Ford Motor, 561 F3rd 709 (7th Cir. April 6, 2009), the plaintiff Hampton had filed a charge of sexual harassment with the EEOC in 2005 while working on the chassis line.  Ford internally had found no harassment.   In the following year Ford administered a reduction in force, offering any applicant for what was termed the STEP program $100,000 in exchange for a release, and the option to rescind the deal before the end of the year.

            “In consideration of the benefits to be provided…” the application for the benefits program provided in part, “I waive and release any and all rights or claims I may have against the Ford Motor Company…and agree not to institute any proceedings of any kind…relating in any way to my employment…”    Hampton signed up for the program, then in December 2006, upon receiving her right-to-sue letter, sued Ford in federal court.  The trial judge granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment, persuaded that the release was good.

            The court of appeals agreed.  The words “any and all rights or claims” were clear and explicit, and Hampton was well aware of her potential claims when she signed the release.  It was entered into knowingly because:  Hampton was literate, had graduated from high school and taken some college courses, including paralegal courses “that included, ironically, contracts.”  The agreement was clear and ambiguous, and she had the right to consult with a lawyer, and she signed the contract in front of a UAW representative.

            Would there have been a different result if Hampton had not attended high school and picked up some college classes, but instead was only semi-literate?   Or who was not a native English speaker and was presented only an English version of the buy-out program application, with no option to receive a bilingual version of the paperwork or access to an interpreter? 

Possibly, which means that Ford could theoretically have to pay closer attention to charge filers who also signed up for the buy-out.  Their backgrounds would make them less likely to be deemed by the courts to be “voluntary” waivers of claims.  

 

5/28/09