Workplace Q & A: Part 4

Q: Now that I’ve signed a release, can I still sue?

“When I was terminated from my prior job, I signed a release in return for three months of severance pay. Upon reflection, I believe I was wrongfully terminated because of my race. Can I now sue?”

A: Probably not.

A release is a binding contract. In all likelihood, the release contained a provision in which you gave up all your rights to sue your former employer for anything that took place before you signed.

There are two exceptions. First, you were forced to sign the contract under duress. And second, you signed under false pretenses. Let’s say your company gave you the release right when you were informed of your termination, and told you that you’d lose your severance pay if you didn’t sign it immediately, before you had a chance to see a lawyer. That would count as signing under duress. Or let’s say that the company gave you the release and told you “It’s just routine paperwork. It doesn’t have any significance.” That would be signing under false pretenses.

Keep in mind that if the company defamed you or took some other illegal action after you signed the release, you can sue for these actions.

In addition, signing a release doesn’t prohibit you from serving as a witness in a lawsuit that someone else brought against the company. Nor does signing a release prevent you from complaining to a government agency about the company’s illegal behavior. For example, you could complain to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) that your company routinely hired African Americans and then fired them after six months. What you can’t do is collect personal damages for such a practice.

Q: Can I be fired for not reporting a co-worker’s misconduct?

“A few months ago, one of my co-workers confessed to me that he was cheating on his time cards. He said that he was regularly claiming overtime hours that he never put in. I told him that it was a big mistake and that he could get caught. I never helped him cheat and I never did it myself. Still, I decided not to report him.  Last week, he was caught. When the company confronted him, he said that I knew all about it. The company then informed me that I was just as guilty as he was, and I was fired. Can the company do this?”

A: Probably yes.

A company is allowed to require employees to report serious wrongdoing. Of course, employees rarely rat on other employees. So, while your company could have such a rule, it’s quite likely that the rule was not uniformly enforced. What’s more, your punishment seems especially harsh, since you didn’t help or encourage your co-worker to misreport his hours. Your company may very well have wanted to see you gone and your breaking the rule presented an opportunity to make it happen.

If you think you were treated more severely than others in your situation because of your race, sex or age, then you would have a legal basis to complain. The problem is finding out who else knew of wrongdoing and failed to report it, and what punishment they received.


Q: If I don’t want a free gym membership, don’t I deserve a benefit of comparable value?

“My company provides a free gym membership to any employee who wants to take advantage of this benefit. A membership is worth about $500 in annual dues. The company doesn’t provide any comparable benefits to employees who are uninterested in joining. Don’t I deserve $500 in cash or some other comparable benefit?”

A: No.

Your company has decided that it is in its interest to have employees get in shape. The company does not require employees to sign up, but the offer of free membership certainly encourages it. Your company has no obligation to offer you another benefit of equal value if you don’t want to take advantage of the free gym membership.

Copyright © 2013 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.


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One response to “Workplace Q & A: Part 4”

  1. jeffEconomist says :

    Interesting that this blog post was picked up by @tokimago in Japan:!society

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