North Carolina-based national book distributor Baker & Taylor faces challenges to language in the release it includes in all its severance packages. The EEOC claims the release violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by forcing employees to sign “broad, misleading and unenforceable” agreements to receive severance pay.
In particular, the EEOC cites a clause barring employees from filing “any complaint, proceeding, grievance, or action of any kind” against the company. Courts have consistently held that employees cannot waive their rights to file EEOC claims.
The EEOC also has issues with the clause stating that employees may not “make any disparaging remarks” about the company or theirthat could “damage the reputation and goodwill” of the company or otherwise “reflect negatively” on it. However, the clause does specifically state that employees may truthfully respond to subpoenas and government investigations without running afoul of the agreement.
The EEOC claims the language reflects “resistance to the full enjoyment of rights secured by Title VII” and interferes with employee rights to participate in EEOC investigations.
Note: Courts have not always sided with the EEOC when it takes these positions. However, you should make sure any prohibitions in your severance releases aren’t overly broad.
In addition, restricting employees’ ability to speak about working conditions may violate the National Labor Relations Act.
In light of the aggressive stances taken by both the EEOC and National Labor Relations Board, you should review your release language with your attorney to ensure it complies with current legal interpretations.