Let’s be honest: settlement and releases are written by attorneys. When they are presented to you, they come at a time when the opposing party has all the power. You may desire the money that (should!) come with signing the document. You may be stressed and on the brink of exhaustion from all you have been through. But signing the settlement and release can keep you from ever pursuing a claim against the company, or its employees, wanting you to sign it, which means you may never receive the compensation you deserve. This is true whether you knew at the time or in the future that you had a claim against the company or its employees. Put simply, there are no second chances after signing a release. It means that the case is over and you cannot come back later and make additional or even different claims arising out of your employment.
A settlement and release is a written contract. Every company will have some type of special language in their respective documents, but they always have certain language that prevents you from seeking additional compensation even if you later discover you have a claim you didn’t think you had at the time of signing. An example is: “By signing this release, you fully and completely release “X Company”, its subsidiaries, parents, affiliates, successors, and all of their past, present and future officers, directors, employees, agents, owners representatives….I understand and agree that my release includes without limitation any and all claims, damages, lawsuits, injuries, liabilities, and causes of action under any law.”
Most releases usually will then go on to include the types of claims you cannot bring later, including “all claims of discrimination in employment relating to race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender, identity of expression, genetic information, family responsibilities, handicap, disability, political affiliation, family status, source of income, place of residence, equal pay, veteran’s status, and age; all claims of retaliation; and claims arising under the following statutes and/or legal theories: Americans with Disability Act (ADA), Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Rehabilitation Act, COBRA, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), defamation, libel, slander, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, respondeat superior, negligence, and negligent hiring or retention.”
So, essentially everything under the sun!!! Here are some of the reasons why you should speak with an attorney before you even think about signing a release:
The company may be hiding something.
Believe it or not, a company is not always “reorganizing” or “restructuring” when they let go of employees. There may be a hidden agenda behind letting you go. There may be facts surrounding you being let go that you are not aware of – i.e. your age or race is a factor, or you may have taken too many days off after you became ill. Whatever it may be, a company will always resort to general statements for why they are letting you go. This protects them down the road unless you hire an attorney to uncover their missteps. An experienced attorney will go over multiple questions and scenarios with you to determine if, in fact, your company is hiding the true reason for your departure.
You may have a claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
Companies have a lot of wiggle room in hiring and firing employees. However, this does not mean a company can fire you for any reason. Since most releases keep you from ever bringing a claim after you sign them, the release will cover every potential claim you may have. Thus, companies are, again, shielding themselves from ever having to answer to you down the road. They will tell you that you are being let go because of “restructuring” or “reorganizing”, but their agenda may be to get rid of you because to took too many sick days under FMLA or ADA, or because you brought a problem to Human Resources and they reacted by getting rid of YOU and not the problem employee. An experienced attorney will know what questions to ask you in regards to your departure. You should be asked questions about written promises, implied promises, the duty of good faith and fair dealing, retaliation, violations of public policy, harassment, fraud, and whistle-blowing. Since an attorney understands the laws behind employment, you should be assured of any potential claims you may have.
You may have a claim for unpaid wages.
Our clients almost always assume that their employer is paying them the right amount for their work. But not all employers are following federal and state laws when they are writing your paycheck. A release will bar you from making a claim for wages you did not receive. Federal and state laws are in place to assure you that you are getting paid for all the work you perform and for all the time spent working. After speaking with our attorneys, our clients have found that they were not receiving overtime pay in which they were entitled to, or that an employer was purposely misclassifying the type of work they were performing so they did not have to pay the employee as much as they were entitled to. In some instances, the employer did not even understand the wage and hour laws that protect their employees. This is where an experienced employment law attorney can come in to play. Labor laws can be very complex. An attorney should always ask you about your wages, overtime wages, commissions, vacation time, and break time, and even take a look at your W-2s. Many of our clients had no idea whether they qualified for additional pay until we sat down and discussed the details behind their work.
You need to know your rights.
The most important reason for seeking an attorney’s advice before you sign a release is the need to know your rights. There are many complex issues surrounding employment law. Our attorneys will walk you through the laws for free in order to find out whether or not there was more to your firing than “reorganization” or “restructuring.” You need to discuss your circumstances with someone who understands your rights in the work-place. Employers are ALWAYS in the position of power when you are let go. You need an attorney to put yourself in the power seat.
Settlement and release documents are meant to be confusing. They are purposefully presented to you at a time of vulnerability. Contact our Kansas City employment lawyers at Krause and Kinsman at (816) 760-2700 to understand your rights.
Robert Kinsman is a personal injury, mass tort, business litigation, and employment discrimination attorney who practices in Kansas City, Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law and has been practicing law for several years now. Robert Kinsman is passionate about normalizing the life of his clients after they have been seriously injured. Learn more about his experience here.