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Employment Claims The Employment Contract

Employment Termination Agreements-the 1 Big Decision for the Employee

employment termination agreement

Employment termination agreement, severance agreement, compromise agreement, waiver agreement, settlement agreement.

It has many names but it amounts to the same thing.

The employment is being terminated and the employee is being asked to sign some type of agreement and enter into another contract with the employer.

I see a lot of these agreements on a frequent basis in my office, especially now with the Covid 19 pandemic and the move by employers to carry out redundancies and cut costs.

What is involved in this type of agreement?

What is the big decision the employee has to make?

These are the questions I will address in this piece. Let’s take a look, shall we.

What’s in the agreement?

The agreement itself will almost certainly be a standard agreement which will be adapted for the particular employee and the package being offered; but the same types of matters are dealt with in all these sorts of agreements.

The following will be included:

  • The parties
  • Definitions of words and phrases in the agreement
  • Termination of the employment
  • The termination payment, and other payments
  • The tax treatment
  • Legal advice-provision for the employee to get legal advice regarding the agreement, and provision for payment by the employer of the legal costs of obtaining the advice
  • Pension (if any)
  • Health insurance (if any)
  • Outplacement services (if any)
  • Return of company property
  • Release and settlement of any issues or claims arising from the employment
  • Confidentiality
  • Secrecy
  • Non disparagement by the parties
  • Reference or statement of employment
  • Binding agreement
  • Applicable law-Irish law

The proposed settlement/severance agreement will me marked “without prejudice/subject to contract” until executed and witnessed by both parties.

The big question

So, now that you know what is usually contained in these agreements what is the big decision for the employee, particularly in a redundancy situation?

Let’s take a look at a redundancy, although the same type of logic and decision making will need to be applied in other termination circumstances.

The employee is going to be offered a payment by the employer, in return for which the employee is going to sign this agreement and waive all her rights to bring any claim arising from the employment.

The agreement will make provision for the payment of a statutory redundancy payment, to which you are legally entitled, and the payment of an “ex gratia” payment, which is at the discretion of the employer.

The employee may believe, for example, that a) it is not a genuine redundancy or b) she is being unfairly selected. If that is the case and she wishes to pursue the matter at the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission) she will be bringing a case for unfair dismissal. If she wishes to do so, however, she will be refusing to sign the agreement and passing up any “ex gratia” payment proposed by the employer.

If the employee signs, she gets both payments. If she refuses to sign she is still made redundant but only gets the statutory redundancy payment.

This decision needs to be considered carefully.

Yes, he might win at the WRC, but if he does will he win more than he has foregone by refusing to sign the agreement? Is he prepared to wait the 6 months for a hearing, and then pay for the legal costs of representation?

If it is an unfair dismissal claim the employee may win reinstatement or reengagement, but this is unlikely and the relationship between the employer and employee may be strained or broken.

On the other hand if the employee was to win a claim for discrimination he could be awarded up to two years’ salary. So, each case must be looked at on its particular facts and circumstances.

These are the factors the employee must consider when making the big decision to sign or refuse to sign the agreement.

But the bottom line is simple.

On the one hand the employee is being offered a payment to leave the employment quietly and with no fuss; in return he is giving up his rights to bring any claims in the future arising from the employment.

Conclusion

The employee needs to get legal, and probably taxation, advice about any termination agreement he is being asked to sign. Because once she signs the agreement it is probably going to be effective in doing its job to prevent the employee from bringing any further claims against the employer.

There is a straightforward cost/benefit, risk/reward analysis to be done by the employee when it comes to sign or not sign such an agreement.

Want to roll the dice and put all your chips on red/black? This is the stark decision you face. Weigh it up carefully. If you do sign it will probably bind y0u.

Here is a recent example of one such case where the employee signed an agreement but later claimed it was only signed under duress. The WRC did not accept this and held the agreement was effective and binding on the parties.

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Employment Claims

Employment termination agreements-how effective are they?

Employment termination agreement

The use of a settlement or compromise agreement in the termination of an employee’s employment is something I deal with frequently.

There is a wide range of reasons why the employment is being ceased, ranging from redundancy to difficulties in the employment relationship to allegations of misconduct to allegations of bullying, discrimination, harassment, and so on.

Often the parties will look at the advantages and disadvantages of getting into a full blown dispute, either in Court or at the WRC or Labour Court, and decide that a “negotiated exit” from the employment might be the best option for both employer and employee. This way means that matters are settled confidentially and both parties avoid the prospect of a costly legal battle that could go either way. The employer may also avoid the cost of an investigation and disciplinary hearing in the workplace, something that can be disruptive, divisive, and expensive.

The employee might also, as part of the settlement deal, negotiate a satisfactory reference or, at a minimum, a neutral “statement of employment” which will not adversely affect their future career prospects.

All correspondence up to the signing of such agreements will be on a “without prejudice” basis, just in case the negotiations break down. If the talks do fail then none of the preceding correspondence can be used in evidence later at a hearing between the parties.

The central purpose of such agreements can be boiled down to an essence whereby the employer pays a termination payment to the employee in return for the employee signing an agreement in which she will waive all her rights to bring any further claims against the employer arising from the employment. Both sides avoid a messy conflict with an uncertain outcome and move on with their lives.

Both sides have certainty and in business or life or in one’s career there is a lot to be said for this.

How effective are settlement agreements?

How effective are these agreements? Can the employee come back for another bite of the cherry?

All these agreements will contain a clause confirming the employee has obtained independent legal advice about the agreement or will sign the agreement waiving their right to obtain such advice.

That does not mean that an employee will not later attempt to bring a claim against the employer, notwithstanding the signed agreement. Generally, but not always, such agreements are effective and do what the employer wants them to do: prevent any future claims.

In a WRC case (ADJ-00020068) from January 2020 an employee attempted to have another nibble in circumstances where he had signed a settlement agreement. The employee argued that he did not have knowledge of the Irish legal system and attempted to have the agreement set aside.

The agreement contained the usual clause to the effect that it was an agreement “in full and final settlement, satisfaction, release and discharge of any and all claims … arising out of the employee’s employment or termination of his employment”

The adjudicator declined to hear the case as a consequence.

In like fashion the Labour Court had a similar case in Higgins v Dept. of Foreign Affairs, UDD 1969. The employee had signed a settlement agreement releasing the employer from all liability, damages or causes of action, whether known or unknown, relating to [her] employment … or the termination of that employment, or any other acts or events.

The employee had obtained professional legal advice and the Labour Court held the agreement was effective and dismissed the case.

Effective settlement agreements

An effective settlement agreement will almost certainly be one in which the employee confirms she has had legal advice and there will be confirmation from a solicitor that he has advised the employee regarding the agreement.

It may be sufficient that the employee waives his right to get independent legal advice but I, if I was advising the employer, would warn the employer about the dangers of accepting this and would advise against it.

Moreover, I have seen cases where the advice of an experienced trade union advisor has been held to be effective and binding, notwithstanding the absence of legal training or qualification.

You need to be careful, too, that all of the acts and potential claims that are being waived should be listed in the agreement, with no omissions. For example, if the agreement only refers to claims arising from statute but does not make reference to common law or tort or contract may leave the employer  susceptible to attack on an unanticipated front.