>Plaintiff John Wastak waived his right to pursue any employer lawsuits when he accepted a severance package from his former employer and signed the release, the 3 rd US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, according to The Legal Intelligencer.
The appeals judges turned away an argument from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that the waiver’s clause prohibiting the worker from filing a complaint with the federal anti-discrimination agency should cause the entire release agreement to be thrown out. Agency lawyers advanced the argument in a friend-of-the-court brief. The right to file an EEOC complaint is protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and cannot be waived, the agency lawyers pointed out.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge
panel, Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell found that while
the ADEA clearly prohibits employers from enforcing such
charge-filing bans, “there is no indication that the mere
presence of that contractual language would void an
otherwise knowing and voluntary waiver.”
According to court papers, Wastak was
hired in 1990 by Lehigh Valley Health Network as the
administrator for its department of psychiatry. Wastak
held the position for eight years and says he thought
Lehigh Valley was satisfied with his performance and that
his employment was secure.
But in 1997, when Wastak began negotiations to lease office space for the department, he claims that the department chair told him to cease the discussions and later instructed another worker to take on the task. In March 1998, Wastak was fired at the age of 57 and was told his termination was the result of his conducting inappropriate lease negotiations, according to the suit.
Wastak says he was given a proposed “separation agreement and release” along with a letter explaining and supplementing its provisions. In exchange for his signing the release, Lehigh Valley offered Wastak “income protection” for 36 weeks, meaning that Wastak was guaranteed pay equal to his Lehigh Valley salary whether or not he got a job during that time.
Wastak was given 21 days to sign the
agreement, and Lehigh Valley advised him to consult an
attorney before doing so. But Wastak claims his
attempts to secure counsel were unsuccessful, and that
none of the three lawyers he contacted could or would
represent him. Nonetheless, he signed the release.
On the day of his termination, the suit says, Lehigh Valley told Wastak that it intended to hire a replacement for him. Nine months later, in December 1998, Wastak says he learned that Lehigh Valley had replaced him with a 44-year-old woman.
It was only then, Wastak says, that he
suspected that he was fired as a result of age
discrimination. In July 1999 – 495 days after his
termination – Wastak filed a discrimination charge with the
EEOC. But, since the law requires all charges to be filed
within 300 days, the EEOC later dismissed the charge as
Wastak filed suit in the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas claiming age discrimination under the ADEA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Lehigh Valley successfully got the the suit moved to federal court and asked for a dismissal on the basis of Wastak’s waiver of his right to sue in the release. In March 2002, US District Judge Herbert Hutton granted Lehigh Valley’s motion, rejecting Wastak’s claims that the waiver was void under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), or that the agreement was otherwise invalid because he did not enter into it knowingly and voluntarily. The 3rd Circuit upheld Hutton’s ruling.
The EEOC Position
EEOC attorney Benjamin Gutman argued that the court should invalidate the entire release because “a charge-filing ban like the one in Wastak’s waiver will deter many employees from exercising their right to file age discrimination charges even if the ban is never enforced. This chilling effect would hamper the EEOC’s enforcement efforts as employees refrained from coming forward with information about discriminatory conduct in the workplace.”
Rendell disagreed, saying “any
attempt” by an employer to enforce such a provision would
merely be “ineffectual” due to the strict limits Congress
set on waivers of rights by older workers in the
Rendell found that OWBPA, which amended the ADEA, “essentially states that, whatever its provisions, a privately executed waiver agreement cannot alter or obstruct the EEOC’s ability to exercise its rights and responsibilities, and that an employer may not invoke a waiver in an attempt to impede an employee’s participation in EEOC procedures.
The case is In Wastak v. Lehigh Valley Health Network .
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