Woman Signs Away Harassments Suit Rights

February 22, 2002 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal appeals court has ruled that an employee who voluntarily agreed to give up her right to sue under federal anti-discrimination laws can't go ahead and sue anyway.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruling upheld a lower court decision that Courtney Melanson had given up the legal option to sue former employer Browning-Ferris Industries for sexual harassment, according to a BNA report.

A legal claims release that Melanson signed in 1999 when Browning-Ferris laid her off precluded filing the lawsuit she filed in 2000, the lower court and appeals judges decided. Melanson’s suit claimed she was sexually harassed by her supervisor.

Knowing, Voluntary

In its Melanson ruling, the appeals court said agreements not to sue like the one Melanson signed have to be “knowing and voluntary” to the employee before courts should enforce them.

To decide whether it is “knowing and voluntary,” the appeals judges said courts should consider:

  • the employee’s education and business experience,
  • the respective roles of the employer and the employee in deciding the extent of the agreement,
  • the agreement’s clarity,
  • the amount of time available for the employee to study the agreement, and
  • whether the employee had a lawyer available for consultation

Plaintiff: Agreement Not Voluntary

In her appeal of the lower court ruling, Melanson claimed she wasn’t able to make a truly voluntary decision about her legal rights and whether to sign away her lawsuit rights. The reasons she gave were that she was:

  • was under financial stress,
  • was a single mother with a limited education,
  • never got advice from an independent lawyer,
  • didn’t have enough business know-how to negotiate such an agreement,
  • found the agreement presented to her unclear, and
  • had a history of depression and bulimia 

Infirmities Not Enough

But the appeals judges didn’t buy Melanson’s argument.

As far as understanding the legal document, the court pointed out that she had graduated from high school and was enrolled in college courses. The document’s language was “well within a lay person’s comprehension,” the court ruled.

Finally, the judges said Melanson wasn’t rushed into signing the document and could have chosen to consult her own lawyer.

The case is Melanson v. Browning-Ferris Industries Inc.