The Dialogue – an occasional discussion between myself and a prominent employee-side attorney, Nina Pirrotti returns today after a late summer hiatus. Today’s chat focuses on employee separations and severance agreements.  Share your own tips or observations in the comments below. As always, my thanks to Nina for sharing her insights here.

Dan: Hi Nina! How was your summer? Mine was fine except I can’t stop hearing news about President Trump.

It seems to drown out everything else going on and I think I have a headache from it all. But let’s give it a try, shall we?

I know I’m often confronted with having to fashion separation and settlement agreements for employers.   

What do you find are the items in agreements that you think both sides ought to be paying attention to?

Nina: Drowning in Trump-related noise.  The image is horrifying!  My husband and I were chatting the other day about an old Saturday night live weekend update skit.  As we recall it (it was decades ago), the news media was focused on other events when all of a sudden the character playing Kim Jong Un pops into the screen, holds both arms out and complains:  “What do I have to do to get attention around here?!” 

In the age of Trump that glib remark becomes bone-chilling. 

The art of crafting a fair and balanced settlement agreement isn’t the most riveting of topics in our world but it is among the most important.  

One key strategy I use in evaluating them is to put myself in the position of the employer to ensure I understand company’s (reasonable) priorities. 

Clearly the company seeks to contain the dispute itself, keep the fact that it is settling it confidential, and do everything possible to obtain closure.    If the settlement terms go beyond meeting those priorities, a red flag goes up for me and I scrutinize those terms closely.  

In light of the company’s priorities in containing the dispute and keeping it confidential, I expect to see a confidentiality provision, limiting the disclosure of the settlement agreement to those on a need to know basis (typically immediate family members, financial/tax advisor and lawyer). 

I am also not surprised by a non-disparagement provision which prevents the employee from spreading ill will about the former employer. 

Since I generally advise my client that it rarely reflects well on an employee to speak negatively about his/her former employer (no matter how justified the employee might be in doing so) I usually do not oppose such provisions. 

I will often, of course, make them mutual so that key employees at the company also commit to not disparaging my client. 

In light of the company’s priority in seeking closure, I do not have a one-size fits all response to no re-hire provision.  I understand the company’s concern that should the employee who has settled claims for discrimination apply for a position down the road and the company (for legitimate reasons) declines to hire that employee, it nonetheless remains exposed to a potential retaliation lawsuit by the employee. 

No re-rehire provisions in certain situations can be appropriate but only if they are narrowly tailored to the company itself.  Alarm bells go off for me, therefore, if the employer is large and has numerous affiliates and subsidiaries and the employer insists on including them within the scope of the no-rehire provision. 

In such cases, no-rehire provisions can be tantamount to mini-restrictive covenants and, where they hamper my client’s ability to find comparable work, I will reject them as untenable. 

Speaking of restrictive covenant  provisions, it irks me to no end when an employer tries to slip one into a settlement agreement where the employer was not bound by one during the course of his/her employment!   Such provisions are generally a non-starter for me, absent considerable additional compensation for them. 

Finally, as we discussed in an interview you conducted with me many years ago, I do not abide by liquidated damages provisions. 

If a court determines that my client has breached the agreement, even if that breach is deemed a material one, the employer should still bear the burden of proving that it has been damaged and, to a reasonable degree of certainty, the monetary amount of that damage. 

What are your thoughts, Dan?   Have I articulated the company’s main priorities well?  Are there others I am missing that I should consider the next go-round?   Do tell and I promise to listen with an open mind!

Dan: Well, one day we could talk about Trump-related employment litigation, if you’d like to really talk more about Trump.

You’ve hit on some of the highlights from an employer perspective. When crafting one for an employer, I will let you in on a “secret” – we have a template.

I know — probably not a big surprise to you since our firms have negotiated enough of them.

As a result, I find that agreements at this point are sometimes more of finessing around the edges, rather than major re-writes.

The problem I see is that there are some employers who are using a form separation agreement handed down to them years ago, without understanding what’s in them.

First off, the agreements — regardless of whether you’re trying to comply with federal law or not — should really be written in “plain English”.

Get rid of the “Whereas” clauses.

Use bold language or simply to understand provisions.

And try not to have it be 15 pages.

Second, the agreements should contain: a) a release of all state and federal claims (and local ones if you’re in places like New York City); b) confidentiality (and if it needs to be mutual, so be it); c) non-disparagement (same).  There’s more of course, but start with the basics.

Third, employers should think about provisions that may actually be helpful: a) What are you going to do about references? Is it “name, rank, serial number” or something more? b) Do you want an arbitration provision for any breach of the separation agreement?

Neither is typically a high priority but taking care of some of these details are important.

A few employers are trying to get the “best” deal and negotiate strongly but I find most employers just want to move on; the termination was probably not something that they wanted to do anyways and putting some distance between the employee and the company is probably a good thing for the business ultimately.

Since you’re not finding separation agreements all that exciting, what about how employers handle the termination or termination meeting itself? I’m sure you’ve heard some stories from clients.

Nina: Wow – you hit the jackpot with that question!   

I was once asked at an ABA conference at which I spoke what was one step management lawyers could take to maximize the chances that a departing employee won’t seek out the counsel of someone like yours truly. 

My answer?  Treat them like human beings when you terminate them.   

Don’t do what one Fortune 500 company did to one of my clients which was to call her as she lay in a hospital bed with her infant daughter who had been born earlier that day and inform her that she need not return to work because her job had been eliminated.

Time and again prospective clients had told me that they would have gone quietly into the good night had their employers treated them with a modicum of respect during the termination process. 

I recently settled a case involving a woman in her mid-60s who had worked for the same company for 20 years and proven time and again that she would do ANYTHING for that company and, indeed, had worn a number of hats over the years, shedding one and donning another as the company’s needs shifted.  In her 20th year, a new CEO was hired and you can guess what happened next.  He terminated her and replaced her with a brand new hire, decades younger, who my client had helped train.   

Doesn’t sound kosher right, but that is not the worst part! 

It was the WAY the company terminated her that prompted this lovely, meek, non-confrontational woman to summon up the courage to pick up the phone and call me. 

Her termination consisted of a three minute meeting in which the CEO informed her she was no longer needed and handed her a severance agreement that provided her with two measly weeks’ pay. 

She was literally sobbing as she signed it then and there after which she was immediately escorted out the door.   She contacted me weeks after she signed her agreement.  Too bad, so sad, right?  Wrong. 

The employer neglected to include in her severance agreement language required by the Older Worker Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA), including a 21-day period to consider the agreement and a seven-day revocation period.  She was able to keep her paltry two weeks and I got her many months more on top of that!   

There are so many morals to that story, the least of which is that severance agreements for employees over 40 should comply with the OWBPA.   Employers should be expressing their gratitude to terminated employees who have proven their devotion to the company by providing them with severance that sends the message that they valued that devotion.  

There other ways to go that extra mile to treat such employees with dignity.   Think about how you would want to be treated if you were undergoing one of the worst days of your life and act accordingly.  Thank them for their service, tell them how sorry you are, assure them that you will do everything in your power to facilitate their transition, allow them to say goodbye to their colleagues, hell, even offer to throw them a farewell gathering.  The possibilities are endless.  Sometimes we lawyers get in our own way. 

Dan, I know none of the clients who have had the benefit of your wisdom prior to terminating an employee would succumb to such pitfalls.  But what do you do when you have to clean up after the fact?

Dan: You’ve raised a good question, but I want to address something you said first. 

You said: “Employers should be expressing their gratitude to terminated employees who have proven their devotion to the company by providing them with severance that sends the message that they valued that devotion.”  

It’s that phrase that I think gets to the heart of the issues with severance in 2017. 

When I first started practicing (a few years ago, ahem), there were still many companies that offered severance without ANY release because that just seemed “the right thing to do.”

After all, there was still a bit of an unspoken contract that employers would take care of employees.

Think back to the “Mother Aetna” description of the insurance company.  But as the recessions took their toll and employee mobility took root, that social contract has definitely been frayed over the years.  In part too is the rise of employment litigation. 

Now each employer has to worry: Is THIS going to be the employment termination that leads to a lawsuit?

 I can’t even remember the last time that an employer offered severance without also demanding the employee sign a release. 

In other words, the idea of severance as “gratitude” and “thanks”, has now been replaced with much more of a quid pro quo. 

For employers, the thought ii: If we give you this severance, please don’t sue us. 

And yet for employees, some of them still remember the days when severance was just something companies did without worrying about the lawsuit. And so when the employer demands the release, some employees take offense to it, not realizing that times have changed. 

As a result, I have also seen employers trying to offer less and less; the notion of one week of severance per year of service (with caps) is still strong, but not universal. 

As to being the fixer – yes, sometimes it happens.  The lack of OWBPA provisions is really something that just shouldn’t happen anymore. 

But it’s more that employers go ahead with the termination without thinking about what comes next.  And some employers are moving so fast, that the details such as having two people in the termination meting and having COBRA information available, get lost in the shuffle.

I don’t know of a single employer that has enjoyed firing an employee.  

Even when they catch an employee red-handed, many employers are aware of the consequences that may flow for the employee from a firing. The employee may have a tough time finding a new job, for example. 

But it strikes me that a small subset of terminated employees are LOOKING to bring suit or a payday instead of looking forward to a new time in their life. 

Obviously sometimes past discrimination has to be examined, but what do you think makes employees sue their employers instead of signing severance agreements that are presented to them?

Nina: I think that employer conduct that rises to the level of actionable discrimination and/or retaliation is alive and well, unfortunately. 

The only up side of all of this is that I get to keep my day job, which I love! 

Of course there are those (“small subset” would accurately describe them) who seek to avoid accountability and are looking for a quick pay out of claims. 

Virtually all of those individuals never make it to our front door. 

I say “virtually” because we are human, after all, and one or two may sneak through the cracks in that door. 

But then we have competent lawyers like you for whom we have great respect who (very politely) convince us – – with facts – – that we are being misled. 

That is why I believe that the only situations in which early negotiations are successful are those in which both sides fight their natural inclinations to hold their cards close to their chests and actually share meaningful information from the get go.  

But how to conduct negotiations effectively is a topic worthy of its own separate dialogue, no?

Dan: I think so. Now, I have to save whatever energy I have left to stay up late to watch playoff baseball with the Yankees. Hopefully, it’s a long October filled with lots of late nights and distractions.  Until next time, Nina!  

So, a couple of months back, I talked about how separation agreements for small employers might not be covered by the federal law that covers such agreements.

After all, since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act only applied to employers that have 20 or more employees, the requirements for a “knowing and voluntary waiver” of claims under separation agreements only applied to those larger employers.

Because this is a federal law, it applies in Connecticut though states are free to craft additional laws if they wish.

Recently, though, I’ve heard of an employee spouting off about “advice” he received that  Connecticut state law had the same requirements as federal law did.

And since Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws apply to employers of 3 or more employees, the employee argued that he should be provided with 21 days to consider the agreement.

When I heard this, I scratched my, well, proverbial head about this one.  Did I miss something?

The short answer is no, I didn’t miss something.  Connecticut law doesn’t say this.  You can see for yourself in Conn. Gen. Stat. 46a-60.

But how did the employee get such advice?

The first answer may be the simplest one: The attorney he spoke with doesn’t routinely practice in the area.  Sometimes, well-meaning lawyers just overstep their knowledge basis.

Another obvious answer is that the employee’s so-called advice was from “Attorney” Google.  Google is really good at finding things that might apply to your situation — not as good yet at telling you whether it actually applies to your situation.

And if you Google a topic like this, you might actually find a state court decision that looks — at first blush — like it might be on point.

State courts often use the following language in their decisions:

Although this case is based solely on Connecticut law, we review federal precedent concerning employment discrimination for guidance in enforcing our own antidiscrimination statutes.

What does THAT mean?

Typically for the same types of disparate treatment claims for, say, gender discrimination claims, courts in Connecticut don’t have as much as experience as federal law. So where the law is the SAME, it makes sense to look to federal laws that are similar.

The problem in the age discrimination statute context is that Connecticut law is DIFFERENT than federal law at times. There is no state equivalent. So looking to federal law makes no sense whatsoever.  And sure enough a quick search of Google Scholar reveals NO state law case applying that federal law to a review of separation agreements.

So how ARE separation agreements to be reviewed in Connecticut? In essence, you would most likely look at the agreement under state laws dealing with contracts.  Typically, this is also done through the “common law’ – that is precedent from the courts.  And Connecticut courts haven’t said much about separation agreements.

Employers are sometimes caught in the middle of receiving advice from their counsel (hopefully correct) and what the employee believes is true whether through an attorney or otherwise.  Employers should understand the misinformation that exists out there and, when confronted with these issues, try to explain them to employees.

Otherwise, a seemingly innocuous situation could turn much more stressful when the employee thinks (and worse, is being told) that the employer is violating a non-existent state law.

 

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a surprising (at least to me) article about how Idaho has implemented a legal framework that gives employers a great deal of flexibility in an area getting a good deal more publicity of late: Non-compete agreements. (H/T to a post by Suzanne Lucas in Inc. too.)

When everyone has a non-compete agreement, what problems does that cause? Lots, according to the article:

For the most part, states have been moving toward making it easier for people to switch teams, but Idaho went the other direction with legislation that was friendlier to employers. The resulting law was particularly strict because it put the onus on employees to prove that they would not harm their former employers by taking the new jobs.

Proponents note that the statute applies only to “key employees” who tend to have more responsibility and better pay. But employment lawyers say Idaho companies tie down all levels of workers, not just top executives, with tough employment contracts.

Contrast that with California, which bans nearly all types of non-compete agreement, and lately, Massachusetts, and suddenly, Connecticut’s laws on non-compete agreements look downright moderate.

Indeed, for now at least, Connecticut employers have a good deal more flexibility on non-compete agreements that in other areas of employment law.

In fact, I was reminded of this when I looked back on a post from 2014 that noted the same thing — also in response to an article from The New York Times. It seems back then, the newspaper was also bemoaning the increasing use of non-compete agreements. Hmm.

In any event, employers in Connecticut should be mindful of this edict from the courts from 40 years ago that still rings true today:

In order to be valid and binding, a covenant which restricts the activities of an employee following the termination of his employment must be partial and restricted in its operation “in respect either to time or place, … and must be reasonable—that is, it should afford only a fair protection to the interest of the party in whose favor it is made and must not be so large in its operation as to interfere with the interests of the public. The interests of the employee himself must also be protected, and a restrictive covenant is unenforceable if by its terms the employee is precluded from pursuing his occupation and thus prevented from supporting himself and his family.

starrMy colleague Gary Starr returns today with a story worth reading about the need for employers to secure confidential information.  Although it is based on Massachusetts, the concepts it covers may have some carryover to employers elsewhere as well.  

Employers that maintain records of their employees and customers and allow employees have access to confidential information have long needed policies that not only secure the information, but ensure that employees who have been granted access to such information are complying with the corporate policies and are trustworthy.

An insurance agency in Massachusetts thought it had done everything right, but was sued for negligence in its retention of an employee that it thought was trustworthy, but was not.

An employee used her computer to access confidential information that she then gave to her boyfriend about the identity of a witness to a car accident in which the boyfriend had been involved with her car.  The boyfriend used that information to contact and threaten the witness.  The witness reported the threat to the police and ultimately the boyfriend and the employee pleaded guilty to witness intimidation and conspiracy.  After the police visited the employer to obtain information about the threat, which was traced back to the employee, the employer fired the employee.

That, however, did not end the tale.

The witness then sued the employer for failing to safeguard personal information, and for negligent retention and negligent supervision.  While the trial court dismissed the case, the appellate court has determined that the facts alleged are sufficient to go to trial.

Where did the employer go wrong?  The company had adopted a data security plan and policy that prohibited employees from accessing or using personal information for personal purposes.  The computer software even required employees, who wished to access the data base with confidential information, to agree to use the information for one of four limited purposes, all of which were business related.

Those were positive steps.

The problem arose because the unrestricted access did not stop the employee from reviewing information that had an impact on her personally.  The second failure had to do with an inadequate investigation of the employee’s background and simply taking the employees word about a weapons arrest that occurred during her employment in another state.

The employee told her boss that the arrest was a misunderstanding, that she was clearing it up, and subsequently said it was resolved.  The employer simply took her word for it.

What he would have discovered with a very simple inquiry was that there were serious issues with her honesty and fitness for accessing other people’s personal information.  The company could have learned that she was traveling with her boyfriend when they were stopped for speeding and that she was arrested for having two semi-automatic guns concealed in her purse, one had the serial numbers filed off and the other was stolen.  She also had a half-mask and police scanner.  After her arrest, she told the company that there had been a misunderstanding as the weapons belonged to her boyfriend, that she didn’t know anything about them and that she was exonerated.

Her story was not true, but her account itself should have raised questions about her having access to personal information.

The court said that the company had a duty to protect the confidential information and that it was foreseeable that the employee could access information and use it for personal gain.  The company had an obligation to investigate the employee’s continuing fitness after the arrest.  The court said that a jury could decide that the failure to take action under these circumstances was unreasonable as the company knew about the weapons charge and could have learned of her lies and her willingness to commit a crime with her boyfriend.  The company did not take sufficient steps to limit the risk of harm to those whose personal information its employees could access.

There are steps to take to avoid this problem.  After an employee is hired, that does not end the need to be vigilant about their fitness for the job.  When information comes to light that may raise questions about the actions of an employee, an employer cannot simply take his/her word for what occurred.  It must take affirmative steps to explore what the underlying issue is, analyze the employee’s story, and assess the risk the employee poses if access to confidential information is abused or if other employees and the public may be put at risk.

 

doctorContinuing my review of new employment-related bills is a measure that limits the use of non-compete agreements for doctors.

Anyone who tracks bills knows that the name on the bill sometimes doesn’t match the content. Senate Bill 351 entitled “AN ACT CONCERNING MATTERS AFFECTING PHYSICIANS AND HOSPITALS” is a good case in point.

Seems innocuous enough, right? But through various amendments and compromises, it actually contains specifics on what can or cannot be in a non-compete agreement for physicians.  (For limits in other professions, see prior posts here and here.)

In general, the bill sets up a one year and 15 mile limit for physician non-compete agreements for any agreement after July 1, 2016.

The bill does not specify what is to happen to existing agreements that may have broader restrictions; will courts find that they violate the new ‘public policy’ of Connecticut, as the attorneys at the Working Together blog suggest? That remains to be seen.

For employers that have yet to draw up agreements, arguably there is a 60-day window to do so but given that this may now become law, it might be too little too late.  (I have not heard whether the governor intends to veto this measure.)

For existing agreements, it appears that the review will attempt to mirror common law with three standards (note that the term “covenant not to compete” is actually defined as being applicable only to physicians).  These standards are:

A covenant not to compete is valid and enforceable only if it is: (A) Necessary to protect a legitimate business interest; (B) reasonably limited in time, geographic scope and practice restrictions as necessary to protect such business interest; and (C) otherwise consistent with the law and public policy.

The bill goes on to state that:

A covenant not to compete that is entered into, amended, extended or renewed on or after July 1, 2016, shall not: (A) Restrict the physician’s competitive activities (i) for a period of more than one year, and (ii) in a geographic region of more than fifteen miles from the primary site where such physician practices;

Simple enough, right? Well, not exactly, the agreement also shall not:

(B) be enforceable against a physician if

(i) such employment contract or agreement was not made in anticipation of, or as part of, a partnership or ownership agreement and such contract or agreement expires and is not renewed, unless, prior to such expiration, the employer makes a bona fide offer to renew the contract on the same or similar terms and conditions, or

(ii) the employment or contractual relationship is terminated by the employer, unless such employment or contractual relationship is terminated for cause.

That’s a lot of “ands” and “unlesses” if you’re keeping track at home.  But one thing I’m sure of is that a “for cause” termination allows for more flexibility.

But what is “for cause”? Can it be defined by the employer? Or is the legislature using another definition of “cause”? That, unfortunately, is a question for another day.

For now, physician groups, hospitals and other health care providers need to track signing of the measure and, if signed, review all existing agreements and form agreements for compliance with this new potential law.  The one-year/15 mile restriction should become the norm.

And if you have a strong opinion against this measure, now would be a good time to lobby the governor to veto it.

 

Before I even begin this post, let me advance the disclaimer right off the bat: Despite the title of this post, there is no sure-fire way to fire an employee without getting sued.

Indeed, the title is a bit of a misnomer.  It’s often been paraphrased that anyone can sue anyone else for anything at any time in any court. While that’s not quite true, it’s not that far off the mark either.

There ARE, however, ways to fire an employee that can reduce or, in some ways, eliminate the likelihood of being sued.

In fact, I had been working on a draft of this post for sometime thinking of how I could help others make the process of firing a bit more humane.  I’ve had many discussions with clients over the years about how firing an employee is one of the toughest things that they’ve had to do as a “boss”. fire

Yes, firing is part of the job, but I’ve yet to meet an employer that has enjoyed it. Inevitably, there is a sigh of relief when the termination meeting is over.

(And to be sure, the impact on the employee is almost always worse.  There are few things worse in life than being fired, even if it ends up leading to good things later.)

Of course, before I could finish my draft post, Jon Hyman alerted me to an excellent post by the Harvard Business Review entitled “A Step-by-Step Guide to Firing Someone.”

It’s really well done and I encourage you to read that first before finishing this post up.

Among the overall tips:

  • Start by creating a transition plan
  • Take the termination meeting itself step-by-step
  • Avoid misdirected compassion

The discussion in the article about the termination meeting itself is particularly insightful.

Here are three more things to think about too:

  1. Ask yourself: “Is the Termination Decision Fair?”  Sometimes, I rephrase this question into the following: “If you were telling your neighbor about the firing, what would he or she think about it?”  But it all comes done to the same point: Would a third person (or a jury) think the process you used to fire an employee was a fair and just decision?

    For performance-related terminations, you may look to whether the employee had been put on notice that his or her performance was faulty and given an opportunity to improve.

    For reorganizations or reductions-in-force, ask whether the process you are using to select employees (whether it’s seniority, overall performance, or other legitimate factors) is explainable and non-discriminatory.

  2. Consider A Separation Agreement: When I first started practicing law, separation agreements were the exception. Now they are the rule.

    If you’re firing someone and you want to avoid being sued, consider a separation agreement where you offer some severance in exchange for a release.  Of course, I’ve been talking about this since way back in 2008 – so this isn’t something new. But do yourself a favor: Use an agreement that complies with the law.

  3. Know the Difference Between “It’s Legal” and “It’s a Good Idea”: Over the years, I’ve had more clients ask me whether a proposed firing was “legal”.  But as I’ve said in the past, just because something is “legal” doesn’t mean it is a good idea.  For example, it may be “legal” to fire an employee by e-mail, but it may result in hurt feelings and the idea by the employee that the employer doesn’t value the employee as a human being.

    So, when you’re seeking legal advice on a termination, be sure you’re asking the right questions and getting the best advice from your counselor about the termination itself.

There are, of course, many more aspects to a firing than just this. But if you follow a few of these items, it can help reduce the risk of a lawsuit.

TimeIn catching up over some interesting employment law cases from 2015, I came across Lennon v. Dolce Vida Medical Spa (download here).  You would be forgiven if you missed it because it’s an unreported Superior Court decision on a seemingly-technical issue.

But, if followed by other courts, it has a notable twist.

First, the simple background: In Connecticut, employees must typically file discrimination claims first with the state agency, the Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities before going to court.  These claims are, pursuant to a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC, typically cross-filed with the federal agency too.

(For the lawyers out there — yes, you can file first at the EEOC, but the vast majority of claims get filed first at the CHRO.)

In any event, in order to bring suit in court, the employee must obtain a “right-to-sue” letter from the CHRO and, I think many people believed, from the EEOC as well.  The employee must then bring suit in court in the following 90 days from receipt.

In the Lennon case, the employee received only the right to sue letter from the CHRO and yet brought both state and federal discrimination claims.

The employer moved to dismiss the federal claims.  The Superior Court, however, rejected that motion to dismiss, saying the existence of a work-sharing agreement between the CHRO and the EEOC as well as the fact that the filing requirement is not a jurisdictional bar, does not merit dismissal of the claims here.

[Dismissal is not warranted because of] the plaintiff’s timely compliance with [the state] filing requirement, the nature of the work-sharing agreement in place between the CHRO and the EEOC, the fact that every federal circuit court presented with this issue has decided that obtaining a right-to-sue letter is a precondition rather than a jurisdictional requirement for bringing suit based on EEOC violations, and recent decisions of the district courts of Connecticut holding that a plaintiff who has a release from the CHRO is not required to obtain a duplicate right-to-sue notice from the EEOC….

Fair enough.  The court cites some similar federal court cases from Connecticut to support this position as well.  (I should note, however, that Superior Court decisions have questionable precedential value according to some so be sure to check with counsel about any use of this case.)

But if that’s going to be the law — that an employee need not wait or get a separate right-to-sue letter from the EEOC before filing suit on both state and federal grounds — what is left unanswered from the case is a different by similar set of facts.

Suppose an employee receives the right-to-sue letter from the CHRO but, for whatever reason, does not file suit in state or federal court in the next 90 days.  Months go by and the EEOC then issues its  notice of a right-to-sue nearly one year later (which is what happened in the Lennon case).  The employee then files suit in federal court on the claims within 90 days.

Are his or her federal claims now time-barred because courts have ruled that the employee could have brought suit with simply a state (CHRO) right-to-sue letter?  Are the state law claims revived based on this EEOC letter?

Employers would certainly ope the answers are “no” and “no” but we’ll just have to wait-and-see what the courts do on this. Something tells me that employers shouldn’t get their hopes up too much — at least on the first question.

Just a quick followup today on a post from last month.

As I reported then, a District Court judge dismissed a closely-watched EEOC lawsuit against CVS challenging a pretty standard severance agreement.  But the grounds for the dismissal were unknown back then.

The wait is over; the written decision was released yesterday.  For those that were hoping that the court might shut this issue down, you will be disappointed because the court decided the case largely on procedural grounds.  The Court found that the EEOC had not exhausted its conciliatory efforts required by law.

Yawn.

And so, we’re back to where we were at the start of the year.  The EEOC is likely to continue to push this issue.

Still, I remain unconvinced by the merits of the EEOC’s arguments.  Courts have, for example, routinely upheld enforcement of severance agreements — albeit in different contexts.  But the arguments raised by the EEOC appear to be a stretch to me.

So, for now, employers should continue to stay alert on this issue but until we hear otherwise, it also seems that many will find it best to continue to use these agreements without further modification.

Back in June, I talked about the standard that courts will follow in deciding whether or not to enforce a non-compete agreement between an employer and an employee.  (Go read it here first.)

But many employers want to know something more straightforward: How long can I make the restrictive covenant in my agreement; in other words, how long can the non-compete provision be?

The answer, of course, is “it depends” — in general, the higher-ranked the employee, the broader the scope of the non-compete.  And it also depends on other factors, such as the type of businesses the employee would be prevented from working for, and the geographic nature of the restrictions.

Of course, that’s not a satisfying answer either because again, the central questions is, what’s the maximum amount of time that a court will enforce a non-compete agreement?

In Connecticut, two years is seen by some as the typical time period for enforcing a non-compete agreement, as one case ruled back in 1988.

But where the time restriction is accompanied by a narrow geographic or industry restriction, courts have granted non-competes of five years.  Here are some examples:

Can you do something longer? Perhaps. In one reported instance in another state, a ten year non-compete agreement was ruled enforceable! But that’s definitely the exception, rather than the rule.

Indeed, a five-year non-compete isn’t going to work in some (many?) employment agreements.  So before you rewrite all of your agreements to have a broad restrictive covenant, you should check with experienced employment law counsel and figure out if your agreement really is narrowly tailored to meet you needs.  And experienced counsel can also add in certain contract provisions to help in those instances where the courts may have concerns with a broader non-compete.

But if you’ve been wondering if you courts enforce five-year non-compete agreements, the above cases show that it happens — perhaps even with more regularity than you might first think.

So, remember back in February where I noted that employers ought to “consider having an attorney review some of your [employment] agreements … [because sometimes,] poor drafting can sometimes be avoided by having an attorney involved”?

We have another appellate court case that emphasizes that point quiet well in Stratford v. Winterbottom.

The case involves a town and one of its employees.  The town gave the employee an employment agreement that stated:

Based upon the annual performance evaluation, and at the [m]ayor’s sole discretion and recommendation, the base salary may be increased on July 1 of each fiscal year, subject to the approval of the [council], which by Charter fixes the salaries of all mayoral appointees.

The issue? The town reduced the employee’s salary.  The question for the Appellate Court was whether the town had permission to do so.

No way, says the Appellate Court.  By including increases but not mentioning decreases, the employer is reading too much into the agreement; it simply does not have the power to do so.

Yes, the court acknowledged, the employee was at-will but that at-will clause was never used by the employer and the employee never consented to the change in salary.

Ken Adams of Adams on Contract Drafting, did a quick post about this from a contract drafting perspective last night after I mentioned it on Twitter.  I recommend the whole post, but here’s the key point:

A grant of discretion to do one thing doesn’t necessarily equal a prohibition against doing other things. If a mother tells her son that he may play video games, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that she’s thereby forbidding him from engaging in any alternative activity.

But the presumption that a grant of discretion doesn’t also entail prohibition comes up against what this manual refers to as “the expectation of relevance.” (Relevance is a principle of linguistics. According to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, at 38, “A central principle in pragmatics . . . is that the addressee of an utterance will expect it to be relevant, and will normally interpret it on that basis.”) The more specific a grant of discretion is, the more likely it is that the reader would conclude that the discretion is limited—otherwise there would be no point in being so specific. And the more likely a court would be to invoke the arbitrary principle of interpretation expressio unius est exclusio alterius—the expression of one thing implies the exclusion of others.

So, what’s an employer to do? Well, a salary clause can be written in a variety of ways. Consider that the employer may “revise” the salary at any time or “change” it. Or perhaps the employer can be more direct that it may “increase or decrease” the salary based on a variety of factors.  Some employers may choose to avoid discussing it altogether which would be an interesting question of contract interpretation then.

Whatever you choose, make sure the agreement accurately reflects what you intend.  Otherwise, you may not have the discretion to change something that thought was implied.