Can I still sue if I signed a release but later learned that my firing was illegal?

Question:

I was laid off from my job several months ago, along with about a dozen of my coworkers. At the time, the company told us it was downsizing and had to reduce payroll. Since then, however, the company has hired new employees to replace all of us, doing essentially the same work we were doing. And, I've discovered that everyone who was laid off had complained to the company about discrimination or harassment concerns. Now I think we were all fired in retaliation for complaining. The problem is that I signed a release, agreeing to give up the right to sue the company over any claims arising out of my employment, in exchange for a severance package. But I didn't know all the facts when I signed it! Can I still sue?

Answer:

Whether you can sue after signing a release depends on the facts, the wording of the release, and your state's law, among other things.

A court will first look to whether you specifically gave up your right to bring a discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claim in the release. If so, you may be out of luck. But, what if you didn't know you had retaliation claim until after you signed the release? Some states allow employees to release "unknown" claims, as long as the language in the release is clear and noticeable. That portion of the release may have to be highlighted in some way, for example, by using text that is in a larger font, in all capitals, or bolded.

If the release seems to clearly cover the claims you now want to make, did you sign it voluntarily? The mere fact that you were out of a job and needed the severance money will not be enough to show that you were coerced into signing the release. However, if your employer threatened you, for example, by threatening to dispute your claim for unemployment or giving you bad references if you refused to sign, that would likely not be voluntary.

A court will also look at what you got in exchange for signing. For a release to be valid, you must be getting something of value in exchange for giving up your right to sue. This could be anything you and the employer negotiate, but it must be in addition to what you were already entitled to. For example, if your state doesn't require employers to pay out accrued vacation time when an employee leaves, your employer might agree to pay you that money in exchange for your signature. However, if your employer is already required to pay out your vacation time, it would have to give you something more to make the release a valid contract.

As you can see, there are many moving parts to consider when it comes to the validity of a release. Your best course of action is to talk to an experienced employment lawyer, who can tell you whether you have a chance of defeating the release in court.

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