Should I sign a severance agreement if I was wrongfully terminated?

Question:

I was recently fired from my job, and I think it was because I'm pregnant. I've worked at the same company for many years, and my performance evaluations have always been positive. When I told my manager about my pregnancy, she made some negative comments about whether I would come back to work and how much it would cost the company to hold my position open during my maternity leave. Shortly after that, I got my first written warning about performance, and I was fired for alleged performance problems a couple of months later. The company wants me to sign an agreement in order to get severance. I really need the money, but I'm not sure whether I should sign something that says I have no legal claims against the company, even though I think they discriminated against me. What should I do?

Answer:

You should go talk to a lawyer, immediately. If you are really in dire straits financially, you may be tempted to sign away your rights for cash on the barrelhead. But if you really were discriminated against, a lawyer may be able to do much better for you.

Many employers use severance agreements that include a waiver or release: a contractual provision in which the employee gives up the right to sue the employer for anything that happened during the employment relationship in exchange for money, benefits, or other components of a severance package. The employer has a lot of leverage in negotiating these contracts, as you have seen. The employee is about to lose his or her source of income and is likely anxious about money. By offering a sizable check, the employer can weight the scales in its favor.

But you should not be measuring the size of the severance check against the paycheck you won't be getting; you should measure it against what the employer would owe you if you won a pregnancy discrimination claim. That's what the employer is paying you to give up, and you can only know what the claim is worth by talking to a lawyer.

A lawyer will go through all of the facts with you and explain the strengths and weaknesses of your claim. The lawyer can also tell you what damages might be available to you if you won a case. If you have a good argument on your side, the lawyer can write your employer a letter or simply pick up the phone and try to negotiate a better severance package for you -- one that takes into account the value of the claims you are giving up.

Once you sign a release or waiver, you almost certainly won't be able to file a charge or lawsuit against your employer for discrimination. Those rights will be gone forever. Before you sign them away, let a lawyer help you figure out exactly what you are being asked to give up -- and whether you can negotiate a fairer price for your lost wages and the pain your employer has put you through.

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