A Teacher Who Voluntarily Agreed To Retire Could Still Sue for Age Discrimination

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By Karen L. Piper

 

A federal district court ruled that a teacher who voluntarily agreed to retire, as part of an agreement to resolve a grievance, and who did retire, nevertheless could pursue age and disability discrimination claims against her employer. Melan v. Bell Vernon Area School District, Case No. 14-01445 (WD Pa., 12/7/2015).  The teacher worked for a school district for 41 years.  Two years before she retired, she took a medical leave of absence for seven months.  Within 30 days after she returned to work, she was given an “unsatisfactory” performance rating and a mandatory improvement plan.  The teacher was told she that must comply with the improvement plan or she “would be forced to retire” within six months. 

The teacher’s union filed a grievance on her behalf.  The teacher, the union and the school district entered into a Settlement Agreement to resolve the grievance.  In the Settlement Agreement, the school district agreed to rescind the unsatisfactory performance rating and the improvement plan in exchange for the teacher’s agreement to submit an irrevocable letter of resignation retiring at the end of the school year.  The teacher acknowledged in the Settlement Agreement that her retirement was “voluntary.”  The teacher retired at the end of the school year and then sued the school district for age and disability discrimination.  The school district sought dismissal of her claims based on the Settlement Agreement. 

The court first decided that the Settlement Agreement did not bar the teacher’s federal law age discrimination claim.  The (federal) Age Discrimination in Employment Action (ADEA) has strict requirements for obtaining a valid waiver of an age discrimination claim.  The waiver must “specifically refer[ ] to rights or claims under ADEA,” among other requirements.  The Settlement Agreement did not mention ADEA.  In fact, the Settlement Agreement did not specifically waive any potential discrimination claims.  The court noted that neither state law nor other federal civil rights laws require specific reference to the law for a valid waiver.  However, the Settlement Agreement did not contain “any language that [could] be construed to be waiver of any of [the teacher’s] remaining federal and state law discrimination claims.”  Accordingly, the court declined to dismiss the teacher’s age or disability discrimination claims. 

This case should serve as a reminder for employers who seek a waiver of a departing employee’s potential wrongful discharge or discrimination claims.  The agreement should include an express waiver of all discrimination claims.  ADEA waivers must meet additional requirements.  If you need assistance in drafting a waiver, consult experienced employment counsel, such as the author.  If you draft a waiver agreement without assistance of counsel be sure to have legal counsel review the agreement before signing it. 

This article was written by Karen L. Piper, who is Secretary of the Board of Detroit SHRM, a member of the Legal Affairs Committee, and a Member of the law firm of Bodman PLC, located in its Troy MI office.  She can be reached at (248) 743-6025 or kpiper@bodmanlaw.com.

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles with others, inside and outside their organization, as long as its name and logo, and the author’s information, is included in the re-post of the article. December 2015.