Former Employee Advances Retaliation Claim Despite Execution of Settlement Agreement
An Ohio federal district court recently denied a former employer’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding that the plaintiff could proceed with her retaliation claim even though she signed a settlement agreement and general release. Bryant v. Central Community Health Board (Case no. 16cv00620 March 29, 2017). This case focuses upon what is (and what is not) barred by a release agreement. After Central Community Health Board (“CCHB”) terminated plaintiff’s employment in June 2012, she filed and eventually settled a discrimination lawsuit against CCHB. Plaintiff executed the settlement agreement on April 10, 2015. Prior to expiration of the seven-day revocation period set forth in the agreement, plaintiff alleged that her CCHB supervisor forwarded to plaintiff’s new employer an email conveying that plaintiff had violated professional boundaries with clients. Her new employer subsequently terminated plaintiff’s employment.
In coming to its decision that the release did not bar the new claims, the Court noted that although any claims occurring before April 10, 2015, were barred by the settlement agreement, claims based on events after that date were not (even though she could have revoked the agreement and proceeded upon pre-existing claims).
As to the new claim, retaliation could exist despite her status as a former employee. The Court explained that although Plaintiff was no longer employed by CCHB, in the retaliation context, former employees were considered “employees” under Title VII. Plaintiff’s initial lawsuit constituted protected activity. Moreover, Plaintiff’s allegation that the April 14 email was sent in an effort to get her fired for filing a lawsuit against CCHB satisfied the causal nexus prong of her retaliation claim.
The decision highlights that execution of a settlement agreement does not bar future claims of discrimination or retaliation. As such, employers should be mindful about their communications concerning former employees in the wake of a settlement agreement. Supervisors should be educated that they cannot provide information to a worker’s new employer. Only Human Resources can do so and, even, then, solely as permitted by the employer’s reference policy. All should be told that they represent the company and that their opinions and desire to communicate about a worker are subject to the employer’s communication policies.