This is the cautionary tale of two cases that reveal the fate of employees too quick to sign their names…
In Barr v. Pennzoil-Quaker State Canada Inc. the court ruled that the deal was less than what Barr could have received and was "unfortunate". However, it was not so bad that it was prepared to set it aside.
In Titus v. William F. Cooke Enterprises senior Ontario lawyer Douglas Titus was dismissed by William F. Cooke Enterprises and immediately agreed to its offer of severance. Titus read the termination documents at the meeting, including the release, which states in bold, capitalized letters: "I have read this document and I understand that it contains a full and final release of all claims … I am signing this document voluntarily." Titus signed his name and left with a cheque in his pocket. Later on he sued, claiming the release was signed under duress and the deal he received was less than fair. But Titus, a lawyer for more than 20 years experience, with self-professed experience in employment law, couldn’t convince the court that the deal he signed was so unfair it should be invalid. According to the court, "with eyes wide open", he declined both opportunities, preferring to immediately accept the package instead.
These cases provide a stark message for employees when confronted with an offer of severance on an ironclad release: Fair or not, seldom will a signed document be set aside. Employees can avoid this result by observing the following advice:
Like any commodity, a termination package is usually negotiable. Seek specialized counsel before signing your name.
Duress, coercion or unconscionability are not easily proven – especially when the employee is given time to consider the offer.
Ask for more time or the opportunity to meet with a lawyer if the terms of an offer or release are unclear.