Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer to Review My Severance Agreement?

In a word, Yes.

As an employment lawyer, I spend a considerable amount of time reviewing severance agreements for clients.  Severance agreements are often filled with complicated legal issues and can be challenging to understand and properly navigate. Besides the dollar value of the package, there are several types of clauses in most severance agreements that employees should be aware of.  While situations differ as to how negotiable a severance agreement is in once case versus another, it is always advisable to have a board certified employment lawyer review the document with you so that, at the the very least, you understand all of the ramifications of the agreement you are signing.

Here are a few of the clauses that clients often need assistance with:

1. The Severance Payment: If an employee is already entitled to receive a severance payment, whether pursuant to an employment contract or company policy, there is no need to sign a severance agreement to get that money. An attorney can help ensure that if the employee does sign an agreement, it provides more than any severance payment the worker was already entitled to. An experienced employment lawyer may also have a sense of whether the amount being offered is within the usual range for the relevant industry.

2. Money the Employee is Already Owed: An employer who owes an employee money –  for unused vacation time or unreimbursed expenses, etc – must pay it regardless of whether a severance agreement is signed. 

3. Benefits: A severance agreement should explain what benefits the employee will receive upon separating from the employer and deal with continuation of health care benefits (if applicable) or with COBRA notice requirements.

4. Release of Claims: Employers usually want a full legal release from the employee as a part of any severance agreement.  Several issues can drop up here, including the effect of the release on benefit plans and/or on existing claims (workers compensation, disability claim, etc).  This release will usually cover all claims regardless of whether the employee even knows the potential claim exists.  So it is important to speak with an attorney so that you know if you actually have any claims and whether they should be released in return for the severance being offered by the employer.

5. Non-Disparagement and References: Severance agreements often forbid employees from speaking badly about their employer even after they leave the company.  Sometimes the agreement contains language dealing with how the company will respond to future inquires regarding the employee from prospective employers.  

6. Restrictive Covenants & Noncompete Agreements: Many employees are bound by non-compete and non-solicit agreements created in employment contracts or other documents they have signed. These agreements prohibit the employee from competing with the employer in certain areas for a specific amount of time, and from hiring other workers away from the employer. Where these restrictions already exist, a lawyer should ensure that the severance agreement does not expand them. Where the employee has not already entered agreements on these topics, the attorney can work to limit the time and scope of restrictions the separation agreement imposes.

 

These are just a few of the myriad issues that might need to be addressed as a part of a severance agreement review.  If you are offered a severance agreement, it is important to hire an attorney to review it BEFORE you sign. But not just any attorney -- just as you would probably not hire a real estate lawyer to defend you in a criminal proceeding, you should make sure to seek out an employment law specialist when hiring an attorney to review a separation agreement. An experienced employment attorney can help protect employees, including executives and professionals, from the risk of waiving rights unnecessarily or leaving severance money on the table.

 

Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.

Preparing for Your Initial Consultation with an Employment Lawyer

Yesterday we discussed some basic tips to help you search for an employment attorney for your case.  So now you have an initial consultation set up with a lawyer who has been recommended to you by a trusted source or who you have found from doing your own research. How do you make sure you make the most of this initial meeting?

In a word: Preparation.

Once you have a consultation with an employment lawyer scheduled, it is important that you prepare to make the most of the time you will have with the lawyer. Employment lawyers get dozens of contacts per week from potential clients and must be very selective about the cases they take. The initial consultation is your opportunity to make sure the attorney is well informed about the facts of your case. It is also your best chance to show the attorney that you are someone he or she wants to work with over the months and/or years that your matter may be pending on the firm’s docket.

Here are some important tips to keep in mind as you prepare for the meeting:

  • Take the meeting seriously and be prepared — Make sure you have good, clean copies (not originals) of any related documents with you when you arrive. Don’t expect the attorney to be your copy service and don’t leave your originals with the attorney.
  • Bring a fact chronology — Employment cases are complicated and fact intensive. A lawyer will not be able to tell you whether he can help you unless he knows most of the details of your case. The best way to do this is to bring a simple fact chronology that outlines the factual timeline of your case. A simple “Date — Fact” format will work fine in most cases. If at all possible it should be typed and not hand-written.
  • Be on time — Nothing says that you are not serious about your case like being late to your consultation. An attorney’s time literally is their money. Don’t waste it.
  • Pay the requested consultation fee on time or have it ready when you walk in the door — If the matter is not important enough for a consultation fee then don’t make the appointment to begin with. But if you do make the appointment, don’t put the lawyer in the position of trying to collect a fee from you at your first meeting. It’s not the way to get off to a good start.
  • Dress appropriately — How you dress communicates the level of seriousness you give the issue. You don't have to wear a suit. But showing up in a dirty T-shirt and flip-flops won't help convince the attorney that you are serious about your case. During the meeting the attorney is considering what a jury will think and whether they will take your testimony seriously. How you present yourself plays into this analysis.
  • Don’t bring unexpected guests — Attorney-client communications are privileged. This privilege can be lost if others sit in on the meeting. While someone else can certainly accompany you to the lawyer’s office, don’t expect them or ask for them to come into the meeting with you unless you cleared it in advance with the attorney. Dealing with this issue at the time of the meeting uses up valuable meeting time while the lawyer tries to assess whether they should be allowed into the meeting or not. Also, keep in mind that the lawyer wants to hear YOUR story and is less interested in your husband/wife, girlfriend/boyfriend or mother’s version of the story.
  • Don’t bring children — I love children. But they should not be brought to your attorney consultation. They are a distraction for you and the attorney and it can sometimes be difficult to discuss sensitive matters in front of them. Get a sitter or ask a friend or family member to watch them for you.

Following these steps should help you have a productive initial consultation and hopefully find a qualified attorney to handle your employment-related legal matter.

How to Hire An Employment Lawyer

So you need to hire an employment lawyer but you don’t know how to get started? This article is for you.

Hiring a lawyer to guide you through an employment-related dispute can be challenging. Unlike cases involving personal injury matters, there aren’t hundreds of employment lawyers running TV advertisements in an attempt to get you to “Call now!” Quite the opposite is true in fact.

Due to the complicated statutory nature of employment law practice, there are likely only a small handful of lawyers in even a relatively large city who are board certified to represent employees in employment-related disputes. The few who are qualified and have the years of experience you should be looking for will likely be extremely busy because there are so few of them. For this reason it is important that you do some research and get your own materials together before you start making calls.

To get you started, I've prepared a handy guide outlining some of the basic steps you need to take.

Step 1 - Do A Little Research Online. 

Before you pick up the phone and start making calls, pick up your mouse and start making clicks. Many good employment lawyers will have a website and/or a blog that will provide you with a lot of quality information about employment law issues. Take a look at what practice areas in which the lawyer claims he or she practices. You don’t want a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none attorney for your case. You want someone who concentrates the majority of his/her practice on employment law issues. You could also search legal directory avvo.com to help you find local lawyers who represent employees. It isn’t a perfect system but it will give you a good list to start your research.

Step 2 - Check For Board Certification

Lawyers are not required to be Board Certified in employment law to practice it in Texas. Some states don’t even provide for board certifications. But in Texas, the State Bar of Texas does provide Board Certification to those lawyers who practice employment law for a sufficient period of time, provide recommendations from lawyers and judges who they have practiced with and who pass a lengthy examination process. You can learn more about Board Certification here.

Step 3 - Expect To Fill Out A Questionnaire And Pay A Fee For A Consultation

Many firms have developed questionnaires. These are not idle exercises. You must fill them out to help your lawyer understand your case so he can better help you. Plus, filling out these short (usually electronic) forms may save you money. Some attorneys use short electronic forms as an initial screening tool for the many potential client contacts they receive each day. Sometimes, the form indicates a simple question for which a quick answer can be provided. Other times, the type of case being described would be better handled by another lawyer who specializes in that specific niche — you can usually get that referral set up at no cost. Then, if the form indicates an issue on which a lawyer believes he or she can provide meaningful assistance, a full, in-person consultation can be scheduled.

Most attorneys charge a small consultation fee to review employment-related matters. Because employment law is very fact specific, an employment lawyer needs to know all the facts of your case before he or she can commit to representing you. This often takes time. If employment lawyers are not paid something for this, they cannot stay in business.

Step 4 - Prepare For Your Consultation

Once you have a consultation with an employment lawyer scheduled, it is important that you prepare to make the most of the time you will have with the lawyer. I have written an article discussing the initial consultation in more detail, including tips on what to bring and how to prepare for this important meeting.