On August 10, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a cease and desist order against BlueLinx Holdings, Inc. that further demonstrates the scrutiny of various federal agencies with respect to severance agreements.
In BlueLinx, the SEC found a provision in a severance agreement that restricted employees from providing information to the SEC without company approval. This finding had a chilling effect on employees reporting suspected fraudulent activity. Such “whistleblowing” is specifically permitted and encouraged under the Dodd-Frank Act, which even offers financial incentives to employees to do so. While the severance agreement in issue did allow severed employees to file a charge with the SEC, it did not allow them to provide information to the SEC without company approval.
The SEC fined BlueLinx $265,000, and also ordered the company to modify its severance agreements to add language that advised employees they were not limited in their ability to file a charge or complaint with the SEC. The SEC did not stop there, however, as it also stated that BlueLinx must advise employees they were not limited in their ability to file a charge or complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or any other federal, state or local agency or commission. Additionally, the SEC stated that the severance agreements must inform employees that they were not limited in their ability to communicate with any governmental agency, nor from participating in an investigation or action by such agencies, or from receiving any monies for providing information (i.e., the Dodd-Frank whistleblowing reward).
This last provision is particularly troubling, as the nature of the release is that the employee gives up a claim for potential future monetary recovery in exchange for a current payment. Almost every current, well-drafted release informs an employee that, although he or she may provide information for and assist in government investigations, there is no longer any right to share in monetary recoveries.
This decision parallels some recent decisions and guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board wherein the agencies have scrutinized severance agreements and found certain language to have a chilling effect on the exercise of statutory rights, and it highlights the need for employers to review carefully the language that is included in severance and separation agreements.