Sixth Circuit Determines Couple Did Not Knowingly Waive Their Right To Sue

Many times job applications contain “legalese” – language that may waive a right or in someway limit an employee’s path to recovery. However, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, provisions contained in a job application which limit an individual’s legal remedies may not be enforceable if the applicant did not knowingly or voluntarily waive those rights.

In Alonso v. Huron Valley Ambulance Co., the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed job applications signed by a married couple – Alan and Kimberly Alonso – seeking positions as paramedics with an ambulance company. Included on the forms were clauses providing that employees must submit any employment disputes to a grievance review board, including discrimination and contract issues. The forms also stated that candidates hired by the company could not commence any employment related action or legal proceeding for more than six months after the employment relationship ended and required the candidate to “waive any statute of limitation as to the contrary.”

The Alonsos signed these forms and were hired.

At an orientation meeting over a month later, the Alonsos received company manuals detailing an elaborate grievance procedure, including a provision that any dispute “arising out of or in connection with” employment, including civil rights, tort and contract claims “shall be exclusively subject to review by the Grievance Review Board” and any decision reached by the board would be binding.

In 2007, Alan joined the Army National Guard. Shortly thereafter Alan was fired for allegedly making false claims of being absent from work due to military duty and testing positive for a prescribed medication. Alan protested his firing, but the grievance board upheld the termination. Alan then sued in federal court claiming retaliation, as well as being terminated in violation of USERRA.

Kimberly joined the action as well, with allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

The trial court dismissed all claims holding that Alan had knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to proceed on any claims he had submitted to the board and that Kimberly had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies by not following the grievance process.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit Court disagreed with the District Court – holding that it was error to dismiss the claims. A unanimous Circuit Court panel determined that the Alonso’s had not knowingly or voluntarily waived their right to sue the company in court and reasoned that the Alonsos were not properly informed about the grievance process when they initially signed the job forms, and no evidence existed that they understood the remedies they were foregoing. As a result, the court reinstated the Alonso’s underlying claims.

Employment applications and handbooks often contain confusing language and provisions, which can limit your right to recovery or affect the available judicial remedies. Although a court may find these provisions are not enforceable if you do not “knowingly or voluntarily” sign them, the best course of action is to have an attorney review any employment related documents at the outset. If you have questions concerning employment applications and contracts, please contact Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, a Georgia law firm dedicated to protecting individual’s employment rights.