Determining Severance Leverage: Five Questions You’d Need Answered

If you’ve been presented with a severance agreement, leverage may exist to negotiate better severance terms and payment.  However, most workers who have such potential leverage do not fully realize it or benefit from it. Before determining (and using) leverage, one must first get answers to these five questions.

(1) What are all of your potential legal claims?

It may not be your goal to file or pursue a legal claim. However, the potential for a legal action, and potential values associated with a legal action, are usually the main driving forces that motivate an employer to offer a severance agreement and to negotiate thereafter. The main thing an employer “gets” from a severance agreement is the employee’s waiver of potential or actual legal claims.

So, do you know all the potential legal claims you should examine, to determine if your pre-severance circumstances (e.g. circumstances of discharge) violated any of their standards?

It is very common for employees to research some potential claims, but fail to research many other potential claims they simply do not know about. For example, many workers fired from a job will research certain Federal discrimination laws (e.g. review EEOC website descriptions of Federal Title VII discrimination claims), but fail to review all potential Federal discrimination claims (e.g. fail to review Section 1981 Federal claims not handled by EEOC, etc.), fail to review State-law discrimination claims, and fail to review the hundreds of non-discrimination laws, Federal and State, that prohibit job terminations on various grounds. For example, some workers who have called me about “discrimination” concerns had in actuality (after I reviewed their facts/evidence and many laws) had strong potential claims under particular anti-retaliation or whistleblowing laws, under certain wage or benefit related laws, etc. etc.

To examine all potential legal claims requires examination of a long list of laws, and usually a much longer list than a discharged worker has ever heard of.

(2) What value does for each viable potential claim have if it were won?

It’s one thing to identify a strong potential legal claim. It’s another thing to know what potential value exists if you were to win such a claim.

For example, a worker could have smoking-gun proof of age discrimination, e.g. he may have written or recorded statements from the firing manager, saying the worker was “fired because you are 70 years old.” But if that same worker picked up a job the next day that paid as much as the job he was fired from, the value of a winning ADEA Federal age discrimination claim, for that worker with all the circumstances above (including perfect proof), would be zero.

Yet some other workers, with less-strong (but viable) proof of age discrimination, have potential age discrimination claims with six- or seven- figure values.

You may be thinking “Huh?!” If so, welcome to the world of employment-law damages (money) assessment. Sometimes, the value of a potential legal claim in the legal world defies common sense in the real world. The value of a potential legal claim depends greatly on a particular worker’s circumstances, and one seemingly small circumstance can make a huge difference in whether someone does or does not have a potential claim with significant value.

(3) What realistic range of results is likely for each potential claim, based on real-world chances of success for those claims and real-world behavior of judges and others potentially involved in the processes at hand?

Some types of employment law claims in some legal forums, when statistically-analyzed as a whole, have very low odds of success. Others fare much better statistically. In my experience and observation of certain judges’ decisions, I am aware of a few particular judges who I have sound reason to believe dismiss over 90% of certain discrimination cases that they are asked to make decisions about. No matter how good a potential legal claim or its value may look on paper, the real-world value of that potential claim may be lower or higher based on the particular legal forums, actors and procedures associated with such a claim.  When I assess the value of a potential claim for a potential client, I consider these real-world factors along with the types of laws referenced above involving case merits and damages.

(4) Why should your opposing employer take you seriously if you mention potential employment law rights or litigation but you are not represented by a employment litigation attorney?

Anyone could tell their former employer, as part of a severance negotiation attempt, that they “could” get an attorney or “could” pursue legal action.  Actually taking these actions requires an additional level of commitment, time, and (sometimes, if a non-contingency attorney is retained) expense. Employers hear these “coulds” a lot and most don’t take such talk seriously or let it affect their severance evaluation. If you feel your situation is different than the norm, you should have very concrete ideas as to why; as a default matter, an employer has more legal and financial resources and experience than does an unrepresented worker that the employer fired.

(5) Is the final offer you’re considering a good one, in light of the factors above?

Answers to the questions above are helpful in identifying a realistic range of potential legal claim values, and range of severance values/offers you may make. But whether a final, bottom-line offer is fair and reasonable is a big determination in and of itself.

For example, sometimes (1) I will tell a worker-client– for whom I have negotiated with an employer and received an increased severance offer– that I feel the employer’s final offer is far less than the likely value of a case pursued in litigation; but (2) the worker still wants to accept that offer rather than take the path of litigation and its associated delays, risks, etc. On other occasions, I tell a worker that an employer’s final offer is in my view better than the likely result of litigation, but the worker nonetheless prefers to pursue litigation rather than accept the offer.

Either scenario, I think, is fine. It’s your decision what your bottom-line expectations for a severance should be. However, it is in your best interests that the decision be an informed decision, and that you have answers to the five questions above before making it.

Obviously, it’s in my interest to say that I can help answer the  questions above and that you can contact me (at no charge) to get answers. But more importantly from your standpoint is that you contact some employee rights attorney — whose expertise and out of pocket costs, if any, are acceptable to you– and get the information you need to make informed decisions for your benefit.


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