A federal appeals court has ruled that job applicants who sign waivers promising not to sue their employers over workplace disputes aren't automatically barred from filing lawsuits.
Michigan couple Alan and Kimberly Alonso can proceed with their discrimination and retaliation claims in federal court, even though they had signed such waivers when they applied for jobs as paramedics in 2005.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that the couple did not "knowingly and intelligently" waive their right to judicial recourse because they didn't know exactly what they were signing nor were they clear on what the alternatives to litigation would be. In this case, the alternative was the company's grievance review board.
"At the time the Alonsos signed waivers of their rights to a judicial forum, they had no idea what the Grievance Review Board process entailed. They were never informed of their right to revoke their waiver. They were not given any documentation regarding the process until almost a month after they began their employment," the court wrote in Alonso v. Huron Valley Ambulance Inc.
Given all that, the court concluded, the couple could not have "knowingly and voluntarily" waived their right to go to court.
In other words, said Heidi Sharp of Clinton Twp., Mich.'s Burgess & Sharp, who represented the Alonsos, "These waivers really should not be, 'Just sign here on the dotted line.' If you want to have a waiver, you need to explain it to employees, and they need time to consider it."
According to Sharp, her clients did not get that time. She said they were in a small room with about 14 other applicants and were told, "This is your only chance to apply." Plus, there was no one in the room to answer questions.
Sharp said she has seen an increase in employers requiring job applicants to waive their rights to legal recourse. "We've challenged several waivers," she said, adding that this is the first time a court has struck them down.
As for Huron Valley Ambulance, it's prepared to litigate the Alonso case on the merits, said Trisha Benson of Detroit's Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, who represented the company on appeal. "This case is really about people who were abusing time off for work," she said.
At the heart of the underlying lawsuits are claims that Huron Valley Ambulance retaliated and discriminated against the Alonsos for taking time off for health-related reasons. In February 2008, Alan Alonso was terminated for allegedly lying about his attendance at an Army National Guard training course and testing positive for a mind-altering and function-altering substance while at work. Kimberly Alonso, who had requested time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act due to a pregnancy, was allegedly subjected to a hostile work environment and retaliated against for taking FMLA leave.
A district court dismissed all claims. In Alan's case, the court upheld the grievance review board process as being fair. In Kimberly's case, it held that she had not exhausted her administrative remedies.
Benson asserted that Huron Valley Ambulance has evidence to prove no wrongdoing on its part, including that Alan was allegedly at an amusement park when he said he needed time off for military exercises and that Kimberly, who allegedly said that she couldn't drive an ambulance, was allegedly caught on tape driving to lunch and to Ohio 300 miles away.
Benson also defended her client's waivers, saying, "There is case law to show that these waivers are valid contrary to this court's opinion."