Employment-Eleventh Circuit Rules That Plaintiff Waived Her Rights Under The FMLA By Signing A Severance Agreement, Despite DOL Proscription Against Prospective FMLA Waivers

In Paylor v. Hartford Fire Insurance Company, No. 13-12696 (11th Cir. 2014), the plaintiff, Blanche Paylor (“Paylor”), appeals the district court’s grant of summary judgment for her former employer, Hartford Fire Insurance Company (“Hartford”), on her claims of interference and retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (the “FMLA”). In this case, although Paylor signed a Severance Agreement with Hartford ostensibly waiving her FMLA claims, she argues that those claims were “prospective” and therefore not waivable under Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulations. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(d) (2009). In the alternative, Paylor argues that her signing of the Severance Agreement was not knowing and voluntary, and that the Severance Agreement is void as contrary to public policy.

In analyzing the case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that the only issue is the validity of the Severance Agreement that Paylor signed, since if the agreement is valid, then Paylor waived her FMLA rights. Paylor’s principal argument for invalidity is that the district court erred in concluding that she waived her FMLA claims when she signed the Severance Agreement. Paylor says this waiver cannot be enforceable against her because the FMLA does not permit employees to waive “prospective rights” without Department of Labor (“DOL”) or court approval, and her rights in this case were “prospective” in the sense that she had–at the time she signed the agreement–an outstanding request for FMLA leave.

The Court noted a DOL regulation, which says “Employees cannot waive, nor may employers induce employees to waive, their prospective rights under FMLA.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(d) (2009). According to the Court, it is well-settled that an employee may not waive “prospective” rights under the FMLA, but an employee can release FMLA claims that concern past employer behavior. But what are “prospective rights”? The Court said that such rights, under the FMLA, are those allowing an employee to invoke FMLA protections at some unspecified time in the future, so that an employee may not waive FMLA rights, in advance, for violations of the statute that have yet to occur. The Severance Agreement Paylor signed did not ask her to assent to a general exception to the FMLA, but rather to a release of the specific claims she might have based on past interference or retaliation. Hence, Paylor did not waive prospective rights.

The Court disposed of Paylor’s remaining arguments based on a review of the record, finding she voluntarily signed the Severance Agreement based on a totality of the circumstances, and that the public policy argument was not presented to the district court and therefore cannot be addressed on appeal. As such, the Court concluded that the Severance Agreement-and the waiver of the FMLA rights- is valid, and the Court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Hartford.