Confidentiality clauses are typical in settlement, severance, and separation agreements, as employers typically want to avoid a situation where a former employee openly discloses the amount of a settlement or severance payment. Employers often offer significant monetary consideration in exchange for, among other things, the employee’s discretion. Recently, a Florida appeals court found that a former school headmaster violated the terms of a confidential age discrimination settlement with the school, after his daughter jokingly mentioned the settlement in a Facebook post saying “Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.” The settlement required the employee and his wife not to reveal the existence and terms of the settlement agreement to anyone other than their attorneys or professional advisers. As a result of his daughter’s gleeful disclosure, the employee’s payout was reduced by $80,000!
For employers, this case highlights the importance of including confidentiality language in settlement agreements which clearly communicates what conduct is prohibited and who can learn information about the settlement. In addition, if an agreement indicates that others are expressly permitted to learn of the agreement’s terms, such as a spouse or immediate family member, it is prudent to also specify that a breach by any of those individuals will be considered a breach by the employee, and as a result, will subject the employee to the same penalties. Moreover, adding an express reference to social media may be worthwhile. The agreement at issue in the Florida case did not, and it took two courts to finally determine, much to dad’s chagrin, that disclosure on Facebook constituted a breach.
The case also shows a willingness of courts to enforce reasonable confidentiality terms, especially in a situation where the result of the breach is exactly the type of harm the company sought to prevent. When considering what types of penalties to include for a breach, it is important to ensure that the penalty is not oppressive and/or punitive. In this case, the company paid the employee the agreed-upon back pay and attorneys’ fees and sought only to recover the amount provided for punitive damages. However, a court may be less likely to enforce a penalty for a breach that goes well beyond the amount contemplated by the settlement agreement.
Lastly, as this case demonstrates, even inadvertent disclosures, whether online or in some other forum, can prove costly and result in legal and financial liability. Consequently, companies should take proactive steps to prevent such disclosures. For instance, companies should put physical and electronic safeguards in place to protect confidential information, only disclose confidential information to employees with a need to know, and if such information is disclosed, ensure that employees understand their obligations to keep the information confidential. Following basic rules and common sense can avoid odd conclusions the dad was forced to live with in Florida.
Sara Dajani is an Associate Attorney with the DC region business law firm of Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. Sara can be reached at [email protected]