The recent case of Wakeley v. M.J. Brunner, Inc. is another harsh example of what can happen to people who sign legal documents without understanding what they mean. Before getting into the details of this case, the lesson is to read before you sign any legal document.
The plaintiff, Ms. Wakeley, was happily employed at her job in Dallas, TX when a corporate recruiter contacted her regarding a position with the defendant, M.J. Brunner, in Pittsburgh, PA. After a series of interviews, M.J. Brunner offered Ms. Wakeley the position, but then revoked the offer before Ms. Wakeley accepted citing a change in plans. This should have been a red flag for Ms. Wakeley. However, a short while later, the Brunner company called again and told Ms. Wakeley they had an executive taking maternity leave. They offered her the temporary position with slightly more attractive compensation than the original offer and the promise that there would be another similar permanent position for her when the executive returned from maternity leave. Ms. Wakeley accepted the offer, moved her family from Dallas to the Pittsburgh area, and began working for M.J. Brunner. When she started her new job, she signed a contract which included a standard “at-will employment” clause. For anyone not familiar with “at-will employment,” it means either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship “at will” at any time for any reason or even no reason at all.
Ms. Wakeley’s tenure at M.J. Brunner, Inc. was short-lived. Her superiors criticized her work performance and fired her four days before the incumbent executive returned from maternity leave.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Wakeley brought a lawsuit against M.J. Brunner. She argued she should not be considered an “at-will” employee because she suffered the additional hardship of relocating across the country. She also claimed M.J. Brunner never intended to offer her a permanent position and fraudulently lured her to leave her job in Dallas just to cover the executive’s maternity leave. However, the court held that the language in Ms. Wakeley’s contract was “clear and dispositive.” She could not claim to be anything other than an “at will” employee when she signed a contract including the “at will” language and clearly identifying the employer’s right to end her employment at any time for any reason. The contract also stated that no M.J. Brunner employee had the authority to make any oral statement to the contrary. The court held the contract language controlled despite what M.J. Brunner representatives may have said orally to her prior to signing the contract. The court presumed Ms. Wakeley had read the contract and understood its terms.
Whether you are presented with a contract upon starting your employment or a severance agreement when you leave, if you sign the agreement without seeking legal counsel, you do so at your own peril. Frankly, this advice is good advice for anyone given a legal document to sign. Severance agreements may contain non-competition clauses that can prevent an employee from accepting a job offer from a new employer. Business contracts may include many burdensome clauses that limit your legal rights and may even compel you to bring your lawsuit in another state. In short, if you sign a legal contract without seeking legal advice, you may find yourself in Pittsburgh without a paddle.
So, please give me a call before you sign any legal employment documents.