The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) provides some of the most sweeping obligations under federal labor laws. Employers with employees or applicants who leave for services in the active military, reserves, or National Guard are afforded broad protections in terms of job-protected leave, as well as eligibility for promotions upon return if they would have been elevated absent the military leave. This summer, a federal district court in Tennessee extended USERRA’s protections further, holding that a general release of claims signed by the employee did not preclude a later lawsuit alleging violation of the law’s leave rights.
In Ward v. Shelby County, the plaintiff was terminated following the results of an audit that concluded that he had received paid military leave without any record of actually participating in National Guard service. He was terminated, and in conjunction with his departure, he signed a general release that qualified him for future employment and paid three weeks’ severance. He then sued the county, claiming that its leave policies violated USERRA. Both parties moved for summary judgment, with the county claiming that the release precluded the plaintiff’s claims.
The district court agreed with the plaintiff, granting him summary judgment on his USERRA claim. The court held that a general employment release cannot preclude later USERRA actions because the release made no specific mention of him waiving rights based on his military status. In addition, the court concluded that the three weeks’ pay was insufficient consideration under USERRA to waive his rights under that law. Basically, the court said that USERRA occupies a special place under federal labor law, granting rights and imposing obligations that go beyond other antidiscrimination laws.
This decision is not binding on and may not be followed by other federal courts. However, employers may want to amend their general releases to specifically notify employees that they are waiving their rights under USERRA. In addition, if the matter involves an employee who has taken or requested military leave, the release should set forth separate consideration for the USERRA release, along with an explanation of why that payment is fair compensation for the specific rights given up by the employee.