San Francisco Severance Agreement Lawyer

San Francisco Severance Agreement Lawyer

Severance Agreements: The Basics

Job termination can be a difficult event for both employees and employers. The professional and personal impact of a firing on an individual can prove stressful and raise a wide range of emotions, even if he or she has gone through it before.  For companies, terminating an employee can disrupt the business, affect employee morale, and present a personal challenge as much as an unfamiliar personnel action.   Sophisticated employers approach each situation with care and advance planning.

The question of severance pay arises in many terminations. An employee may wonder whether she has a right to severance, and . an employer may consider the pros and cons of offering the terminated employee severance.

Frequently Asked Questions:

The following provides an overview of severance from the perspective of the employee and the employer.


Private sector employers have no statutory obligation to provide an employee with severance pay.  Some employers have policies providing severance agreements under certain circumstances.  The question of entitlement for employees of these companies depends entirely on the policy.  Some employees may have an individual right to severance based on a provision of their employment agreement, typically providing a right to severance in the event of a termination without “cause” or a resignation for “good reason” (the definitions of which the agreement will detail).  Generally limited to executive contracts and agreements with higher-level employees, the severance provision defines the circumstances under which the person receives severance and the components of the severance package.

Absent a policy or individual agreement guaranteeing severance, an individual generally has no right to severance regardless of the reason for the termination, the person’s performance, or the length of employment.  But the fact that an employer may have no legal or contractual obligation to provide severance does not mean that it has no reason to do so.


Employers frequently offer severance even where they have no legal obligation.  They may do so for any number of reasons, including the desire to thank the person for their contributions and service and to soften the financial impact and ease the person’s transition into his/her next job.  But perhaps the most compelling reason for an employer to offer severance in such circumstances has to do with the promises and protections that the employer gets in return for the severance paid (discussed below).


If an employer has a binding policy or contract obligating it to pay severance, it must pay to the terminated employee the specified severance benefits.  Absent a policy or an individual agreement, however, the decision about how much to offer rests entirely with the employer just like the initial decision about whether to offer any severance at all.  In deciding how much severance to offer, employers have so frequently used two rules of thumb that people often mistakenly assume there exists some legal requirement.  First, employers often base the amount of severance on the length of employment; awarding, for example, one or two weeks per year of service.  Second, employers commonly use round numbers tied to a person’s compensation at the time of termination; for example, one, two, three, etc. months of pay.

But an employer, having no legal obligation to provide severance, can apply any formula it chooses or no formula at all.  An employer need not provide severance according to formulas used in the past and need not even apply the same formula for multiple employees offered severance at the same time (in a layoff, for example).  Just as with any employment decision, however, the employer cannot base the decision about whether to award severance or the amount of severance offered on certain unlawful criteria such as racegender, or other protected statuses.  In addition to the administrative simplicity and the avoidance of unfairness, the consistent use of criteria determining whether to award severance and a formula for calculating severance enables reduces the risk in this regard.


In some cases, an employer can easily determine how much severance to offer.  It need only offer the amount specified in the policy or agreement, or an amount consistent with what it has or will offer others.  But if a policy or contract does not require a certain amount, setting the amount will depend on how much it will take to persuade the person to sign a severance agreement and the value that the employer places on getting an agreement signed.  That, in turn, depends on the value of the claims that the individual would release in a typical severance agreement, the risk that he or she would pursue those claims, and the importance to the employer in securing the additional protections a severance agreement provides.  The stronger the individual’s claims and the greater the risk of litigation, the greater the value of the release and the more it may cost to purchase that release (and the greater the employer’s willingness to pay).


Many people equate severance with the payment of money, and this certainly qualifies as the most common form of severance.   But a severance can consist of anything of value to which the terminated employee has no entitlement other than the employer’s offer to provide it and usually conditioned on the employee signing a severance agreement.  Severance can include payment or reimbursement of COBRA premiums, payment of all or part of a bonus that the employee would not otherwise receive given the date of termination, acceleration of vesting in equity, the career counseling services, or any number of other payments or benefits.  Of course, a severance package can include a combination of two or more payments/benefits.


The law does not require that an employee sign a severance agreement as a condition of receiving severance, and employers sometimes offer severance without requiring the execution of an agreement (usually because they have offered only a small severance, they want to keep it simple, or they do not fully understand the value of a severance agreement).  But in most cases, an employer will require an agreement.  In severance policies and individual agreements providing for severance, the employer generally conditions the person’s right to the specified severance on his/her executing a severance agreement with a release of claims.  For an employer hoping to avoid potential disputes with the terminated employee by offering a parting payment, execution of a comprehensive and enforceable agreement can prove essential.


With some limitations, employers have wide latitude in conditioning severance on the execution of an agreement that includes a number of standard provisions and provides the broad protection that employers seek.  Although the scope varies from company to company, and even from person to person within a company (dependent on factors including the circumstances leading to the termination and terminated employee’s position), severance agreements typically include the following provisions.  First and foremost, the agreement includes a release of claims pursuant to which the terminated employee releases nearly all – but not all – claims that he or she may have against the company and perhaps others, and it includes a provision obligating the employer to give the employee certain things of value.  These provisions comprise the heart of a severance agreement.  The agreement might include a provision characterizing the employee’s termination as a voluntary resignation.  It might also include a provision limiting what the employer will say to those calling to get a reference for the terminated employee.  For the employer’s benefit or protection, a severance agreement might also include a confidentiality provision limiting the person’s right to disclose certain information, a non-disparagement provision restricting the person from saying bad things about the company, and certain restrictive covenants limiting the person in his or her next positions of employment (provisions for which the enforceability will vary from state to state and on which California law imposes substantial limitation).

Along with the many optional provisions, the parties can include, some provisions are required to ensure enforceability.  For example, federal law requires specific provisions if the agreement includes a release of claims for age discrimination and may require that the employer provide certain statistical information to the terminated individual.  Employers hoping to avoid challenges to the enforceability of severance agreements based on provisions that some federal agencies and courts have recently deemed unlawful must exercise caution in using the standard form agreements that they may have used for years without revision and must include specific provisions to avoid these recently identified problem areas.

Severance Negotiations in California

Clients often ask about the best approach to severance negotiations. Remember there are no California severance laws, no standard severance package a California employee is entitled to under California law. California does not provide statutory redundancy payments to laid off workers, and few companies have robust severance plans for employees.  So, in most cases, what you get is what you negotiate. You can expect that California severance agreements will have a few key terms: the amount and timing of severance payment and a release of claims (including the so-called “California Civil Code 1542 waiver”). Most other provisions are subject to negotiation. Possible additional terms (depending on circumstances) include a non-disparagement clause, a promise to keep the amount of the severance payment confidential, provisions regarding tax treatment and indemnification, and reaffirmation of trade secret/non-solicitation obligations.  Severance negotiations often turn on the leverage each party maintains, including whether the California employee has any claims he or she is releasing against the company as part of the severance agreement. Have a clear strategy going into the discussions, and consult with counsel before the negotiations start.  Proper planning will increase your chances of obtaining the desired result.


In short, severance agreements simply embody a contractual agreement between the company and a terminated employee.  In exchange for the employee’s release of claims and adherence to certain other obligations, the employer gives the person something of value.  Both the employer and the employee have to decide whether the value of what they receive equals or exceeds the value of what they will give.  As with any contract, however, the devil is in the details.  Each party needs to fully understand the value of the give and the get and what they can and cannot accomplish in a severance agreement.  Perhaps most important, they need to ensure the deal set out in the written agreement matches the deal they think they struck.


Severance Agreement Negotiation FAQ

Usually, yes. Sometimes severance is paid to employees pursuant to an existing severance pay plan. In some of those circumstances, there may be little or no room for negotiation. In most cases, however, severance can be negotiated. An employee’s ability to negotiate severance will depend on many factors, including whether the employee is receiving the payment is exchange for releasing valuable employment claims.
Severance packages vary widely depending on numerous factors, including industry practice and the type of employee involved. Some packages will include outplacement services, tax equalization (for expat employees), or equity acceleration. Often, the only compensation is a lump sum severance amount. Employees may also want to ask for non-monetary items like a non-disparagement clause or neutral reference.
Most severance agreements include a provision in which the employee gives up any legal claims they may have against the employer in exchange for the severance payment. It makes sense to have an attorney review your severance agreement before you give up any valuable rights.
Again, it depends. Sometimes, an employee may negotiate the amount of a severance payment on her own, without the assistance of counsel. Sometimes, an employee may obtain the advice of an attorney “behind the scenes,” while she negotiates directly with her employer. And sometimes, an attorney will send a demand letter to the employer, raising legal claims that the employee has against the employer. Which course makes the most sense will vary on the circumstances.
You may suffer serious consequences by refusing to sign a severance agreement. The biggest consequence may be that you do not receive the severance payment. By not signing a release of claims, you will keep your potential legal claims against the employer.
The severance agreement usually tells you how long you have to review and sign it. Most severance agreements give employees at least 21 days to consider the agreement. Sometimes, where the termination is in connection with a reduction in force or layoff, the employee may have 45 days to consider the severance agreement. You should review the agreement carefully when you receive it to determine how much time you have to consider it.
Usually, the severance agreement contains a release of claims. Except under very limited circumstances, an employee who signs a release of claims cannot sue over claims that were released. However, the employee may bring a claim if the employer fails to live up to its obligations (for example, if the employer does not pay the severance as promised).
Yes, severance agreements are enforceable in the same manner as any other contract. However, if a severance agreement contains an arbitration clause, you may be giving up your right to go to court to enforce the agreement. Instead, you may be required to bring any claim to private arbitration.
There are lots of reasons not to sign a severance agreement. If you have been wrongfully terminated, or are a victim of employment discrimination, or have not been paid wages properly, you may have a valuable legal claim that you are unwittingly giving up by signing a severance agreement. For that reason, it is important to seek legal advice before giving up your rights.
There is no typical severance package. Severance pay can range from a couple weeks of pay to millions of dollars in cash and equity awards. Highly paid executives usually receive larger severance payments than blue collar workers. But there is no hard and fast rule. For that reason, it is important to get legal advice before signing away your rights.