Exiting the exit agreement: a departing employee’s claims of coercion and duress

It happens with some regularity that an employee refers a dismissal dispute to the CCMA, and the employer arrives at the hearing bearing a termination agreement with the employee’s signature. In it, the employee agrees to resign from employment, often in return for some benefit such as an extra month or two’s pay, or the privilege of leaving honourably rather than being dismissed and incurring a disciplinary record for serious misconduct. The employee will usually concede that they signed the agreement, but argue that they were bullied into it. The CCMA commissioner will advise them that the agreement is binding until set aside by the Labour Court on solid grounds, such as duress, and close their file.

In the recent matter of Gbenga-Oluwatoye versus Reckitt Benckiser SA, an employee went as far as approaching the Labour Court and, thereafter, the Labour Appeal Court, in his quest to get out of a termination agreement he admitted signing with the employer.

The employee was approached by a headhunter while employed in a lucrative position with a large multinational. He later left his lucrative position, but actively concealed this from the headhunter, negotiating a generous sign-on bonus on the false basis that he was losing a handsome shareholding by leaving the large multinational to join the employer. In short, he deceived and defrauded the new employer.

Some months into his employment with the new employer, the employee’s misconduct came to light. He was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing,  and then summarily dismissed. On receipt of his termination letter, the employee approached the employer requesting a “softer exit”. He offered to repay the money over time, in exchange for the employer delaying action to revoke his work permit and housing allowance. The employer agreed, and the employer expressed his gratitude for the humanity shown him.

A termination agreement was then drawn up in draft form. The employee was unwilling to sign the first draft, but agreed to sign a second draft. The agreement recorded that it was in full and final settlement of any claims between the parties, and that it was entered into voluntarily without any coercion or pressure. The employee agreed, in the agreement, that he waived any right to approach the CCMA and Labour Court arising in any way from his employment and the termination agreement.

A week later, however, the employee brought an urgent application to the Labour Court, for an order setting aside the termination agreement and reinstating him into his employment. He argued that the agreement was against public policy and that he had been coerced into signing it through fear of losing his work permit and housing and other allowances.

The Labour Court was unsympathetic. It had regard to the fact that the employer had a legal entitlement to dismiss the employee summarily on account of his serious misconduct, and also the fact that the agreement had been further negotiated after the employee had been dissatisfied with the first draft. There were no facts to indicate that he signed the agreement only as a result of duress by the employer.

The employee was unrelenting, and took the matter further to the Labour Appeal Court, on appeal.

The Labour Appeal Court pointed out that, in order to get out of an agreement on the basis of duress, intimidation or improper pressure had to be proven of such magnitude that the purported consent of the signatory was no true consent. There had to be actual violence or a fear caused by the threat of a considerable evil. The threat had to be unlawful or against the morals of the community.

Although the Court did not point this out, it goes without saying that the loss of a work permit and of allowances due to termination of employment by resignation or by summary dismissal for gross misconduct, are lawful and reasonable consequences. They cannot be construed to be unlawful or against the morals of the community.

The Court did point out that, while everyone has the constitutional right to seek redress through the courts, this right could be limited in reasonable circumstances. Parties were free to limit this right in their free contractual dealings. The Court found that the employee was an experienced, senior managerial employee, who would understand the import of what he was agreeing to. Clauses limiting the right of redress were standard in termination agreements, and of practical value.

Finally, the Court point out that it had no power to set aside agreements simply because they appeared to be unfair.

The Court accordingly upheld the termination agreement, and dismissed the employee’s application with costs.

Caveat subscriptor – “signer, beware!” – is a well-worn legal maxim for good reason. All parties should be slow to sign any agreement unless they are completely satisfied with the terms, and should be aware that by signing an agreement they trigger important legal consequences which cannot be easily evaded. In the absence of compelling evidence of significant unlawful pressure, a party who foolishly signs an unfair or prejudicial agreement, will be held to its terms.

 

 

 

Key changes to the labour laws in 2015 – part 8: PART-TIME EMPLOYMENT

As this blog series comes to a close, we have yet to consider the recent changes to the law on part-time employment.

Again, the new law applies only to employees who earn below the currently prescribed threshold of R205 433,30 per year. It does not apply to employees who ordinarily work fewer than 24 hours a month for the employer, nor does it apply in the first three months of employment.

Employers with fewer than 10 employees, and those with less than 50 but in the initial two year start-up phase, are exempt.

The part-time employee is entitled to be treated on the whole not less favourably than a comparable full-time employee doing the same or similar work, unless there is a justifiable reason for different treatment. She is further entitled to access to training and skills development which is on the whole not less favourable than the access applicable to a comparable full-time employee. She is entitled to the same access to opportunities to apply for vacancies at the employer.

A justifiable reason may include seniority, experience or length of service; merit; the quality or quantity of work performed; or any other criterion of a similar nature.

A comparable employee is one who is identified as full-time in terms of the employer’s custom and practice, but not an employee on agreed temporary short time. One should compare with a full-time employee with the same type of employment relationship and performing the same or similar work at the same workplace, and only at another workplace of the employer if no such employee exists at the same workplace.

As with the new law governing fixed term contracts, greater equity between those enjoying standard (permanent, full-time) employment and those subject to non-standard (fixed term, part-time) employment is the objective. In the event of an infraction, the aggrieved employee may refer a dispute to the CCMA within six months. If not resolved at conciliation (that is, mediation) then the dispute may be referred for arbitration.

Key changes to the labour laws in 2015 – part 7: FIXING THE FIXED TERM CONTRACT

Many people are employed on fixed term contracts which are renewed time and again with no promise of job security beyond the current term of the contract. After the third or sixth or twelfth renewal, the employer announces that the contract will not be renewed further, and the employee’s attention is drawn to the term of the contract stating that she agrees that she has no expectation of further renewal. After three or six or twelve continuous years of employment, the relationship has been terminated without any fault on the employee’s part, and in the employer’s view no due process is called for.

The LRA has long provided that a failure by an employer to renew a fixed term contract (or an offer to renew but on less favourable terms) is a dismissal IF the employee can establish that she reasonably expected renewal. This has assisted affected employees who have the stomach to contest their dismissal at the CCMA AND who are able to produce the necessary evidence to show that they had an expectation of renewal which was reasonable in the circumstances. Many more have walked away from their employment situations with a sense that injustice has prevailed.

As of 2015, the LRA has been amended to come to the assistance of employees earning less than the currently prescribed threshold of R205 433,30 per year. Higher earners do not benefit from the new law. Exempted from compliance are employers with fewer than 10 employees, as well as employers with fewer than 50 employees who are in the initial start-up phase of two years.

The new law allows fixed term contracts (including renewals) for periods up to three months only. Fixed term contracts (including renewals) may exceed three months in duration only if (1) the work is of limited or definite duration in nature or (2) the employer can show another justifiable reason. The latter might include:

  • replacing an employee temporarily absent from work (such as on maternity leave)
  • a temporary increase in work volume not expected to last beyond one year (such as a one-off large order)
  • the employee is a student or recent graduate being trained or gaining work experience to enter a job or profession (such as a candidate attorney)
  • the employment is for work on a specific project only, of limited duration
  • a non-citizen employee has a work permit for a limited period only
  • the work is seasonal (such as apple picking)
  • the work is part of an official public works scheme or other job creation scheme
  • the position is funded by an external source for a limited period (such as in the NGO sector)
  • the employee is post-retirement age

The Act goes on to state that a justifiable reason includes the application of a system that takes account of seniority or length of service, merit, the quality or quantity of work performed, or other criteria of a similar nature.

Where the fixed term employment exceeds three months and there is no valid justification, the employment is deemed to be indefinite (that is, permanent) employment.

The employer’s offer of fixed term employment must be in writing and must specify a valid reason for the fixed term nature of employment.

In any proceedings, the employer bears the burden to prove that there was a valid reason for fixed term employment, and that the term was agreed with the employee.

Absent a justifiable reason, fixed term employees performing the same work as permanent employees are entitled to no less favourable treatment. Permanent and fixed term employees are also to be provided with equal opportunity to apply for vacant positions.

Where an employee is employed for a fixed term to work exclusively on a specific project of limited duration, for a period of over twenty-four months, then on termination the employer must pay that employee severance pay equal to one week’s pay per completed year of the contract. This applies prospectively to any work subsequent to the amendment date (1 January 2015) even if the contract was concluded before the amendment. No severance pay is payable, however, if before expiry of the contract the employer offers the employee, or procures for the employee with another employer, employment commencing at expiry on the same or similar terms.

This amendment is one of the most welcome changes to our labour law from an employee perspective, with the scope to prevent a great deal of abuse of the fixed term contract. One waits to see how strictly or generously the CCMA and courts will interpret the requirement that an employer demonstrate a justifiable reason for fixing the term of a contract.

Key changes to the labour laws in 2015 – part 3: ARBITRATION, THE LABOUR COURT AND REVIEW

PRIVATE ARBITRATION

Where an employer and employee have made no other agreement about resolution of disputes between them, their disputes are generally conciliated and, if not required to go to the Labour Court, arbitrated by the CCMA or a bargaining council, in terms of the Labour Relations Act, in what is known as “compulsory arbitration”. However some employers and employees agree up-front in employment contracts to bypass the system of compulsory arbitration, and rather have disputes resolved by way of private arbitration. Private arbitration services are provided by private companies, as opposed to compulsory arbitration which is provided by the CCMA, set up by statute, or bargaining councils, set up by industry-wide agreements.

In the past, if the CCMA accepted a dispute referral but then realised that the parties had agreed to private arbitration, the CCMA would generally decline to hear the matter, and insist that it be referred instead to the relevant private arbitrator as per the parties’ agreement.

The legislature identified abuse of the scope for private arbitration, however, and has amended the Labour Relations Act this year to require the CCMA to hear disputes, even where they ordinarily would not have the power to do so owing to a private arbitration clause in an agreement. This amendment applies (1) when an employee who earns less than R205 000* per year (*subject to change)  is required by the agreement to pay any part of the costs of the private arbitration, and (2) when the private arbitrator nominated in the agreement is not independent of the employer.

THE LABOUR COURT AND ARBITRATION

Where the Labour Court receives a referral of a dispute which ought to have been referred to arbitration, the court may either refer the dispute to arbitration or continue with the proceedings and make only an order which an arbitrator would have been empowered to make. In the past, the Labour Court could only continue with the proceedings with the consent of all the parties. As of 2015, the parties’ consent is no longer necessary, and instead the court can determine that it is expedient to continue and do so regardless of any objection by either party.

MORE RESTRICTIONS ON REVIEW APPLICATIONS

While the majority of review applications are no doubt brought in good faith, as mentioned in a previous post, they have also been much abused as delaying tactics and for employers in particular to evade compliance with awards despite there being no real prospect of overturning the awards. Some review applications have languished in court files for years, and employees have lacked the knowledge or means to force matters along effectively.

In a further attempt to tighten the reins on abuse of review applications, and resultant unnecessary delays and cost increases in proceedings, the legislature has determined that, as of 2015, no review may be brought of any decision or ruling made during conciliation or arbitration until the issue in dispute has been finally determined. The exception shall be when the court is of the view that it is just and equitable to hear the review at an earlier stage. This will prevent many a party from abandoning arbitration hearings on the first day, and holding the process hostage by filing reviews of minor determinations made by an arbitrator before even hearing evidence on the main issue.

Impossibility of Performance in the Workplace

Imagine that you own an optometry practice located in a busy shopping mall. A fellow tenant of the mall accuses your employee of theft, and the management of the mall bans your employee from ever setting foot in the mall again. She can no longer enter your office at the mall without being ejected by mall security.

Obviously, in these circumstances, you are relieved from the duty to employ the employee concerned, and you simply terminate her contract – right? Wrong.

Our case law indicates that cases such as these – known as “supervening impossibility of performance” cases – must be treated as cases of incapacity. Cases of incapacity include instances where an employee becomes sick or injured, and therefore unable to perform their work, in whole or in part, and on a temporary or permanent basis.

The law sets out duties with which the employer must comply in such cases. In essence, the law expects the employer to accommodate and assist an employee who is incapacitated. The extent to which this must be done depends on the facts of each case. Where the incapacity arose in the course of the employee’s employment – for example a shop assistant falls off a ladder while packing goods on shop shelves, and injures herself – more is expected from the employer. More is also expected from a large employer who has “deep pockets” and can better afford to be generous.

In some cases, the period for which the employee cannot work is short, and the employer can do without the employee or get by through hiring a temporary replacement.

If, in the circumstances, the employee will be prevented from working for a period which is unreasonably long, the employer cannot simply dismiss and replace the employee, but must first consider all options short of dismissal. This might include, in the case of the optometrist’s employee, transferring her to another branch located outside of the mall from which she was banned. It might include adapting the employee’s work circumstances – for example,  providing seating to an employee who would normally be required to work standing – or adapting the employee’s duties to accommodate her incapacity. It might also involve providing the employee with alternative work if this is available – and as a last resort before dismissal a demotion might be justified.

It may well be that, having investigated all of these options together with the employee, there is no alternative to dismissal. Then the employer can rest assured that he or she has treated the employee fairly and that the resultant dismissal will be both substantively and procedurally fair. In the absence of taking the trouble to investigate these options, however, any dismissal is likely to be both substantively and procedurally unfair, and ultimately prejudicial to both parties.

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