Your Separation Agreement: Does It Mean What You Want It To?
A recent Michigan Court of Appeals opinion highlights the importance of clearly and precisely drafting separation agreements. I’ll try and whittle this down the bare necessities.
Sandeep Sohal was a medical resident in Michigan State University’s program. However, it was determined that he should be dismissed from the program. It was ugly. A mutual separation agreement was inked which stipulated that:
- Sohal is deemed a resignation.
- MSU agreed to segregate any records regarding the dismissal hearing from his file.
- The parties would not “knowingly disparage” the other and waived the right to “sue, grieve, or otherwise bring a complaint against the other.”
After signing the Separation Agreement, Sohal filed suit alleging that since leaving MSU, he attempted on numerous occasions to engage with another residency program. In each case, he was initially accepted into the program but as soon as the program contacted MSU Sohal was denied a resident position based on information passed along by Michigan State.
MSU relied on a legal definition of the term. “Disparagement” is “a false and injurious statement that discredits or detracts from the reputation of another’s property, product, or business.” Black’s Law Dictionary.
Sohal argued for a different definition of “disparagement:” “The American Heritage Dictionary states that ‘disparagement’ means:
- To speak of in a slighting or disrespectful way; belittle.
- To reduce esteem or rank.”
The trial court accepted Sohal’s definition. Of course MSU, appealed. On appeal, the court further concluded that the term “disparage” in a non-disparagement clause of a separation agreement was unambiguous and should be given its plain, ordinary dictionary meaning and not the Black’s Law Dictionary.
Is seems employers and employees for that matter would greatly benefit from re-reviewing with experienced legal counsel their separation or other employment agreements. This could eliminate or at least reduce the risks that either party will later successfully claim the agreement’s ambiguities.