Second Circuit Holds That Separation Agreement Complied With The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), Justifying Dismissal of ADEA Complaint

In Ridinger v. Dow Jones & Co. Inc., 651 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2011), the Second Circuit affirmed an SDNY decision dismissing plaintiff’s complaint alleging age discrimination under the ADEA.  Defendant argued that plaintiff’s claims were barred by a Separation Agreement under which plaintiff agreed to waive all claims (including those under the ADEA) against defendant.  Plaintiff argued that the agreement was unenforceable because it failed to comply with the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), 29 U.S.C. 629(f), and associated EEOC regulations (29 C.F.R. 1625.22(b)).

According to the Court, the agreement complied with the OWBPA’s “clarity requirement”, as well as its other provisions.  In particular, it differed from those found by other courts not to comply with OWBPA’s clarity requirement.  In those cases, for example, the agreements provided that the employee agreed to release “all claims” including “claims arising from” the ADEA and also stated that the “covenant not to sue does not apply to actions based solely under” the ADEA.  This could have led a lay employee to believe they had a right to sue under the ADEA.

In contrast, the agreement here clearly explained that it was only the “financial obligations” flowing from a breach of the promise not to sue that “would not apply to a suit filed solely under the ADEA”, and explicitly provided elsewhere that “the waivers and releases … still apply to ADEA claims.”

Furthermore, plaintiff could not show that the waiver section of the agreement contained “technical jargon” or “complex sentences that are written in a manner not calculated to be understood by the average individual”; indeed, plaintiff could not specify what “jargon” he found confusing.

Having rejected plaintiff’s OWBPA challenge, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal.