The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion in Wright v. Eugene & Agnes E. Meyer Foundation raises some concerns with otherwise limited non-disparagement provisions, which we discuss below.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Holds that a Non-Disparagement Provision Could be Interpreted Broadly.
In Wright, a separated employee entered into a separation agreement that included a non-disparagement clause. The employee was obligated not to disparage the employer, while the employer agreed to direct its officers, directors, and employees with knowledge of the separation agreement not to disparage the terminated employee.
More specifically, the provision at issue here stated:
Mutual Non-Disparagement. You agree that you have not made, and will not make, any false, disparaging or derogatory statements to any person or entity, including any media outlet, industry group or financial institution, regarding the Foundation or any of the other Releasees, or about the Foundation’s business affairs and/or financial conditions; provided, however, that nothing herein prevents you from making truthful disclosures to any governmental entity or in any litigation or arbitration. Likewise, the Foundation will direct those officers, directors, and employees with direct knowledge of this revised letter agreement not to make any false, disparaging or derogatory statements to any person or entity regarding you; provided, however, that nothing herein prevents such individuals from making truthful disclosures to any governmental entity in litigation or arbitration.
After the employer’s CEO allegedly disparaged the former employee, she sued the employer, claiming a breach of the non-disparagement provision. The separated employee argued that when the employer directed its officers, directors, and employees not to disparage her, the employer was making a promise that it also would not disparage her. The lower court dismissed the claim, agreeing with the employer that it had fulfilled its contractual obligation once it provided the directive. But the appeals court disagreed, stating that the non-disparagement provision was not a straightforward one; rather, it was ambiguous, and when the contract was read as a whole, it was susceptible to multiple interpretations.
The Court based its conclusion on the following:
- The provision header stated it was a “Mutual” non-disparagement provision and the provision used the word “likewise” as it transitioned from the employer to employee’s obligations, suggesting some symmetry between the parties’ obligations.
- The court did not understand why the provision included the “provided however” language, which permitted the so-directed employees to disparage if they needed to make truthful disclosures to a governmental entity if the provision was merely limited to a directive and nothing more.
- Evidence in the record showed that the non-disparagement was “very important” to the separated employee as the CEO had allegedly previously criticized her performance, and “it would make little sense if the mutual non-disparagement clause permitted the [employer], acting through the very person who signed the contract, who fired [the employee] assertedly based on criticisms of her professional skills, and who controlled the [employer] to a significant extent, to freely disparage [the employee].”
Overall, the court found that the employer could have “some corresponding” duty to not disparage the employee, even if it only extended to certain employees who exert significant control over the company, such as the CEO.
Employers Should Take Great Care When Drafting Their Non-Disparagement Provisions.
Although this opinion has limited jurisdictional reach, it comes from an influential court, and employers should weigh the use of non-disparagement provisions going forward. First, employers should ask whether they need a non-disparagement provision at all. Often times a neutral reference provision may, by itself, be sufficient. But if one is needed, an instruction to a very limited set of specified employees remains a preferred approach.
That said, employers should consider the following during the drafting process:
- Consider placing the employer non-disparagement portion in a separate provision instead of embedding it within the employee non-disparagement provision or otherwise referring to it as a “mutual” obligation.
- Consider making clear that other than the instruction to a limited set of employees not to disparage, the employer has no further contractual obligation.
- Include a “headings” provision in the agreement clarifying that headings used to identify an agreement’s provisions have no substantive meaning or interpretive value.
- Where appropriate, include a construction provision clarifying that both parties engaged in the preparation of the contract and that any potential ambiguities in the contract should not be construed against the drafter (employer).
And as a reminder, employers should remember to ensure that any non-disparagement provision includes limiting language required by law (e.g. that it permits the employee to respond truthfully to a subpoena, etc.).
The Mintz Employment Practice will continue monitoring further developments and remains ready to assist employers on this issue.