Prospective Release Of Claims Did Not Violate Civil Code section 1668 (A Statute Providing That A Contract Releasing A Party From Future Violations Of Law Is Invalid As Against Public Policy)
Castelo v. Xceed Financial Credit Union, 2023 WL 3515225 (2023)
Xceed Financial Credit Union employed Elizabeth Castelo as its Controller and Vice President of Accounting. In November, Xceed informed Castelo her employment would be terminated effective December 31st. On November 19, the parties entered into a Separation and General Release Agreement, in which, among other things, Xceed agreed to pay Castelo a severance payment in consideration for a full release of all claims, including a release of age discrimination claims. The Agreement also provided that, as of Castelo’s separation date, she would have to sign Exhibit “A” to the Agreement reaffirming her commitment to abide by the terms of this Agreement and effectuating a full release of claims through her December 31st separation date. The releases extended to all known and unknown claims arising directly or indirectly from Castelo’s employment. Xceed intended that Castelo would sign the reaffirmation on the date of her separation (December 31st). However, Castelo signed it on the same date she signed the main Separation Agreement, on November 19th. Xceed did nothing to correct that error. Castelo remained employed by Xceed until December 31. In January, Xceed paid Castelo, and Castelo accepted the settlement payment. Castelo made no attempt to revoke the Separation Agreement or Reaffirmation at any time before or after receiving payment.
In August, Castelo filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination and wrongful termination in violation of Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The parties stipulated to arbitration. Xceed filed a motion for summary judgment based on the releases in the Separation Agreement and the Reaffirmation, and the arbitrator granted the motion. Castelo moved to vacate the arbitration award, arguing that the arbitrator exceeded his powers by enforcing a release made unlawful by Civil Code section 1668, which prohibits pre-dispute releases of liability in some circumstances. The trial court denied the motion to vacate and entered judgment confirming the arbitration award. The Court of Appeal affirmed:
The arbitrator correctly ruled the release did not violate Civil Code section 1668. Castelo signed the separation agreement after she was informed of the decision to terminate her but before her last day on the job. At the time she signed, she already believed that the decision to terminate her was based on age discrimination and that she had a valid claim for wrongful termination. The alleged violation of FEHA had already occurred, even though the claim had not yet fully accrued. Accordingly, the release did not violate section 1668 because it was not a release of liability for future unknown claims.