Signing Termination Papers: What If I Am Forced To Sign?

man and woman looking at papers

Signing Termination Papers: What If I Am Forced To Sign?

As an at-will employment state, Pennsylvania permits employers and employees to enter and exit an employment relationship at any time. In some cases, at termination, an employer may try to force the employee to sign termination letters. An employee might view signing termination papers as personal agreement to the end of their job. And they don’t agree.

Three types of documents are involved in termination. While two are only to confirm that you received the information, the third type is more legal. For any legal document, it can be important to have a lawyer look over it to ensure that you are agreeing to what you want to agree to.

Three Types of Termination Letters

  • “You are terminated” letter. This paper informs the employee that they have been terminated. Signing this letter only acknowledges that you have received the information.
  • Obligations letter. At the end of an employment relationship, the employer might have obligations to you such as a relocation agreement or tuition reimbursement. Once again, signing this letter is only acknowledging the information and not signing will change nothing.
  • Severance Agreement. Signing a letter that requires certain actions from an employee to receive final benefits from the employer should be approached much more cautiously. After all, something in that agreement might go directly against your future plans. Sign carefully.

Never sign a paper without full understanding of it, especially when signing a severance agreement or a general release. The written word is binding, and even if a boss or HR representative assures you that the company never does anything about certain clauses, remember that when a disagreement arises between employee and employer, it’s the written word that prevails.

What To Do When You Are Being Terminated

1. Take a deep breath and focus.

When you allow very real emotions to rule your headspace during your termination, you might miss something important. Allow yourself to access problem solver mode and not rush to get out of the uncomfortable situation.

2. Read the documents that your employer wants you to sign.

  • Does the letter state that you are being terminated, laid off, or being asked to quit?
  • Is the document asking you to release personal rights?
  • Does the letter give the facts of the termination, including the reason?
  • Are any special circumstances outlined in the document?

3. Understand what you are signing.

Sometimes employees find that by signing their termination letter, they are admitting guilt or releasing employee rights. Some letters might try to make it difficult for the fired employee to collect unemployment compensation. Always be aware of your employee rights. If there is an mention of a mutually beneficial exchange of benefits between employer and employee, this document should be looked at by a lawyer.

4. To sign or not.

Refusing to sign and leaving in an angry huff is no way to maintain past work relationships. When you want to leave in a good note, you can sign the paperwork and include “signature acknowledges receipt only.” This ensures that your signature does not admit guilt nor releases any of your employee rights.

5. Request a copy of termination paperwork.

Although your employer is not required to make you a copy, it’s possible they might. But if they say no, don’t be surprised. However, if you’ve signed a severance agreement, they should give you a copy for your records.

6. Your employer cannot threaten to hold your final paycheck until you sign.

Some employees share how they’ve been forced into signing termination papers with the threat of a withheld paycheck. The government obligates employers to pay employees for every hour worked. So don’t believe an employer who threatens not to pay you if you don’t sign the termination papers.

What Do I Do When I’ve Been Forced To Sign Termination Papers?

When an employer is threatening you with physical harm or emotional manipulation to force you to sign termination papers, this could be considered signing “under duress.” The reason that signing papers holds such weight is because signing promises that you chose to sign of your own free will. If you were forced to sign, this negates what you would have done if you could choose based on your own free will. Signing termination papers and realizing later that you might have signed away your rights can be a scary realization. However, if your signing was under duress, you might have a case.

What Is Duress?

Duress measures the amount of coercion or force used on someone. For example, any type of stress, threats, or physical intimidation used on a person to make them do something that they wouldn’t normally do of their own free will is considered duress. Something signed without free will be questioned as actually valid.

Of course, the definition of duress will be tested and examined as well. So just because someone feels that they were forced to sign termination release forms under duress doesn’t mean that it will prove to be under duress. To have any traction legally, the employee must be able to prove duress as the motivator for signing.

What Proves Duress?

Simply claiming duress is not enough to prove that you signed away employee rights on the termination papers under duress. You must be able to offer hard evidence that duress occurred. A couple of options are possibilities to prove duress in signing.

  • Eyewitness testimony
  • Collection of evidence, including previous contracts and situations
  • Written proof of harassment or threats about the termination papers
  • Photographs of injuries sustained from a physical assault in relation to the papers
  • Doctor evaluation of mental health (before and after event)

Proving duress is a unique challenge since it could make a signed contract become void. It’s important that you take the right steps and understand how to navigate the legal process. Being aware of your rights and knowing how to collect the right information will help you help the court serve you better. An employment lawyer can also ensure that you have the right information to prove that you signed the termination papers where you lost rights under duress.

If you were forced to sign termination papers and severance agreements under duress, contact an employment lawyer who will know how to navigate your case and your rights under the law.

Don’t hesitate, talk to an attorney: (412) 626-5626 or