Employer’s release, despite poor wording, holds up in court

Alberta court says fact that worker might have been somewhat intoxicated, and needed money for Christmas, doesn’t mean the release was signed under duress

An Alberta employee, who claimed she was drunk when she signed a release from her employer in exchange for $2,000, lost her bid to have the release thrown out.

Tammy Foureyes worked at a daycare centre operated by the Ermineskin Cree Nation. In August 2002 she experienced some family tragedies and a series of personal health problems. As a result she had some attendance problems, something which eventually resulted in her dismissal. She filed an action against her employer.

In mid-December a meeting was held between the parties and a settlement was proposed. It was suggested that Foureyes get legal advice concerning the settlement. On Dec. 23, 2002, she met with the nation’s administrator and, in exchange for a $2,000 cheque, signed a release relinquishing her right to legal action.

Foureyes later filed an action claiming that, while she had read part of the release she signed, it was invalid because she was drunk when it was negotiated and signed. She also said she felt pressured to sign the release because it was just before Christmas and she needed the money. A further issue with the release was that it contained words and passages Foureyes did not understand.

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench rejected her arguments. There was no evidence Foureyes did not understand what the release was and what its effect would be when she signed it. It did contain an obscure word or two, and one paragraph was “virtually incomprehensible” because of missing words and poor punctuation, ruled the court. But taken in its entirety the release was sufficiently clear in its meaning.

That Foureyes could have used $2,000 around Christmas does not amount to duress under the law. She was not threatened into accepting the settlement offer. And while she may have been intoxicated (by alcohol and also by drugs prescribed her to deal with depression), that does not by itself invalidate a contract unless the state of intoxication amounts to temporary lunacy, said the court.

In this case Foureyes remembered her Dec. 23 meeting with the administrator, found her way to his residence and sat down and signed the release. Her signature on the release is “essentially similar” to her normal signature. So even if she was slightly impaired it was not to the extent that she didn’t realize what she was doing.

The release was ruled valid as a matter of contract law and binding on Foureyes and the nation.

For more information see:

Ermineskin Cree Nation v. Foureyes, 2005 CarswellAlta 965, 2005 ABQB 522 (Alta. Q.B.)

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