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04-29-2022Article

Update Employment Law May 2022 | Update China Desk 4/2022

Validity of a Termination Agreement

Federal Labor Court (BAG) February 24, 2022 - 6 AZR 333/21

In its decision of February 24, 2022 (Docket No. 6 AZR 333/21), the Federal Labor Court once again had the opportunity to examine the "principle of fair negotiation" (Gebot fairen Verhandelns). 

Facts

The parties were in disagreement as to whether the plaintiff‘s employment contract had validly been terminated by a termination agreement (Aufhebungsvertrag). The plaintiff had spent several years as a sales team coordinator in an employment relationship with the defendant.

After having been accused of having made changes to purchase prices in order to misrepresent higher sales profits, the plaintiff agreed to the termination of her employment relationship in a meeting with the defendant’s managing director as well as their later legal counsel. The specific details of the meeting remained in dispute between the parties. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff contested the termination agreement as the product of undue influence (“widerrechtliche Drohung”).

In court, the plaintiff argued that the termination agreement was invalid. She claimed to have been threatened with dismissal without notice as well as a criminal complaint should she not agree to the mutual termination agreement. Her request to seek legal counsel had been denied. The defendant had thus violated the “principle of fair negotiaton”. 

The Labor Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the Regional Labor Court dismissed the claim upon the defendant’s appeal.  

Federal Labor Court Decision

The plaintiff’s revision remained unsuccessful. The press release states: 

Assuming the course of events described by the plaintiff actually were true, the plaintiff was not entitled to contest the validity of the termination agreement as the product of undue influence, an unlawful threat specifically, pursuant to Section 123 of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB). In the case at hand, a reasonable employer would have considered both dismissal without notice as well as a criminal complaint, and justifiably so given the serious allegations.

The Regional Labor Court had been right in holding that the defendant had not negotiated unfairly and had not thereby violated its duties as defined in Section 311 (2) no. 1 and  Section 241 (2) of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB). Merely proposing a termination agreement for immediate acceptance, and thus demanding an immediate decision whether or not to accept, did not unlawfully infringe on the plaintiff’s free will.  

Context of the Court’s Ruling

When it comes to the termination of employment agreements, termination agreements are practicable. They do not underlie the requirements of (general and special) protection against dismissal, nor is their validity tied to the involvement of works councils or other bodies. Difficulties may however arise when one side regrets the termination agreement and consequently attempts to withdraw from the unwanted contract.

Following the Federal Labor Court’s ruling of February 7, 2019 (Docket No. 6 AZR 75/18), there was great uncertainty in these cases. For in its decision, the Federal Labor Court had resorted to the so-called “principle of fair negotiation”. It had held that termination agreements that had been entered into in violation of this principle were invalid. “Whenever a situation of psychological pressure is established and exploited that makes a free and prudent decision considerably more difficult or impossible”, there is a violation of the “principle of fair negotiation” (BAG February 7, 2019 - 6 AZR 75/18 - para. 34). The requisite elements of such “situations of psychological pressure” and the limits of such a “principle of fair negotiation” however remained vague. 

The Federal Labor Court’s ruling of February 24, 2022, as far as can be deduced from the press release, now provides greater clarity and defines the scope of application of the “principle of fair negotiation” more precisely. Whether or not a termination agreement has been entered into in violation of the “principle of fair negotiation” will depend on the respective circumstances of the given case. A proposition for immediate acceptance alone does not constitute unfair negotiating – not even if the employee neither has time to consider the offer nor the opportunity to seek legal counsel. 

The decision warrants approval. Unlawful violations of the “principle of fair negotiation” must be limited to strictly limited, exceptional cases, and extreme situations of grave infringement of another party’s free will. Indeed, being confronted with unexpected situations and the demand for a speedy decision is not always unfair (cf. Section 147 (1) 1 of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB)). It would otherwise unjustly curtail the parties’ right to freely decide to terminate an employment contract, a right that can be deduced from the principle of private autonomy. Nor can the “principle of fair negotiation” serve as a “termination protection light” for mutual agreements. The law already provides extensive protective frameworks with the provisions on legal capacity, fallacies, misrepresentation and threats as well as immoral agreements (Sections 104 et seq., 119 et seq., 138 of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB)). Thus, not just any threat of dismissal or criminal complaints constitutes unfair negotiating – particularly if an employer had justifiably considered it and the threat had therefore been neither inadequate nor unlawful. 

As a practical note: Whether negotiating has been fair or unfair, depends on the circumstances of the individual case. Negotiations outside the workplace or during non-business hours, fatigue or exhaustion of the other party, linguistic barriers and active misrepresentation in advance regarding the subject of a meeting may indicate violations of the “principle of fair negotiation”. Employers should avoid such indicators in the future. Moreover, it is particularly important to bear in mind that the “principle of fair negotiation” is not limited to termination issues, but it must also be observed in all other negotiations, e.g. when amending contracts. With regard to the termination of employment relationships in particular, settlement agreements after notice of termination (Abwicklungsverträge) may constitute a viable alternative. 

Chinese Update:

终止劳动关系之协议的法律效力

德国联邦劳动法院在其2022年2月24日的判决(Az. 6 AZR 333/21)中,再次就“公平协商准则”做出了说明。

案情介绍

原告作为销售团队协调员在被告公司工作多年。双方当事人的争议焦点是:原告的劳动关系是否基于双方终止劳动合同的协议(简称:终止协议,德语:Aufhebungsvertrag)已经被终止。
原告与被告公司执行董事以及被告公司嗣后的诉讼代表就原告被指控更改采购价格以虚增销售利润而进行了谈判,并在此之后双方达成并签署了终止协议,解除了劳动关系。双方对于此次谈判过程的具体细节仍然存在争议。不久之后,原告以非法胁迫为由提出撤销该终止协议。

原告向法庭主张该终止协议无效。其辩称:如果她不在终止协议上签字的话,她可能面临劳动合同基于重大事由被解除以及被刑事起诉的局面。而她所提出的寻求法律咨询的请求未获理睬。据此,被告违反了“公平协商准则”。一审劳动法院支持原告的诉讼请求,但是(二审)州劳动法院基于被告的上诉驳回了原告诉求。

联邦劳动法院的判决

原告在联邦劳动法院的上诉也未取得任何成果。联邦劳动法院在目前唯一发表的一份新闻稿中指出:

即使原告所描述的谈话过程与事实相符,原告也无权根据《德国民法典》第123条有关非法胁迫的规定而行使撤销权。原因就在于,任何常理的雇主基于本案情形中的严重指控都可以提起常规解雇甚至考虑刑事诉讼。
此外,州劳动法院也得出了相应的结论:被告在谈判中并没有不公平之处,因此也并未违反《德国民法典》第311条第2款第1条和第241条第2款所规定的义务。提供终止协议文本以供立即接受以及随之而来的对于接受与否做出立即决定的必要性,这本身并不侵犯原告的自由决定权。

判决的分类

就终止劳动合同而言,终止协议是一种实用且便利的方式。终止协议既不受(一般和特殊)解雇保护的前提条件的约束,其有效性也不取决于劳资委员会的参与或者其他机构的参与。但是,如果一方后悔签订该终止协议,并试图嗣后解除该令其不满的协议时,就会产生问题。

针对此类情形,在联邦劳动法院2019年2月7日做出Az. 6 AZR 75/18这项判决后,这类案件的审理就存在很大的不确定性。原因在于,联邦劳动法院在该判决中诉诸所谓的“公平协商准则”,并得出结论:违反该原则而签订的终止协议是无效的。“如果制造或利用心理施压状况,而使得合同一方当事人很难甚至不可能做出自由和深思熟虑的决定”,那么就违反了基于雇主审慎与诚信义务而衍生出的“公平协商准则”(Az. 6 AZR 75/18 - Rn. 34)。然而,这种“心理施压状况”的事实构成前提究竟何时存在,以及“公平协商准则”的界限应如何界定,仍不清楚。

从联邦劳动法院的新闻稿中可以看出,联邦劳动法院2022年2月24日的判决明确规定了“公平协商准则”的适用范围:终止协议是否违反“公平协商准则”取决于个案的具体情况。然而,仅仅借口终止协议的签订是以立即接受协议草案为条件这一事实并不足以构成不公平谈判,即便是在员工既没有时间考虑也没有机会获得法律咨询的情况下。

这一判决是值得认可的。只有在极为有限的例外情况和严重妨碍对方自由作出决定的特殊情况下,才构成违反“公平协商准则”的情况。确实并非每次遇到意外情况或者需要快速做出决定(参见《德国民法典》第147条第1款第1句)就意味着不公平。否则,源于私人自治的当事人自由决定终止劳动关系的权利可能会受到过度限制。在终止协议的情况下,也不能将“公平协商准则”作为一种“终止的轻保护”。在法律行为能力、错误、欺诈和胁迫以及违反善良风俗的法律行为的相关规定基础上(参见《德国民法典》第104条及其以下条款、第119条及其以下条款、第138条),立法者已经建立了广泛的保护机制。因此同样值得认可的是,并非所有解雇威胁或者提起刑事指控的威胁都构成不公平谈判,特别是如果雇主对此进行了认真考虑的情况下,则该威胁就并非是不适当和不合法的。

在实践中应当注意的是:谈判是否公平取决于个案的具体情况。可被视为违反“公平协商准则”的情况包括:在公司以外或者在正常工作时间以外进行谈判、在对方当事人疲劳或极度疲惫的情况下、语言障碍以及事先让人对谈话内容产生积极的错觉。这些都是雇主今后应当避免的情形。此外还要特别考虑到,“公平协商准则”并不只限于终止协议的情况,在其他所有谈判中,例如在合同变更时,也必须予以遵守。尤其是对于终止劳动关系而言,在发出解雇通知后,也可以考虑将和解协议作为替代方案。

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