BC Human Rights Tribunal Considers Enforceability of Release in Discrimination Case

**Written by Zura Nakiwoga, Articling Student at Lee Workplace Law

In a recent decision, the BC Human Rights Tribunal examined the validity of a release signed by an employee during her termination meeting. The case, Fyffe v. University of British Columbia, 2024 BCHRT 88, raises important questions about the enforceability of such agreements in the context of alleged racial discrimination.


The University of British Columbia (UBC) terminated Ms. Fyffe's employment on August 28, 2019, citing unsuitability for the job and paid her one week's severance. They offered additional pay in exchange for signing a release, which she did during the termination meeting without reading, feeling pressured due to financial needs.


Ms. Fyffe brought a human rights complaint alleging that her termination was influenced by racial discrimination, citing racially charged comments and assumptions made by her supervisor.

UBC moved to have the complaint dismissed on a preliminary basis. UBC denied Ms. Fyffe's allegations, asserting that the termination was due to performance issues and that Ms. Fyffe had misrepresented her skills during the hiring process. UBC further claimed that the release signed by Ms. Fyffe should bar her from pursuing any claims related to her termination.

Assessing the Release:

The Tribunal conducted a thorough review of the release signed by Ms. Fyffe to determine its enforceability. The approach taken was contextual, considering several key factors:

  • Language and Scope: The release's terms were scrutinized to ensure clarity on what claims it covered and what rights Ms. Fyffe was waiving.
  • Unconscionability: The Tribunal evaluated the power dynamics between Ms. Fyffe and UBC, checking for any unfair advantage or substantially unfair settlement.
  • Undue Influence: It was assessed whether Ms. Fyffe faced any coercion or pressure that compromised her ability to consent freely.
  • Independent Legal Advice: The Tribunal considered whether Ms. Fyffe had the opportunity to seek independent legal counsel before signing the release, ensuring she understood its implications.
  • Duress and Timing: The timing of the signing, which occurred immediately during the termination meeting, and any financial pressure Ms. Fyffe faced were critical factors.
  • Knowledge of Rights: The assessment included whether Ms. Fyffe knew her rights under the British Columbia Human Rights Code and understood she was waiving those rights.
  • Additional Considerations: Other factors such as mutual mistakes, fraud, lack of capacity, or forgery that could invalidate the release were also considered.

Tribunal's Decision:

The Tribunal declined to dismiss Ms. Fyffe's case on a summary basis. It found there was a triable issue about whether the release she signed was enforceable, or not. In reaching this decision, the Tribunal emphasized the following factors:

  • Conflicting Accounts: There were important factual discrepancies between Ms. Fyffe's and UBC's testimonies about the termination meeting.
  • Pressure and Timing: Ms. Fyffe signed the release during the termination meeting without reading it due to immediate financial pressure.
  • Lack of Legal Advice: Ms. Fyffe did not have the opportunity to seek independent legal advice and may not have fully understood the release.

As a result, the Tribunal decided that a full hearing was necessary to resolve these issues.


UBC is seeking judicial review of the Tribunal decision, arguing the release should be enforced. No date for the review hearing appears to have been set.

Tips and Takeaways:

Although the final outcome of this case remains to be seen, it is a helpful reminder for employers to follow best practices when obtaining releases from employees. These include:

  • Clear Language: Use plain language to ensure employees understand the release.
  • Timing: Do not require employees to sign releases during or immediately after termination meetings.
  • Legal Advice: Encourage employees to seek independent legal advice before signing.
  • Transparency: Clearly communicate that the employee retains statutory and contractual entitlements if they do not sign the release.

On the flipside, employees are reminded that they should always seek legal advice before signing binding employment documents. Asking for time to review and seek advice is a reasonable and appropriate request.