1) To cease to be bound by an obligation or to concede a right. A release usually takes the form of a voluntary private contract between parties to cease the obligation or concede the right. California Civil Code § 1541 upholds release provisions, stating “[a]n obligation is extinguished by a release therefrom given to the debtor or the released party by the creditor or releasing party, upon a new consideration, or in writing, with or without new consideration.” As contractual provisions, releases may also be made conditional on the occurrence of some performance or event.
Contracts often contain releases to exculpate one party from potential liability or indemnity. For example, Marder v. Lopez, a Ninth Circuit case applying California law, analyzed a contractual release which provided that “[one party] ‘releases and discharges [the other party] ... of and from each and every claim, demand, debt, liability, cost and expense of any kind or character which have arisen or are based in whole or in part on any matters occurring at any time prior to the date of this Release.’” That is, a release is essentially equivalent to an individual waiving their right to sue for potential injury. The justification for release is that one party received consideration in exchange for their relinquishment of their right. As the brilliant jurist Justice Traynor of the California Supreme Court explained in Pellett v. Sonotone Corp., “[t]he theory on which a release is held to bar a recovery is that the plaintiff has accepted payment in satisfaction or in compromise of his right of action, and has released and abandoned his right of action in consideration of the payment received.”
While release provisions are interpreted under interpretive canons of contract law, courts will refuse to enforce release provisions in certain circumstances. The California Court of Appeals in Jimenez v. 24 Hours Fitness USA, Inc., laid out the principle that a release is invalid when it is procured by misrepresentation, overreaching, deception, or fraud. Jurisdictions may require additional features from a release provision to find it valid. For example, the California Court of Appeals in Hohe v. San Diego Unified School District stated the requirement that “[a] valid release must be simple enough for a layperson to understand and additionally give notice of its import.” Additionally, the California Court of Appeals in Bennett v. U.S. Cycling Federation stated that “[p]rint size is an important factor. . . in assessing the adequacy of a document as a release.”
Lastly, a release is distinguished from a covenant not to sue however in that it does not extinguish the right, but merely represents a promise by the party not to sue on the right. Additionally, a release is distinguished from accord and satisfaction in that the obligation is discharged by other performance than originally agreed in accord and satisfaction, whereas a release can be the extinguishment of an obligation through gratuitous means or any consideration.
2) The liberation of a criminal suspect in custody or the liberation of an incarcerated convicted criminal. For example, California Criminal Code § 849 provides that “[a] peace officer may release from custody. . . a person arrested without a warrant [when] [t]he officer is satisfied there are insufficient grounds for making a criminal complaint against the person arrested,” among other reasons.
3) See discharge of debts.
4) See discharge (of an employee).
[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]