Articles Posted in Arbitration Agreements

The rampant abuse of arbitration agreements, and the injustice that these agreements have created for employees, is finally being recognized and addressed. The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, or “FAIR Act,” was introduced to the United States House of Representatives by Representatives Hank Johnson and Richard Blumenthal on February 28, 2019.  The FAIR Act would, among other things, outlaw forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts or agreements.  The FAIR Act would, instead, require that the employee agree to arbitration only after the dispute has arisen in order for any arbitration agreement to be enforceable.

If passed as written, the Fair Act would not have retroactive effect as to disputes that arose prior to its passing; however, the bill would have retroactive effect in that it would apply to arbitration clauses in employment contracts that were entered into prior to the bill’s passing.  In other words, if the bill passes, all disputes arising thereafter would not be subject to an arbitration clause included in an employment agreement.

The current state of arbitration across the country is a classic case of too much of a good thing.  In theory, arbitration would serve as an option afforded to both parties to a dispute, with each party given the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of that option to determine if they wished to have their dispute resolved through arbitration. In reality, however, this is not how arbitration works most of the time.  In the majority of arbitrations, one party was not truly given an option and did not understand anything about the process prior to “agreeing” to have any future dispute resolved through that process.  As a result, many people never get their day in court, because they unwittingly signed away their right to do so.

An inspiring development is taking place for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.  Employees who are subjected to sexual harassment at work have faced an increasingly prevalent barrier to getting justice: mandatory arbitration.  This has meant that for many employment disputes, the courthouse doors have been closed, requiring employees to instead seek relief through arbitration.  Earlier this month, Facebook announced that they will be amending their arbitration agreements to no longer require mandatory arbitration for claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. This move comes on the heels of similar announcements earlier this year by Google, Lyft, and Uber, following a wave of protests by employees who felt that the system of requiring mandatory arbitration of all employment disputes contributed to a pervasive culture of sexual harassment.

Arbitration agreements were disfavored historically.  Beginning in England in the 17th century, our legal tradition held that arbitration agreements were freely revocable, up to the point where a dispute was actually subjected to arbitration. This remained the controlling law in the United States up until 1925, when Congress passed the Federal Arbitration Act, signaling a change in how disputes would be resolved going forward. This has gradually led to an increase, and in recent years an explosion, in the prominence that arbitration has played.

Today, it has become the norm for employers to require all new hires to sign arbitration agreements at the start of their employment that bar the employees from suing the employer for any claims arising out of their employment.  A 2017 survey of 1,500 employers conducted by the Economic Policy Institute produced some startling statistics showing just how widespread arbitration has become in the workplace.  According to the survey, among companies with 1,000 or more employees, 65% have mandatory arbitration provisions.  Looking at the employee side, among private-sector non-union employees, 56% are subject to mandatory arbitration.  Extrapolated out, that covers over 60 million American workers.

An arbitration award supporting the termination of a Woodbridge teacher for repeated shoplifting has been affirmed by the New Jersey Superior Court and Appellate Division. In this case, Michele Schwab v. Woodbridge Township School District Board of Education, the terminated teacher argued that her shoplifting incidents were caused by a mental health disability and that she should not have been terminated for cause.  In rejecting this argument on appeal, the courts have issue another reminder of how difficult it is to overturn the decision of a private arbitrator.

During her sixteen years as an educator, Michele Schwab received awards such as “Educator of the Year” and was frequently described as a highly effective teacher. However, in February of 2015, Ms. Schwab engaged in criminal behavior by shoplifting from a store in the Woodbridge Center Mall. Ms. Schwab’s arrest and the charges against her were later dismissed. More than a year later, she again was charged with shoplifting and pled guilty to the charges brought against her after a video of the act surfaced on social media.  The video of her shoplifting that was seen by several of her fourth-grade students. Ms. Schward did not report her arrest to her employer, which the Board of Education claimed is a violation of a district policy.

When the school learned of the charges, Ms. Schwab was placed on suspension pending an investigation. Ms. Schwab’s employer additionally filed tenure charges against her, citing two counts of theft, failure to report her arrest, violation of district policies, and a pattern of unbecoming conduct. The charges were transmitted to an arbitrator for a hearing. After an investigation, the arbitrator decided that the Board of Education had established just cause to discipline Ms. Schwab, and that termination was an appropriate response to her charges.

It is not uncommon for employers to make an employee’s execution of an arbitration agreement a condition of their employment at the inception of the employee’s employment. But what happens when, in the midst of employment, an employer all of a sudden demands an employee’s agreement to an arbitration agreement under the threat of termination? Does an employee have to sign the arbitration agreement in order to remain employed?  What if the employee refuses to sign the arbitration agreement and, as a result, is suspended and not permitted to return to work by their employer?

A recent New Jersey Superior Court has held that an employer cannot take adverse employment action against an employee who refuses to sign an arbitration agreement that requires her to waive her statutory rights under the Law Against Discrimination.

In Cator v. Hotel ML/Coco Key West Resort et al., Plaintiff, a black female, had made complaints about race discrimination during the course of her employment. During the same time period, her employer implemented a new policy mandating, as a condition of her continued employment, that all current and prospective employees execute an arbitration agreement. Plaintiff refused to execute the arbitration agreement and waive her statutory rights to have her claims of race discrimination adjudicated in a court of law and by a jury of her peers. In response to her refusal to sign the arbitration agreement, the employer suspended her from work and advised her that she would not be permitted to return to work unless and until she signed the arbitration agreement. As a result, the employee filed a lawsuit for claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  One of the claims was specifically whether an employer unlawful retaliates against an employee for refusing to sign an arbitration agreement that waives their statutory rights under the law.