By: Jill Halper
At first glance, the word arbitration might sound like a less formal, lower cost, friendlier process than litigation. Certainly, in theory, it can be those things. But let’s talk about what it can also be…. forced arbitration can be devastating. It is an unconstitutional, unfair process whereby employees are prevented from suing their employers for potentially violating the law and are forced to have their claims heard and adjudicated in a private binding arbitration. This quasi-legal forum with no judge and no jury should be avoided by employees in almost all instances and to all extents possible.
Forced arbitration, also referred to as mandatory arbitration is an alternative form of binding dispute resolution used to resolve legal disputes out of the courts. Arbitration is “forced” when your employer requires you to sign away your right to go to court at the start of employment and before any legal dispute has arisen. Many forced arbitration agreements also ban groups of employers from coming together to file class action lawsuits. These forced arbitration provisions can find their way into employment offer letters, employment agreements, employee handbooks and even emails where the employee is instructed to electronically accept. Mostly, this occurs at the hiring stage, but there are times when arbitration agreements are presented in any of these forms after hiring and during the course of your employment and as a condition for continued employment, i.e. “forced”.
What you need to understand is that forced arbitration strongly benefits corporations and employers. Forced arbitration obstructs an employee’s pursuit of justice, violates employees’ civil rights and fails to hold employers accountable to employees and to the public. The mere fact the arbitration is forced and getting the job or being allowed to keep your job is a condition of entering into an arbitration agreement should make your hair stand on end. Here are just some of the ways forced binding arbitration can hurt you.
Arbitrations Are Private, Confidential and Not Transparent
For one, and what I see as the most serious concern with forced arbitration is that they are conducted in private, not publicly filed, and deprive plaintiffs of their day in court and the right to conduct discovery and a trial by jury. As such, forced arbitration is in fact arbitrary. They lack utter transparency, accountability and the employer is able to shield unlawful and unfair practices from the public. Not only is that a problem as a matter of public policy, but practically it takes away the leverage an employee might have to get an employer to the settlement table for fear of making their grievances public. The employer has no obligation or incentive to be transparent and to make things right. As a result of all of this, forced arbitration facilitates the perpetration of discriminatory and other unlawful and improper behavior in the workplace by preventing victims from being heard in an open court of law and preventing their complaints and stories from being made public. In addition, because there is no “verdict” and the findings of forced arbitration are private and confidential, there is no ability for future plaintiffs and their attorneys to uncover company-wide data to expose patterns and prior practices of discrimination and violations. In addition, arbitration does not yield publicly filed decisions and as such does not create legal precedent to inform future plaintiffs and their attorneys on whether laws have been violated and how to apply these laws to particular fact patterns.
Arbitration Favors Employers Not Employees
In addition to the above, forced arbitration strongly favors employer corporations as the employer selects and hires the arbitrator. In a court of law, neither party has the ability to select a judge and the process is blind. In addition, it is not uncommon that corporate executives may not only travel in the same social circles as the arbitrators and may be personal acquaintances of each other, but that corporate employers are often repeat offenders and as such become known by individual arbitrators in a particular market. Moreover, forced arbitration can be prohibitively expensive as plaintiffs may be required to share and sometimes even cover all of the fees, which include attorney fees. As in a court situation, both parties will want attorneys to represent them at an arbitration, so the costs can be significant on the flip side, there are far fewer options for pro bono counseling. Also, forced arbitration is binding and the rulings are final. It is almost impossible for employees to appeal an unfair or erroneous decision, as may be done in a court of law. Lastly, forced arbitration are subject to little if, any government oversight.
Employers Are the Clear Winners In Arbitration
In light of the above observations, employers and big business are the clear winners in this unjust and unfair process. The majority of time, forced arbitration results in favorable outcomes for employers. In fact, research shows that arbitrators are more likely find in favor of your employer and that employees are 1.7 times more likely to win in federal courts than in arbitration and 2.6 times more likely to win in state courts than in arbitration. In addition, forced arbitration settlements yield significantly lower damages for employees than in federal and state courts. (Sources: bit.ly/EPIArbitrationStudy, bit.ly/CPDArbitrationStudy)
Can Employees Avoid Arbitration?
So, what can employees do about this? You are already on your way as the first step is being informed. Now that you know how devastating a forced arbitration agreement can be, you will surely be aware of their existence in an employment context and take caution before entering into one. Remember that because forced arbitration benefits the employer, it is in their best interest that you sign on the dotted line. In order to accomplish this, they will often try to sneak a forced arbitration provision into your hiring paperwork. Courts have held that because employees entering into arbitration agreements are giving up their right to their day in court and a trial by jury, employers need to make these arbitration provisions obvious and bold and specifically identify the employee is waiving their right to a jury trial. Still, employers do not always comply with these common law requirements and it is easy for employees to get duped or pressured into signing away, especially when these agreements are forced, and a job offer or continuation of employment is at stake. As such, you must read all of your employment documents very carefully and it is advisable to seek legal counsel before accepting or signing anything. Also, be on the lookout for an email communication that may come anytime during your hiring or on-boarding process (or even later) that addresses arbitration. When presented in this form, there is usually a single step “option” to opt out of or opt into arbitration. It may be the case that just be failing to click the opt out, you have implied your consent to agree to arbitration. So again, you need to be very careful and immediately consult an attorney if any such email appears in your inbox.
Employees Can Negotiate and Sue to Avoid Arbitration
What else can you do to protect yourself in this situation. Because these arbitration agreements are forced and a condition of employment, you may believe that you have no choice but to sign in order to get or keep your job. For one, that is not always the case and experienced legal counsel in these matters can fight for you and attempt to negotiate this provision out of your agreement. In addition, we implement other legal strategies to protect our clients from these provisions such as the use of a sworn affidavit created and entered into by the client contemporaneously at the time of signing an employment/arbitration agreement; the employee makes a sworn statement that it was not their intention to sign an arbitration agreement, but that they had no choice and did so under duress and coercion. This can be helpful in the event there is a future legal dispute between the parties and the employer invokes the arbitration clause in an attempt to keep the matter out of court and compel arbitration. We can use this sworn affidavit as part of our practice in fighting the validity and enforceability of the arbitration agreement as it relates to the intent of the parties at the time the supposed contract was entered into. We also file suit in court seeking a declaratory judgment action as whether the client had the intent to enter into the arbitration agreement.
Google Bans Forced Arbitration Agreements for All Employees
While all of this sounds rather scary (and it is), the good news is the courts and even some big business are seeing this the way we do, and strides have been made to get rid of forced arbitration. In one amazing example, the corporate giant Google recently promised to end mandatory arbitration for all current and future full-time employees, including temps, vendors and contractors by March 21, 2019, in order to resolve disputes such as harassment, discrimination or wrongful termination. Google employees, alarmed by this unjust practice actually banded together not through a union, and created Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration. Through these grass roots, call to action efforts, a powerful and large coalition of 20,0000 plus employees was formed that stood up to their employer Google and worked to yield this ground breaking and encouraging outcome. Both Google and their employees should be lauded for this brave endeavor and perhaps (hopefully) other big business and band of employees can affect similar outcomes.
Congress Takes Action to Ban Forced Arbitration Agreements
To help this along, law makers are also seeing the light when it comes to forced arbitration. House Democrats recently (February 28, 2019) introduced a major bill that would protect access to the court system to millions of US employees. The Restoring Justice for Workers Act, which would ban businesses from requiring workers to sign arbitration clauses, is still being considered by congress. If the legislation is passed, it would positively impact millions of US workers by giving them back their right to remove themselves from the unfair arbitration forum and have their potential claims heard in court.
If you are presented with a forced arbitration provision as part of your hiring documents and/or employment agreement, or at any time during your employment, do not sign until you consult with an employment law attorney. You will be giving away your rights and we caution you against doing so. Feel free to contact this office and we will be able to counsel you on this important issue, or help you with any of your employment law related needs.