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Court may enter default judgment if party refuses in “bad faith” to pay arbitration fees

As noted in a previous post, arbitration isn’t just a private form of litigation. It’s a fundamentally different process than litigation. One major difference is that, in arbitration, one or both parties (depending on their arbitration agreement) pays the arbitrator’s fees, and those fees need to be paid as the case is being processed. The parties can’t typically just wait and decide whether to pay after they receive the arbitrator’s award. Refusal to pay those fees — held the Eleventh Circuit — can result in a judgment against a party, if in bad faith, as opposed to inability to afford them.

The case followed a bit of a contorted process.

  • The litigation began when a recently discharged worker (Hernandez) filed a wage claim lawsuit in court against his former employer (Acosta Tractors).
  • The company moved to compel arbitration and provided the court with a copy of the arbitration agreement that Hernandez had signed. The court agreed and ordered the case to proceed to arbitration.
  • Then, additional claims were filed, separately, by Hernandez’s attorney on behalf of other individuals, which also went to arbitration.
  • Acosta Tractors asked the arbitrator to consolidate the various proceedings, but the arbitrator refused.
  • Within a year, the various arbitrations were still being processed, going through pre-hearing discovery.  The arbitrator’s fees alone were nearing $100,000.
  • Acosta Tractors filed a motion back in court asking the judge to take the case back from the arbitrator, saying it was costing too much time and money in arbitration. Acosta Tractors said the whole arbitration agreement had been intended to provide a quicker, less expensive process than litigation, but, it said, at that point “the Arbitration in this matter has failed its essential purpose.”
  • The court refused. Acosta Tractors asked the court to reconsider, and it again refused.
  • Stuck with a process it no longer wanted, and possibly could not afford, Acosta Tractors refused to pay the arbitrator’s fees.
  • At that point the arbitrator cancelled further proceedings, and Hernandez asked the court to enter default judgment against Acosta Tractors on his wage claim. The court did so. Never having had its day in court, this left Acosta Tractors, not only owing the arbitrator $100,000 in arbitrator fees, to process matters that hadn’t even gone to hearing yet, plus owing Hernandez on his underlying wage claim, a claim in which Acosta Tractors had been denying liability.

How much was Hernandez’s underlying claim for wages? According to the Eleventh Circuit decision, he demanded only $7,293, a relatively small amount no doubt in light of the overall time, money and energy spent defending his claim, even before any actual hearing was held on the merits of the case.

On appeal the Eleventh Circuit held that, when a party refuses to pay the arbitrator’s fees, a court can indeed enter default judgment against that party, but only if the court finds, first, that the party’s refusal to pay was in “bad faith,” as opposed to an inability to afford the fees.

On remand, the District Court may well find that Acosta acted in bad faith in choosing not to pay its arbitration fees. After all, Acosta acknowledges it quit paying after the arbitrator failed to consolidate Mr. Hernandez’s case with the other cases brought by other Acosta employees, and because it thought the arbitrator had allowed too much discovery. Acosta also noted that arbitration was set to cost more than Mr. Hernandez’s claim was worth. A calculated choice to abandon arbitration after getting adverse rulings from the arbitrator certainly looks like forum shopping. And this type of behavior would surely be a factor the District Court could consider in deciding whether to sanction Acosta by entering a default judgment. At the same time, a party’s good faith inability to afford the arbitration fees would be a factor properly considered to weigh against such a sanction. See Tillman v. Tillman, 825 F.3d 1069, 1074 (9th Cir. 2016) (finding that plaintiff’s inability to pay arbitration fees was “not culpable and so does not merit a harsh penalty, particularly given the public policy favoring disposition of cases on their merits” (quotation omitted)).

The case is a powerful reminder that arbitration is an entirely different process than litigation, and in arbitration, the courts will rule that parties get what they get. Arbitration agreements are powerful and potentially useful tools. Their pros and cons should be carefully considered.

Source: Hernandez v. Acosta Tractors, Inc.case nos. 17-13057 and 17-13673 (11th Cir. 8/8/18).

Pay history bans coming, at a federal level, by way of the Circuit Courts?

A growing number of state and local governments prohibit asking applicants about their pay history or using prior employer pay histories as a basis for setting employee pay. Two Circuit Court cases suggest that such a ban may be coming, not by way of state and local legislation, but at a federal level under currently existing federal laws known as Title VII and the Equal Pay Act.

The Circuit Courts are the nation’s federal appellate courts. They are divided (and numbered) by region. They are for practical purposes generally the highest courts in the land, just beneath the Supreme Court of the United States. Very few cases result in Supreme Court review; the Circuit Courts resolve the vast bulk of federal appellate litigation without cases ever rising to the Supreme Court.

Pay history bans are growing across the country because advocates for equal pay, particularly between men and women, contend that one reason women earn less than men in many positions, is simply that women tend to have previously earned less than men in prior positions. In other words, they contend it is a self-perpetuating cycle.

In one case, the Ninth Circuit held last year, in 2017, that, consistent with its precedent, an employer may set pay levels purely on the basis of pay histories. However last summer the Ninth Circuit withdrew that decision and ordered the matter reheard en banc (by the entire bench of its judges). The case is pending reconsideration.

In the other case, the Eleventh Circuit just ruled in a Georgia case that an employer was not entitled to summary judgment, in other words, it would have to explain itself to a jury, where the female plaintiff argued she was underpaid compared to her male predecessor. The Eleventh Circuit case did not go so far as to hold that pay histories cannot be considered. It simply held, on the basis of the record before it, that pay histories were not themselves enough to warrant ruling for that employer. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision may be limited to its facts in that, there, the company’s HR manager had testified to general female-male pay disparities at the company and further that the company’s general manager had made an anti-female remark.

Employers should consider monitoring pay history bans.

Source: Rizo v. Yovino, case no. 15-372 (9th Circuit) (case pending reconsideration en banc); Bowen v. Manheim Remarketing, Inc., case no. 16-17237 (11th Cir. 2/21/18).

Disability discrimination claim denied, despite claims of shifting reasons and temporal proximity

Shifting reasons and temporal proximity are two of the most common arguments in discrimination cases. Employees often (correctly) argue either or both as part of efforts to withstand a motion for summary judgment. A recent Eleventh Circuit case illustrates how these arguments work.

An employer may file a motion for what is called “summary judgment” when it believes that the undisputed evidence requires dismissal of a plaintiff’s claims. In employment discrimination cases, when an employer has given a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action at-issue (discharge, demotion, etc.), a plaintiff most prove an issue of fact suggesting that the employer’s reason is “pretext” for discrimination. The plaintiff need not convince the judge of discrimination, merely produce sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict, assuming the jury were to believe that evidence. Two common ways that employees try to establish pretext are to show that the employer gave shifting reasons and that there was a temporal proximity. This case illustrates both arguments.

When an employer gives shifting reasons, it can suggest that its failure to provide a consistent statement of its reasoning suggests its reasons were in fact pretext for discrimination. Here, the plaintiff made such an argument. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, noting that the employer’s reasons didn’t shift, its supervisors just didn’t articulate the company’s reasoning clearly. But, as unclear as the supervisors might have been, they all said the same basic reason: Her performance. Likewise, one supervisor gave an extra reason (“the needs of the Center”), but that reason was also related to performance. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the argument that the employer’s position had shifted.

(H)ere Cappetta’s supervisors consistently gave verbal and written warnings about her workplace violations. The fact that one supervisor also pointed to the needs of the Center does not undermine its consistent concern about her attendance issues, attitude problems, and cash handling violation.

Next she argued that there was a temporal proximity (a closeness in time) between an MRI she’d undergone for her disability and her suspension. The Eleventh Circuit agreed that the timing was certainly close and might have suggested more than coincidence; however, when a plaintiff establishes a temporal proximity, the employer can respond that there was no coincidence, rather, there was an intervening act that produced the adverse employment action. Here, the employer argued that was an incident with her handling of cash. The Eleventh Circuit agreed that intervening act broke the alleged temporal proximity.

Second, Cappetta argues that the close temporal proximity between her MRI and her suspension demonstrates pretext. We have held that close temporal proximity can be evidence of pretext, but it is not necessarily sufficient on its own. Hurlbert, 439 F.3d at 1298 . Cappetta has presented no evidence, other than closeness in time, that the MRI or her diagnosis impacted the Center’s decision. And the remaining evidence actually suggests otherwise. The day she had the MRI taken was the same day as the cash handling violation, and the forced leave came after weeks of documented concerns about her attendance and attitude. Given that evidence, the close temporal proximity between her diagnosis and her termination is insufficient to rebut the Center’s reasons for her termination.

Lacking evidence of pretext, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer. HR professionals interested in temporal proximity and shifting position arguments may find the Cappetta case a helpful, brief illustration.

Source: Cappetta v. North Fulton Eye Center, Case No. 17-11581 (11th Cir. 2017).