California continues its contortions over arbitration agreements in employment cases

A trio of recent cases illustrateS how federal and state courts in California continue to struggle with their efforts to reconcile the recent pro-arbitration rulings by the Supreme Court with the historically anti-arbitration approach in California.

In NBCUniversal Media, LLC v. Pickett, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals held that an employee was required, under the Supreme Court’s 2009 14 Penn Plaza decision, to arbitrate individual employment discrimination claims under his union’s collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration clause, which read “neither the Union nor any aggrieved employee may file an action or complaint in court on any claim that arises under [an anti-discrimination clause], having expressly waived the right to so file.”

While that seemed to be a relatively straightforward application of the Supreme Court’s arbitration cases, the California Court of Appeals seemed to make the waters muddier in a pair of other cases.

In one case, Del Rosario Martinez v. Ready Pac Produce, Inc., the California Court of Appeals noted that the Supreme Court ruled in its 2011 Concepcion case and then in its 2018 Epic Resources case that an arbitration agreement is enforceable even if it means the employee is unable to pursue a class action. In line with those decisions, the Court held that the plaintiff was required to arbitrate her wage claims even though she was unable to pursue a class action.

However, in the other case, Ramos v. Superior Court of San Francisco County, the California Court of Appeals considered the same Supreme Court decisions and held they did not alter the fundamental underlying approach that California has taken against arbitration of employment claims, since the California Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Armendariz. Under the Armendariz approach, the Court then held the arbitration agreement in this case was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable under California law, even though it would have been enforceable under federal law:

In sum, the arbitration agreement as applied to Ramos’s statutory and wrongful termination claims contains four unconscionable terms. The provisions requiring Ramos to pay half the costs of arbitration, pay her own attorney fees, restricting the ability of the panel of arbitrators to “override” or “substitute its judgment” for that of the partnership, and the confidentiality clause, are unconscionable and significantly inhibit Ramos’s ability to pursue her unwaivable statutory claims. Because we are unable to cure the unconscionability simply by striking these clauses, and would instead have to reform the parties’ agreement in order to enforce it, we must find the agreement void as a matter of law.

These three cases don’t answer every, or even most, questions about arbitration agreements in California employment cases. They do illustrate the federal and state courts continuing efforts to try to reconcile California’s Armendariz approach with the Supreme Court’s. Employers who wish to utilize arbitration agreements in California should carefully consider their options.

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