Read or Not, Arbitration Agreement Emailed To Employee Deemed Enforceable

By: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

There may come a day when the law regarding the enforceability of arbitration agreements is so well settled that courts no longer have to deal with the issue, but that day has not yet arrived. In Jasicki v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, the Appellate Division was once again asked to determine the enforceability of an arbitration agreement between employer and employee. Unlike many cases, however, the wording of the agreement in Jasicki was not the issue. Instead, the case turned on the manner in which the employer delivered the agreement to the employer.

In Jasicki, plaintiff was employed by defendants. She sued defendants (company and supervisor), claiming that she had been harassed by her supervisor and that the company protected the supervisor and retaliated against her after she complained about the harassment. Defendants moved to compel arbitration. The motion was based on an email that was sent by defendants’ human resources department, which announced the expansion of the company’s arbitration program and included a detailed arbitration provision. The email provided that employees could opt out of the arbitration program within 30 days of receiving the email. If they failed to do so, but continued their employment with the company, then they would be deemed to have consented and agreed to the terms of the arbitration program.

In their motion, defendants introduced evidence from their IT professional demonstrating that plaintiff received the email and that it was marked “read” in her mailbox. Plaintiff never opted out of the arbitration program, so defendants argued she was required to arbitrate.

Plaintiff countered that “the mere receipt of an email was not enough to compel her to arbitrate her claims.” She also argued that certain disclaimers in the company’s email rendered the agreement illusory and that she did not knowingly or voluntarily waive her right to a jury trial.

The trial court granted defendants’ motion and plaintiff appealed. On appeal, plaintiff argued that there was no agreement to arbitrate and that the trial court erred by relying on metadata showing that the company’s email was marked “read” to conclude that plaintiff had read the email and agreed to arbitrate.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision. The court noted that arbitration provisions between employers and employees will generally be enforced as long as they reflect that the employee clearly and unambiguously agreed to arbitrate. The Appellate Division observed that an employee’s signature to an arbitration agreement is the “customary and perhaps surest indication” that an employee knowingly and voluntarily waived its rights and agreed to arbitrate, but an employee’s signature was not required. Instead, the employee’s waiver could be reflected in a “properly couched” email, even one that refers to an arbitration policy contained in a separate writing, provided that the email reflects the employee’s knowing and voluntary waiver of rights in unambiguous terms.

The Appellate Division held that the email in Jasicki met this standard. It held that there was no dispute that plaintiff received the email and that the email’s subject line “unmistakably pertained” to the company’s arbitration program. That plaintiff may not have actually read the email was of no moment because, as the Appellate Division held, “an employee’s failure to review the contents of an email does not invalidate an arbitration agreement.” (In reaching this conclusion, the Appellate Division rejected plaintiff’s reliance on Skuse v. Pfizer, Inc., a case that I discussed here, which involved an employee clicking on a link to “acknowledge” receipt of an arbitration agreement.) In support of its decision, the Appellate Division also noted that arbitration was not unilaterally imposed on plaintiff – she had the ability to opt out, but chose not to. Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court, and rejected plaintiff’s argument that the dispute “center[ed] on metadata or that defendants were required to prove the extent to which she read the [ ] email, beyond presenting objective evidence that she received the email, in order to compel arbitration.”

Arbitration Award Vacated Because Arbitrator Hid Ownership Interest In Arbitration Service

by: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

Arbitration awards are rarely overturned. The standard to vacate an award is high, and judicial review of awards is often unexacting. So when a court overturns an award, it is usually worth a closer look. And one recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Monster Energy Company v. City Beverages , LLC, is definitely worth a closer look. In Monster, the court vacated an arbitration award based on the “evident partiality” of the arbitrator. The main evidence of the arbitrator’s “evident partiality” was his ownership interest in JAMS, a fact he did not disclose before the arbitration. At the risk of revealing my own ignorance, I did not know that JAMS is owned, at least in part, by some of the neutrals who mediate/arbitrate cases through JAMS. But it is, and after Monster, those owners should disclose that relationship to the parties before beginning an arbitration.

The defendant in Monster was a beer distributor. In 2006, it signed an agreement with plaintiff to be the exclusive distributor of plaintiff’s energy drinks for 20 years in a specific geographical territory. But the agreement contained an out for plaintiff – it could terminate the agreement without cause if it paid a severance fee to defendant in an amount agreed upon by the parties in the agreement. Eight years after signing the agreement, plaintiff exercised this clause, paid the severance fee, and terminated the agreement. Defendant objected, arguing that the termination violated Washington’s Franchise Investment Protection Act.

The agreement between the parties contained an arbitration provision, requiring that any dispute be resolved by JAMS Orange County. After plaintiff served its arbitration demand, JAMS provided the parties with a list of seven neutrals. The parties chose their arbitrator from this list. The chosen arbitrator then provided a disclosure statement, which included the following: “I practice with JAMS. Each JAMS neutral, including me, has an economic interest in the overall financial success of JAMS.” The arbitrator also disclosed that he had arbitrated one matter for plaintiff in the past five years, and that he had ruled against plaintiff in that case, which involved a dispute between plaintiff and another distributor.

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Three Contracts, But Only One Arbitration Provision, Means Arbitration Cannot Be Compelled

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

What happens when the same parties enter into three contracts, all related to the same underlying services, the first two of which require the parties to litigate any disputes while the third provides that the parties “may” settle any disputes through binding arbitration? When a dispute arises, do you have to sue in court, can you arbitrate instead, if one side chooses arbitration, is the other side stuck with that choice? These were the issues in the Appellate Division’s recent decision in Medford Township School District v. Schneider Electric Building Americas, Inc.

In Medford Township, plaintiff contracted with defendant to “design and implement upgrades to several of [plaintiff’s] schools and its transportation and operations center.” The initial contract between the parties did not contain an arbitration provision. To the contrary, it contained a provision requiring that any disputes be resolved under the law of the state where the services were provided, and in the “federal, state, or municipal courts serving the county in which the services [were] performed.”

Some time later, plaintiff issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a related job. The RFP did not contain an arbitration provision. Instead, it required the winning bidder to agree that “any action or proceeding that [arose] in any manner out of performance of the RFP [or the resulting contract] . . . shall be litigated in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Burlington County.”

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Supreme Court : Classwide Arbitration Unavailable Under Ambiguous Agreement

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Keith Richards once said: “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.” This would probably be number one on the list of things a lawyer would never say. Lawyers generally do not like ambiguity. Courts don’t like it either, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and including when it evaluates the availability of class arbitration under an arbitration agreement. Several years ago, in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., the Supreme Court held that courts could not compel class arbitration when the underlying agreement was “silent” on the issue. In Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, the U.S. Supreme Court extended this holding to ambiguous agreements, holding that class arbitration is not available under an arbitration agreement that is ambiguous about the availability of such arbitration.

Plaintiff in Lamps Plus was a company that sold, you guessed it, “lighting fixtures and related products.” In 2016, the company suffered a data breach that revealed the tax information of approximately 1,300 of its employees. Soon after, a fraudulent tax return was filed in defendant’s name. He sued in California federal court on behalf of himself and a putative class of employees whose tax information had been compromised. But, like most of plaintiff’s employees, defendant had signed a broad arbitration agreement when he started working at the company. Thus, in response to defendant’s complaint, plaintiff moved to compel arbitration on an individual, not classwide, basis. The district court granted the motion to compel arbitration, but rejected plaintiff’s request for individual arbitration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Ninth Circuit determined that the arbitration agreement was ambiguous on the issue of classwide arbitration. So it applied the state law doctrine of contra proferentem – an equitable principle under which any ambiguities in a contract are construed against the drafter – and construed this ambiguity against plaintiff. The Ninth Circuit held that Stolt-Nielsen was not controlling because the arbitration agreement in that case was silent on classwide arbitration, while the arbitration agreement in Lamps Plus was ambiguous on the issue. The Ninth Circuit used contra proferentum to resolve that ambiguity.

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Words Matter! “Acknowledgement” Of Company Policy Is Not “Agreement” To Be Bound By It

“This case exemplifies an inadequate way for an employer to go about extracting its employees’ agreement to submit to binding arbitration for future claims and thereby waive their rights to sue the employer and seek a jury trial.”

If you are an employer, and a court begins its decision this way, it is probably not going to be a good day for you. Such was the case for the defendant in Skuse v. Pfizer, Inc.

I know I have been writing a lot lately about arbitration agreements, and Skuse deals with this same topic. But it is different from other recent cases, and in an interesting way. In most of the cases I have written about, the question was whether a plaintiff’s claims fell within the scope of an arbitration agreement and, if so, whether the agreement adequately informed plaintiff that he or she waived the right to have those claims heard in court, by a jury. In Skuse, plaintiff did not argue that the text of defendant’s mandatory arbitration policy insufficiently explained the policy itself or the rights being waived. Instead, plaintiff challenged the the manner in which the policy was delivered to employees.

In Skuse, defendant sought to “extract[ ] its employee’s agreement” to arbitrate (as the Appellate Division characterized it) through what the company called a “training module.” Employees were sent an email with a link to a presentation that described the company’s mandatory arbitration policy. They were “assigned” the task of “reviewing” the presentation, which was comprised of four slides. The first slide explained that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of continued employment with the company, and indicated that employees would be required to “acknowledge” receipt of the policy in a later slide. The second slide contained a link to a “Resources” tab that contained the company’s five-page, single-spaced arbitration policy, which could be reviewed and printed by employees. The third slide contained a paragraph stating that the employee understood that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of employment and requiring the employee to click on a “rectangular box with rounded corners,” next to which was printed: “CLICK HERE to acknowledge.” This slide also indicated that even if employees did not click the acknowledgement, they would be deemed to have acknowledged the policy if they remained with the company for 60 days after receiving the presentation. The fourth and final slide thanked the employees for “reviewing” the arbitration policy.

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