No Roman Holiday: New Jersey Appellate Division Says Employees Must Submit Sexual-Harassment and Discrimination Claims to Arbitration

August 23, 2018 was a busy day for the New Jersey Appellate Division on the arbitration front when it issued two opinions effectively upholding the enforceability of arbitration agreements.  Both cases involved sexual-harassment and discrimination claims brought by employees against their former employers under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).  In D.M. v. Same Day Delivery Service, Inc., et al., the Appellate Division held that a former employee was bound by the terms of an arbitration agreement, even though the language in a few sentences were “poorly written” and “didn’t make sense.”  In Roman v. Bergen Logistics, LLC, et al., the Appellate Division held that a former employee was required to arbitrate her claims, but added that, contrary to the terms of her agreement, she could also seek punitive and exemplary damages in arbitration.

Same Day provides some clarity for Arbitration Agreement language

In Same Day, an employee filed a complaint in New Jersey state court against both her former employer and her former manager, asserting claims under the NJLAD.  The employee had been hired as a delivery person by Same Day Delivery, Inc. and worked as a driver for just over two months.  During the time of her employment, the employee alleged that her manager had made “sexually provocative comments” about her body and subjected her to a hostile work environment on account of her sex and sexual orientation.  Furthermore, the employee maintained that she was fired in retaliation for rejecting her manager’s advances.

The employer moved to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration, asserting that the employee had electronically signed an arbitration agreement along with her employment application, which she had submitted through the company’s online recruiting platform, and was therefore required to submit her claims to binding arbitration.  In response, the employee argued that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable and pointed to certain sentences with ambiguous and unclear language, which she contended made the whole agreement incomprehensible to an employee of average intelligence and thus invalid.  Particularly at issue was the wording of the last sentence of the agreement, which stated “I am agree to waive my voluntarily and knowingly, and free from any duress or coercion whatsoever to a trial by a trial judge or jury as well as my right to participate in a class or collective action.”  The trial court found that, although this sentence “doesn’t make sense,” the rest of the agreement was sufficiently clear to make the agreement enforceable and therefore entered an order directing arbitration and dismissing the complaint.  The employee appealed.

Giving further support to the federal and state policies favoring the arbitration of disputes, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s finding that the poorly drafted language did not make the whole agreement ambiguous to the extent that it was invalid because the remainder of the document was clearly written.  In reaching this conclusion, the Appellate Division addressed the issue of what language would make an arbitration agreement clear and understandable to an ordinary reader.  At the outset, the Appellate Division noted that the standard in New Jersey for an enforceable arbitration agreement is that the language clearly state that the employer and employee(s) are 1) agreeing to arbitrate and 2) agreeing to waive the right to pursue a claim in court.  Notably, this standard does not require a “particular form of words,” but, being mindful that these agreements involve a waiver of rights, the language must be such that the employee has full knowledge of his/her legal rights and, by signing, demonstrate his/her intent to surrender those rights.  The Appellate Division also noted that such an agreement will pass muster when it is phrased in plain language that is understandable to an average member of the public, who may not know that arbitration is a substitute for the right to sue.

Roman: don’t waive punitive damages goodbye

In Roman, the court confronted an arbitration agreement which stated, among other things, that the employee had waived her right to pursue punitive damages for all employment matters, including those related to wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and any other violation of state and federal law.  The employee was hired by Bergen Logistics, LLC as a human resources generalist and signed an arbitration agreement as an express condition of her hiring and continued employment. The employee was terminated within four months of her hire date, after which point she filed a complaint in New Jersey state court against her employer and her former supervisor, asserting claims under the NJLAD and for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The employee alleged that, during the time of her employment, her supervisor had sexually harassed her and had created a sexually hostile work environment and she further alleged that her termination was retaliation for her objecting to the supervisor’s sexual advances.

The employer moved to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration, asserting that the employee was obligated to arbitrate her claims pursuant to the agreement that she had signed at the outset of her employment.  In response, the employee argued that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because it barred the recovery of punitive damages, which the NJLAD makes explicitly available to victims of discrimination.  Unpersuaded, the trial court found that the agreement was a clear and unambiguous waiver of claims for punitive damages, that the employee knowingly signed the agreement, and that the agreement covered the claims set forth in the complaint.  The trial court accordingly entered an order upholding the enforceability of the agreement and dismissing the complaint.  The employee then appealed, again contending that a waiver of punitive damages should not be enforced.

In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the New Jersey Appellate Division noted that the federal and states policies favoring arbitration are “not without limits.”  In this vein, the Appellate Division focused its review on the relationship of the waiver-of-rights provision in arbitration agreements to the rights afforded by the NJLAD.  The Appellate Division determined that the NJLAD permits the recovery of punitive damages to victims of discrimination for an important, public-interest purpose, namely the deterrence and punishment of the most egregious discriminatory conduct by employees who, by virtue of their positions in upper management, control employer policies that should prevent discriminatory conduct in the workplace.  The Appellate Division held that this is a “substantive right” that cannot be waived by agreement between an employee and his/her employer.  Therefore, that Appellate Division modified the trial court’s decision by affirming that the employee must arbitrate her claims and adding that she was permitted to include claims for punitive and exemplary damages in the arbitration proceeding.

Bottom Line

While these opinions reaffirm the compelling federal and state policies that favor the arbitration of disputes, they also illuminate equally compelling, and at times competing, public interests at play within the broader scope of employer-employee relations in the state of New Jersey.  Courts in New Jersey have consistently recognized the benefits of arbitration as providing an inexpensive and efficient means of dispute resolution.  Furthermore, the agreement between the employee and employer to pursue arbitration as expressed in the form of a contract has been strictly enforced, in most instances.  However, these recent opinions make it clear that the enforceability of arbitration agreements depends, in part, on the clarity of the plain language used as well as on the rights that the employee and employer have agreed to waive.  These recent opinions should serve as cautionary tales that the public interests of clarity in contract and an employee’s right to a discrimination-free workplace are some of the many considerations that employers must have when crafting arbitration agreements with the assistance of counsel.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure its arbitration agreement will be enforceable, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

New Jersey Courts Double-Down on Arbitration Enforcement

In late June 2018, New Jersey state and federal courts issued opinions on arbitration agreements that effectively reinforced the state’s rocky pro-arbitration bearings. The first opinion came from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on June 20, 2018, in a case called Ace American Insurance Co. v. Guerriero. In Ace, the Third Circuit held that an employee must arbitrate his employment-related claims, despite his allegations that the company never provided him a full copy of the arbitration agreement. Only one day later, in Victory Entertainment, Inc., et al. v. Schibell, et al., the New Jersey Appellate Division held that strip club owner/managers must arbitrate an ownership dispute despite the employee’s argument that the arbitration agreement lacked clear and unambiguous language to do so.

An “Ace” In the Pocket for Arbitration Agreements In Federal Court

In Ace, after the employee and his counsel refused to arbitrate the employee’s employment claims, Ace filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey, to compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). One day later, the employee filed a whistle-blower suit in New Jersey state court claiming that his employer illegally fired him after he reported to his supervisors that the company was destroying documents it was required to preserve in violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”). The employee alleged that he was never provided the company’s full three-page Employee Dispute Arbitration Policy and instead was only provided the signature page. The employer produced the signed acknowledgment page, which at the top read “Arbitration Agreement.” Moreover, the employee’s offer letter, which expressly referenced the Employment Dispute Arbitration Policy, was also signed by the employee.  Employees could also access the Employee Dispute Arbitration Policy using the company’s intranet site. The U.S. District Court enjoined the employee from pursuing his state court case and ruled in ACE’s favor, which was upheld on appeal to the Third Circuit.

Reinforcing the FAA’s “strong federal policy” of resolving parties’ disputes through arbitration by enforcing the parties’ arbitration agreements, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s finding that the arbitration agreement was still enforceable, whether or not the employee actually read the agreement. The court found that the Employee Dispute Arbitration Policy unambiguously stated that the employee would “submit any employment-related legal claims to final and binding neutral third-party arbitration …” and specifically mentioned CEPA.  This decision confirms New Jersey’s strong pro-arbitration stance in federal court.

A “Victory” In State Court

In Victory Entertainment, employers also enjoyed a victory in the Appellate Division. The plaintiff was a manager part-owner of The Den, holding company for Delilah’s Den strip clubs throughout the state. His two business partners certified that plaintiff suffered spells of delusion that led him to mismanage the company, including brandishing a gun in the workplace, refusing to remit payment to vendors, and sexually harassing entertainers. After plaintiff was hospitalized for mental health issues, his two business partners, along with plaintiff and plaintiff’s counsel, executed a Sales Agreement whereby plaintiff’s trusted associate, as plaintiff’s agent, would purchase the two other owner’s shares of The Den over a 10-year period. The parties also drafted a separate Shareholder/Stakeholder (Deadlock) Agreement to resolve impasses between the shareholders and stakeholders, which created a 1/3 voting right between plaintiff’s agent/associate and the two part-owners. This Deadlock Agreement contained a binding arbitration clause. Although the shares in The Den were expressly subject to the terms and conditions of the Sales Agreement and the Deadlock Agreement, plaintiff and his trusted agent/associate were the only parties to the Deadlock Agreement.

When plaintiff’s mismanagement issues re-arose, the two part-owners executed their authority to remove plaintiff from managing the business. Plaintiff filed suit, claiming he was improperly removed.  The trial court dismissed his complaint and ordered that the parties arbitrate the dispute. Plaintiff appealed. In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division found that although only the plaintiff and his trusted associate were parties to the arbitration clause, the two owners could enforce the arbitration clause since the Sales Agreement and the Deadlock Agreement arose from the same transaction. The two agreements were executed on the same day, pertain to the control and management of the same company, and contain numerous cross-references. Further, the Appellate Division determined the two part-owners could enforce the arbitration provision as either third-party beneficiaries or the trusted associate’s agents. Finally, the Appellate Division held the plaintiff claims were within the scope of the arbitration provision because they implicated the Deadlock Agreement explicitly or the alleged conduct occurred after the parties executed the agreement or related to the execution of the Deadlock Agreement.

Bottom Line

Unlike New York, and arguably contrary to the Federal Arbitration Act, New Jersey state courts have historically imposed a higher standard to enforce an arbitration agreement. The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that arbitration agreements in the state must provide “clear and unambiguous” terms that the parties are waiving the right to a jury trial. Although federal courts staunchly enforce arbitration agreements in favor of employers, employees sometimes reap the benefits of this state court hurdle for employers. Together, these recent opinions stand for the proposition that arbitration agreements may be strictly enforced in New Jersey.

While these opinions are triumphs for the enforcement of arbitration agreements, it is still imperative to include explicit language that your employees waive the right to a jury trial for all employment-related claims. Likewise, the law surrounding arbitration agreements is constantly shifting and all arbitration agreements should be carefully reviewed with counsel.

If you have questions on drafting arbitration agreements or arbitration disputes, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

NJ Employers May Need to Revisit Arbitration Clauses Following Appellate Division Ruling

On January 7, 2016, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that an arbitration provision contained in an Employee Handbook was unenforceable. This decision is of critical importance to New Jersey employers when it comes to reviewing their own arbitration agreements and Employee Handbook disclaimers.

In Morgan v. Raymours Furniture Company, Inc. et al., plaintiff-employee alleged that in response to a complaint of age discrimination, he was given an ultimatum by the defendant-company, sign an arbitration agreement or be terminated. Plaintiff-employee refused to sign the arbitration agreement and was subsequently terminated. Plaintiff-employee sued alleging violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), wrongful termination, and other similar claims.  Despite plaintiff-employee’s refusal to sign the arbitration agreement, defendant-company moved to compel arbitration on the basis of Employee Arbitration Program contained in the company’s Employee Handbook.  The at-will disclaimer contained in the company’s Employee Handbook, however, stated in pertinent part: “Nothing in this Handbook or any other Company practice or communication . . . creates a promise of continued employment, [an] employment contract, term or obligation of any kind on the part of the Company.”  Relying on the disclaimer language, the trial court denied the defendant-company’s motion to compel arbitration.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed finding that despite plaintiff-employee  acknowledging receipt of the Employee Handbook and the Employee Arbitration Program contained in the Handbook in August 2011, February 2012 and April 2013, the acknowledgements only signify that the employee received a copy of the Employee Handbook, not that he or she necessarily read and/or understood the contents. Relying on the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Woolley v. Hoffman-LaRoche, Inc., the Appellate Division also reiterated that a disclaimer advising an employee that the Employee Handbook does not create a contract of employment will prohibit an employer from enforcing an arbitration provision contained in the same handbook. The Appellate Division found that it would be inequitable for an employer to claim certain policies contained in an Employee Handbook are binding contracts while others are not. The Appellate Division found that the purported waiver of plaintiff-employee’s right to sue, clearly conveyed that its “rules, regulations, procedures and benefits . . . are not promissory or contractual in nature and are subject to change by the company.”  Thus, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court that the plaintiff-employee did not clearly and unambiguously waive his right to sue defendant-employer in court.

This decision makes clear that a court will not enforce an arbitration provision when the Employee Handbook includes an at-will disclaimer.  Given this decision, employers should carefully check their Employee Handbook to ensure that arbitration agreements are not contained therein. Employers who seek to arbitrate claims and disputes with their employees arising from employment must utilize a separate, stand-alone arbitration agreement which employee’s must separately sign and acknowledge receipt.

For more information regarding this decision and how your company can craft binding and effective arbitration agreements and Employee Handbook disclaimers, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

New Jersey Interest Arbitration Reform: Are You Prepared For Your Next Round of Negotiations?

New Jersey public employers are currently feeling the effects of Arbitration Reform Bill P.L. 2010 c.105 (“the legislation”), which applies to any collective negotiations agreement (“agreement”) expiring on or after January 1, 2011 to March 31, 2014. This legislation sunsets on April 1, 2014. But in the meantime, the legislation greatly impacts the role of arbitration in police and firefighter contract negotiations by establishing a 2 percent cap on the aggregate increase in “base salary” that can be provided to public employees in an interest arbitration award. The legislation’s 2 percent cap prohibits an arbitrator from issuing an award that, on an annual basis, increases “base salary” by more than 2 percent of the aggregate amount expended by the employer on “base salary” items for the members of the union in the 12 months immediately preceding expiration of the agreement. An arbitrator can distribute the aggregate monetary value over the term of the agreement in unequal annual percentages.

In negotiations and during interest arbitration, disputes often arise as to what qualifies as “base salary” and “non-salary economic issues”. The legislation provides that the 2 percent cap applies to all “base salary” items, such as step increment payments, longevity and cost of living increases. The legislation specifically prohibits an arbitrator from issuing an award that addresses “non-salary economic issues” unless already included in the existing contract. “Non-salary economic issues” encompass paid time off, pension costs, and health /medical insurance costs. The legislation’s exclusion of “non-salary economic issues” from an award is particularly important because it restricts an arbitrator’s ability to create new cost items in successor contracts.

There is currently no case law to provide further guidance on the legislation’s distinction between “base salary” and “non-salary economic issues,” but we will provide updates on any new developments.

Should you need assistance or have any questions regarding interpretation or implementation of the legislation, please contact Joseph Hannon, Esq. or Phillip Rofsky, Esq. in our Labor Law Group.