Sure You Can Require Employees to Arbitrate Claims, But Should You?

California currently permits employers to require workers to submit claims arising from their employment to binding arbitration. Excluded are workers’ compensation controversies or disputes relating to employee benefit plans; but most other disputes, including claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wage-hour violations may be arbitrated, outside of court. Before taking the arbitration plunge, however, I urge my clients to give careful consideration to the following points before requiring their employees to submit to mandatory arbitration.

 

Pros of Mandatory Arbitration

Arbitrator, Not Jury, Decides the Case

The biggest advantage of arbitration for business defendants is the fact that both liability (i.e., whether you did anything wrong) and damages (what is the employee owed) are decided by a single (usually) arbitrator rather than a panel of jurors who are generally relative strangers to the legal process and who invariably bring their own experiences into the decision-making process. Some jurors have concealed bitterness toward institutions in general and employers in particular. They bring this into the deliberations and it injects uncertainty and risk for the employer defendant.

If the claim is submitted arbitration, the parties generally, though not always, agree upon an arbitrator. If the parties cannot agree, there are mechanisms available for the court or an Alternative Dispute Resolution provider to select the specific arbitrator. Any arbitrator I agree upon will be a retired judge with demonstrated expertise in employment law. I spend time researching potential arbitrators and this often includes informal input from other employment lawyers on their experience with the arbitrator.

Arbitrators are typically less likely to inject huge bias against the employer and can be skeptical of an employee’s claims, particularly if they strain credibility. If the arbitrator is a retired judge, he/she will have seen literally thousands of witnesses on the stand demonstrating various degrees of (dis)honesty and will have a much better handle on this than an average juror. Arbitrators are far less likely to award punitive damages and the damages award in general may be more carefully tailored to the facts of the case. Put another way: some jurors don’t know the value of a buck.

Confidentiality

As a general matter, employers tend to prefer not to air dirty laundry in public. Arbitration creates an avenue for private resolution of disputes without making the evidence or outcome public. Sealing testimony, documents or rulings in the civil court system is extraordinarily difficult if a case proceeds through trial to verdict or appeal.

Predictability

When a court schedules a case for trial, this almost always represents the court’s best estimate when it can try the case. It is never set in stone and, as a consequence, a trial can be continued multiple times resulting in duplicative last-minute preparation, increased cost and witness unavailability. Additionally, even when a trial commences, there are long hours where the parties and their attorneys sit in the hallway waiting for the court to attend to unrelated emergency matters, late jurors, late witnesses or other issues.

When an arbitration is scheduled, it is considered a firm date. Not to say that continuances never occur, but it is generally not for the convenience of the arbitrator. Judges are chiefly concerned with the welfare of the jurors; arbitrators are concerned about the convenience of the parties and lawyers, since they rely on lawyers for their reputation and repeat business. Additionally, arbitration hearings can be scheduled as long as the parties are comfortable, generally between 8 or 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on successive days, which results in an overall shorter hearing than a trial with continuous interruptions.

Ability to Preclude Class Actions

It is legal to preclude arbitration of class actions. This can be a huge positive for large-scale employers, such as chain retailers, because it prevents employees from banding together and multiplying their claims under a single action. Lawyers interested in pursuing class-action lawsuits are far less interested in pursuing a single plaintiff lawsuit with the same allegations because the upside attorney fee potential is minimal. For most smaller employers, 100 employees or less, this is not as important since meaningful class actions are less common.

No Right of Appeal

As demonstrated below, this is either a pro or con depending on how the arbitration hearing is conducted and the award. However, there are extremely limited bases to seek review of an arbitrator’s ruling or award. This can cut off the right of an employee who is unsatisfied with the award to drag the process (and costs) on and on with one or more appeals.

Cons of Mandatory Arbitration

Cost

Arbitration is incredibly expensive for employers. This is primarily because, under California law, the employer must pay 100% of the arbitrator’s fee. To better understand this burden, consider a recent case in which I spent hours trying to hunt down a high quality, but reasonably-priced, arbitrator for an employment lawsuit involving discrimination and wage-hour claims. I could not find a retired judge below $700/hour and most were higher, with at least one charging $1,200/hour. For a 5-day arbitration hearing—which is not overly long if there are witnesses—my client was required to deposit approximately $50,000 three months before the arbitration hearing date. This is money that, regardless how well my client did at the hearing itself, it would never see again. Arbitrators cannot order a losing employee to pay any part of the arbitration fees to the employer. In my humble view, this cost can amount to denial of due process.

Study Suggests Employees Actually Do Better in Arbitration

Notwithstanding my suggestion that arbitrators tend to be more conservative than jurors, a 2019 study by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform found that employees actually do better in binding arbitration.

No Right of Appeal

If the arbitrator makes a ruling that is against the applicable law, and it harms the employer’s case, there is no way to challenge the ruling.

Inability to Control Admission of Certain Evidence

This factor may or may not be important. However, if there is a very bad piece of evidence for the employer, such as an email or a hearsay statement that would not, under proper application of the rules of evidence, be seen or heard by the trier of fact (i.e., the jury), it is effectively impossible to prevent the arbitrator from knowing about it, since he/she must know about it to decide whether it is admissible. If he/she excludes it as evidence, while he/she should not consider it, as a practical matter there is no way to “un-ring the bell.”

Loose Application of the Rules of Evidence

Some arbitrators do not rigidly apply the rules of evidence. This injects uncertainty into the hearing and outcome, which is not usually good for employers.

Conclusion

On balance, I believe arbitration is a fantastic way to resolve disputes rapidly, particularly for large-scale employers where cost is less of a factor, preventing class actions is a major concern or where confidentiality is important. For employers that do not strictly fit this description, however, I cannot recommend mandatory arbitration because even the smallest dispute is likely to cost tens of thousands of dollars in arbitrator’s fees. As a consequence, an employer can be forced to settle a defensible case because it will cost more to pay for the arbitration.

Employers wishing to further explore this question should contact their experienced employment law counsel or [email protected]

 

Learn More

How Well Should You Know Your Arbitrator?

This cautionary tale comes from a case called Mt. Holyoke Homes, L.P., v. Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, LLP (No. B243912). The facts are straightforward. Mt. Holyoke Homes hired Los Angeles law firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell to provide legal services in connection with a real estate development.

When lawyers at the Jeffer firm failed to timely challenge the California Coastal Commission’s exercise of jurisdiction over Mt. Holyoke’s application for a development permit, Mt. Holyoke sued the firm for legal malpractice. Jeffer Mangels petitioned to compel arbitration, which was required under its engagement agreement with Mt. Holyoke. The law firm also sought to recover unpaid legal fees.

The parties jointly selected Retired Judge Eli Chernow to serve as the arbitrator over the malpractice action. According to the case, Judge Chernow made the following disclosures at the outset of his engagement:

“Judge Chernow disclosed that Defendants’ counsel had represented a party to a mediation before him within the past five years, but stated that he was not aware of any relationship with any party or attorney involved in this matter that would impair his ability to act fairly and impartially. Judge Chernow later disclosed that he had known Benjamin Reznik for many years. He also disclosed that he had conducted an arbitration and a mediation involving Adler more than five years earlier. The parties agreed to his appointment as arbitrator despite these disclosures.”

Judge Chernow ultimately issued an award in Jeffer Mangels’ favor on the grounds that its members had not breached the applicable standard of care nor caused Mt. Holyoke’s damages. He awarded the law firm $18,132.81 in unpaid legal fees, $285,000 in attorney fees incurred in connection with the arbitration, and over $150,000 in costs.

Smelling a rat, one of the Mt. Holyoke plaintiffs scoured the internet looking for evidence of bias on the part of the arbitrator. According to the case:

“She discovered for the first time a previously undisclosed resume in which Judge Chernow had named Robert Mangels, a name partner in JMBM, as a reference. She found a link to the resume on the Internet site of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals. Mangels was the first of three “References” listed on the resume.”

Reasonable minds will differ on whether this was really smoking gun evidence of bias. Judge Chernow signed a declaration attesting to the fact that the “resume” had been prepared 10 years earlier and that “he had listed Mangels as a reference only because Mangels was a well-known and highly-regarded litigator who was familiar with his abilities as a neutral.”

The trial court, unimpressed with the internet revelations, granted Jeffer’s petition to confirm the arbitration award and denied Mt. Holyoke’s petition to vacate the award. But—you guessed it—Mt. Holyoke appealed, and the California Court of Appeal held that it was error for the trial court to deny the petition to vacate the award based on the revelations of Judge Chernow’s . . . er . . . sordid past with Robert Mangles. The Court said:

“ . . . the connection between the undisclosed fact of the arbitrator’s naming an attorney as a reference on his resume and the subject matter of the arbitration, a legal malpractice action against the law firm in which the same attorney is a partner, is sufficiently close that a person reasonably could entertain a doubt that the arbitrator could be impartial. We conclude that Judge Chernow was required to disclose the fact that he had listed Mangels as a reference on his resume. Judge Chernow did not state in his declaration that at the time of his required disclosures he was not aware that he had listed Mangels as a reference on his resume, and there appears to be no reasonable dispute that he was aware of that fact at that time. His failure to timely disclose this ground for disqualification of which he was then aware compels the vacation of the arbitrator’s award.”

The real loser here is Jeffer Mangels or its malpractice carrier, who now have to re-try and, presumably, re-win the malpractice case. Perhaps there really was bias, though I doubt it. Judge Chernow is a pretty well-respected neutral. However, this case highlights the risks if you don’t know your arbitrator really, really well (or if you actually do know your arbitrator really, really well). I never said arbitration wasn’t risky, expensive and unpredictable.

Learn More

Five Ways To Improve Your Client’s Experience At Arbitration

I last wrote, rather flippantly I thought, about why, when given the choice, I generally shun arbitration in favor of mediation. One of the comments I received, from über-neutral Deborah Rothman, suggested that I owed it to my readers to check out the set of Protocols developed by the College of Commercial Arbitrators to address the kinds of issues I raised in my post. Well, I did. And it turns out this user-friendly, publicly available monograph, Protocols For Expeditious, Cost-Effective Commercial Arbitration, has a fair amount to offer on the subject of . . . well . . . making commercial arbitration more expeditious and cost-effective. Thank you, Deborah.†

By way of introduction to the Protocols, I thought it made sense to highlight just a few of the suggestions contained in the Protocols aimed specifically at outside counsel. (There are also separate Protocols for business users and arbitrators.) Here you go:

1.  Know What You’re Doing.

I spent so much of my post bashing arbitrators, that I managed to overlook a very important point: it helps if the lawyer advocates have a clue what they’re doing. We generally assume this means having a grasp of the body of law governing the subject of the dispute. While that’s surely crucial, the Protocols point out that it is equally important that counsel understand the unique rules of arbitration advocacy. As the authors comment:

“Counsel who agree to represent parties in commercial arbitrations need to have a solid understanding of the arbitration rules that will apply, the practices of the provider that is administering the arbitration, and the growing body of state and federal arbitration law. They should know how to navigate the arbitration process in an economical yet effective way.” (Id. at 61.)

2. Select Arbitrators With Proven Management Ability.

I would argue that careful selection of the neutral is the single most important step when engaging in any form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). This Protocol recommends going even farther. It suggests:

“Counsel should do a thorough ‘due diligence’ of all potential arbitrators under consideration and should, consistent with the Code of Ethics for Arbitrators in Commercial Disputes, interview them concerning their experience, case management practices, availability and amenability to compensation arrangements that would incentivize them to conduct the arbitration efficiently and expeditiously.” (Id. at 62.)

3. Seek to Limit Discovery In A Manner Consistent With Client Goals.

I have mixed feelings about this Protocol. One of the problems I’ve historically had with arbitration involves limitations on scope of discovery. It’s fine for the parties to have a goal at the outset to limit discovery to only what is necessary. But it can become a problem if the parties (or one of them) are too optimistic, leading to an overly restrictive scope of discovery. This is what the drafters of the Protocols have to say:

“Discovery is far and away the greatest driver of cost and delay in litigation and in arbitration. . . Outside  counsel have an obligation to make sure the client understands the limitations inherent in arbitration discovery, to assess how much (if any) discovery is truly needed in the case, and to ascertain how much time and money the client is willing to expend in turning over stones.” (Id. at 64.)

See, it’s this “how much (if any) discovery” nonsense that troubles me. In my experience, a client’s case rarely gets worse by conducting discovery, and generally it gets an awful lot better with sufficient discovery. I do recognize that, at some point–generally earlier than later–discovery begins to yield diminishing returns. But the only time I’ve had a bad outcome at an arbitration was when I inherited a case on the eve of the arbitration hearing from a rather dim-witted colleague and the only discovery permitted and conducted was a set of document demands. It was the very worst experience. I say this: if don’t want to conduct discovery then forget arbitration and forget hiring a lawyer and bring your dispute in small claims court. Seriously.

4.  Periodically Discuss Settlement Opportunities With Your Client.

Being an effective, client-centric litigator, whether in trial court or arbitration, requires us to think simultaneously in two different directions. It can be challenging. Even as our client’s case improves, we need to continue questioning whether their interests would truly be better served by negotiating a settlement. This is one of the reasons I think we should strive to adopt the Mr. Spock way of purely rational, objective thinking.

The Protocols authors say this:

“[P]ropitious opportunities for settlement often appear at multiple points during arbitration, including during discussions with opposing counsel in preparation for the preliminary conference, after briefing or rulings on significant threshold matters, on completion of all or particular discovery, after submission of dispositive motions, during the hearing, and after submissions of post-hearing briefs. At all of these stages, outside counsel should re-evaluate their initial case assessment and discuss with the client the pros and cons of pursuing settlement.” (Id. at 65.)

5. Recognize and Exploit The Differences Between Arbitration And Litigation.

Pretty much consistent with my post, the Protocols dispel any lingering hope we may have for success at summary judgment or rigid adherence to the rules of evidence. The drafters say:

“Counsel should . . . keep in mind that dispositive motions are rarely granted in arbitration, and should employ such motions only where there will be a clear net benefit in terms of time and cost savings. Counsel should be aware that arbitrators tend to employ more relaxed evidentiary standards, and should therefore avoid littering the record with repeated objections to form and hearsay.” (Id.)

Yes, your otherwise valid evidentiary objections in an arbitration hearing may not be worth the cost of your breath. They are, both literally and metaphorically, “litter,” or useless trash. They could actually irritate the arbitrator (not to mention your opponent). While the Protocols topically suggest we should “exploit” these differences between arbitration and litigation, neither the Protocol nor the accompanying comment offer much advice about how to turn the lack of available dispositive motions or rules of evidence to our advantage. I’m unconvinced.

While it’s unlikely to provide any immediate relief, one of the Protocols urges lawyers to “work with providers to improve arbitration processes.” (Id. at 67.) I suspect (but have not yet confirmed) that there may be a corresponding Protocol aimed at arbitrators which suggests they give serious consideration to advocates’ comments and suggestions. At least for now, I will continue to prefer mediation to arbitration as an effective form of ADR. However, the Protocols seem to invite a dialogue, which would seem like a step in the right direction

†Ms. Rothman, along with Curtis von Kann, are Associate Editors of the Protocols. Thomas Stipanowich is the Editor-in-Chief.

Learn More

I Don’t Always Do ADR . . .

But when I do, I vastly prefer mediation to arbitration. Here are five reasons why:

1. The Split-The-Baby Problem.

I’ve had retired judges and other neutrals tell me they don’t like presiding over arbitrations because they invariably lose a future potential client: the lawyer for the losing side. There is one thing arbitrators will try to do to temper this inevitability: they may issue a “split the baby” award, giving an allegedly aggrieved plaintiff something even if he failed to prove his case or suffered no damages. While many will argue that a small “split the baby” award is far better than a runaway jury verdict, in cases involving fee-shifting statutes, such as employment discrimination litigation, the employer who might have won outright in front of a jury is forced to pay the “prevailing” plaintiff’s attorney’s fees (in addition to the arbitrator’s fees and costs).

2. Informality Is Not Necessarily A Good Thing.

It is often thought that arbitration is preferable to a bench or jury trial because the proceedings tend to be more informal. Informality might sound good, but it can be a problem if your arbitrator decides to relax the rules of evidence (which is typically within her discretion) and your opponent’s case hinges on an item of otherwise inadmissible evidence, such as a hearsay statement.

3. No Appellate Review.

What do you do if you lose the arbitration due to a clearly erroneous ruling by the arbitrator? Don’t look to any appellate court for relief. While it is true that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and other schemes may create a situation in which some appellate review is available, the circumstances and scope of review is inevitably limited compared with a state or federal appellate court.

4. Good Luck With That Summary Judgment Motion.

While it can be argued that certain courts are more or less likely to grant meritorious summary judgment motions, many will agree that obtaining summary judgment in a case pending before a private arbitrator may be the toughest sell of all. Without naming names, I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, an arbitrator who grants summary judgment is foregoing a significant income opportunity. While many first-rate neutrals are so fully booked they have no trouble filling time gaps created by a vacated arbitration hearing, this is not always the case. Second, a party who is deprived its right to a full evidentiary hearing because of a summary judgment will almost certainly feel shorted. Her lawyer is unlikely to hire the neutral again.

5. It’s Damn Costly.

Many practitioners feel as I do that arbitration is just too costly to be seriously considered as an alternative to resolving a dispute in state or federal court. In addition to the arbitrator’s hourly rate, which equals or exceeds that of most lawyers, many ADR providers tack on large administrative charges. Those of us that represent employers in employment litigation are stuck trying to explain to our clients why they must deposit, in advance, all of the arbitrator’s fees and costs.

I recognize these are pretty broad strokes. But in most instances, given the choice between a bench or jury trial and a binding arbitration, I’d prefer to stay in court and try to resolve the case through mediation.

Learn More

When There’s Only One Juror

 

Should our trial preparation and presentation be appreciably different when trying a bench trial or arbitration before a single arbitrator? If so, how?

As in most instances, McElhaney offers spectacular guidance on this topic.  Instead of framing the situation as simply a bench or nonjury trial, he reminds us we are still trying a jury trial, it’s just that there is only one juror.  While some of the drama may be diminished, we’re still in the business of seeking a unanimous verdict.  That said, his chapter on Judge Trials from Litigation offers the following advice:

1.  Understand your jury.  “[K]nowing to whom you are talking makes a difference in what you say and how you say it.”  Instead of a half-hour voir dire session, you may have months and months to learn about your judge, including her biases and prejudices.  Make good use of this time.

2.  Win the case before you say anything.  Write a bench brief that really sings, focusing particular attention on the first three pages.  McElhaney quotes Houston lawyer William Pannill: “The first one to explain what the case is really about has a tremendous advantage. The bench brief is an opportunity to do that.”

3.  Don’t relax your presentation just because there’s only one juror.  Use the same care in the order of presentation of witnesses, be concise and concentrate on telling a story.

4.  Preserve objections.  Just because the judge hears evidence before ruling on its admissibility, it remains imperative to preserve the record for appeal.  In fact, objecting isn’t as potentially harmful in bench trials because the judge knows you have to do it.

5.  Finally, even if parts of evidence have been stipulated to, don’t leave these out when arguing the case to the judge or arbitrator.  McElhaney points out that it is sometimes the stipulated facts that “are the best proof of what the case is all about.”

Learn More
Follow

Follow this blog

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Email address