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April 21, 2014

California Court of Appeal Finds Employment Arbitration Agreement Barring Class Claims Unconscionable

In Compton v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. B236669 (2d Dist. Mar. 19, 2013), a divided panel of the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the Los Angeles Superior Court’s order compelling arbitration of her wage-and-hour class action complaint.

The Compton majority found the arbitration provision was substantively unconscionable because it was “unfairly one-sided” for four reasons.  First, the agreement exempted the employer from arbitration for injunctive relief on claims related to confidential information and trade secrets.  The majority did not find the carve-out of plaintiff’s claims for workers compensation, unemployment and disability claims sufficient to create parity.  Second, the majority found the imposition of a one-year time limit to arbitrate employee claims impermissibly shortened the applicable statutes of limitations; for a separate, but related reason, the court found this limitation was unfairly one-sided when compared with the three- and four-year statutes of limitation applicable to the unfair competition and trade secret claims preserved by the employer.  Finally, the majority found that the attorneys’ fees language undermined the employee-favorable statutory fee provisions.  Of some concern, the court declined to sever the offensive terms, finding the agreement to be “permeated by unconscionability.”

In an apparent effort to distance its opinion from AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 131 S.Ct. 1740 and its progeny, the Compton majority emphasized that the Concepcion opinion arose out of aconsumer arbitration agreement.  The court specifically found that Concepcion “did not abrogate the Armendariz one-sidedness rule,” i.e., “the doctrine of unconscionability limits the extent to which a stronger party may, through a contract of adhesion, impose the arbitration forum on the weaker party without accepting that forum for itself.”  Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Servs. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, 118.

The Compton court found that the agreement was also procedurally unconscionable because, regardless of “how conspicuous the arbitration agreement’s terms and advisements,” the employer’s reported conduct (hurried presentation and signature requested) “rendered them nearly meaningless” and demonstrated oppression.  The court also found that the information provided was one-sided because it did not sufficiently set forth the rights that were being waived, and because the rules of the applicable arbitration bodies were not provided to the employees in toto.

As a procedural side note, the panel was divided even on the basis for consideration of the appeal.  The dissent found that the appeal was appropriate pursuant to the “death knell” doctrine, and the majority side-stepped the issue by addressing the issue as a petition for writ of mandate.

The dissent raises a host of issues and highlights the unsettled conflicts between the Concepcion line of cases and California’s unconscionability principles, which have arisen primarily in the context of employee and consumer lawsuits.

Given the strong language in Compton and the court’s refusal to strike out the offensive terms, California employers may wish to engage in a review of their arbitration agreements in light of the Compton majority’s opinion.

©2014 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Counsel

Fey Epling is counsel at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, working primarily with the firm’s Labor and Employment and Commercial Litigation Practice Groups. 

Fey publishes in the Labor Sphere blog.

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