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Are they Worth Price of Paper They're Printed On? - Ubersization of Arbitration Clauses

Arbitration has long been treated as an inferior method of resolving disputes, despite pronouncements to the contrary from the U.S. Supreme Court. However, arbitration does serve a purpose. The process is less formalized, so it moves much faster than the court system. That means less disruption to business. It’s also less expensive than bringing a civil action, making it easier for individuals to assert their rights or air their grievances. For these reasons and more, many businesses have incorporated arbitration provisions into their contracts and handbooks. The Federal Arbitration Act was enacted in 1925, yet these types of contractual agreements to arbitrate still get shot down in certain courts and by certain administrative authorities.more

Drivers v. Uber – The Arbitration Dispute

In Uber’s California litigation, Judge Chen has examined various aspects of the arbitration provisions contained in the various versions of Uber’s agreements with its drivers.  The 2013 Agreement and the 2014 Agreement shared several key features:

(1) all disputes not exempted from the scope of arbitration were subject to resolution by final and binding arbitration;

(2) arbitration could proceed only on an individual basis, not by class;

(3) the delegation clause in the provision stated that “disputes arising out of or relating to the interpretation or application of this Arbitration Provision, including the enforceability, revocability or validity of the Arbitration Provision or any portion of the Arbitration Provision” shall be decided by the arbitrator; and,

(4) an opt-out clause allowed drivers to avoid the arbitration clause.

In separate litigation, the Court had Uber revise the opt-out provision to make it more conspicuous and less onerous on the drivers.  Because the 2013 Agreement contained the original opt-out provision, it did not stand a chance of being found enforceable.  In later 2014 and 2015 Agreements,  Uber included the provision in boldface and ALL CAPS with text larger than the provisions around it.  Language also was added to explain the significance of arbitration and the right to opt-out.  Additionally, to exercise that right now, a driver need only send an email to Uber stating his/her name and the desire to opt-out (although he/she could send a letter by regular mail, overnight delivery, or hand-delivery, too).  As a result, when the Court certified a class on September 1, 2015, those drivers who failed to opt-out of the provision were excluded from the class.  However, in December, the Court found the arbitration agreements were unenforceable on California public policy grounds, irrespective of the opt-out provision, thus dramatically increasing the size of the class.

Meanwhile, delegation clauses, like the one set forth under (3) above, seem to cause consternation in courts across the nation.  Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that courts are the typical adjudicators of whether the parties have agreed to arbitrate in the first instance.  Because a delegation clause puts this determination in the hands of the arbitrator instead, it must be clear and unmistakable.  In Uber’s case, the clause was clear, but it was made ambiguous because it conflicted with other clauses contained in the Agreements.  For instance, a separate clause in Uber’s 2013 and 2014 driver agreements stated that the state and federal courts in San Francisco had exclusive jurisdiction over any disputes, actions, or claims arising out of the Agreement.  While Uber argued that the forum selection clause reserving jurisdiction in San Francisco courts was for any disputes found not subject to arbitration, Judge Chen did not buy into that argument.  He felt the clauses conflicted, and since the courts would have to apply rules of construction to resolve the ambiguity created by the competing clauses, that meant that the delegation clause was not clear and unmistakable, and therefore, was unenforceable.

The arbitration provision in Uber’s 2013 and 2014 Agreements also addressed responsibility for payment of the arbitrator’s fees.  It provided that if applicable law did not require Uber to pay for all of the costs and fees of arbitration, then the costs would be apportioned between the parties as required by law.  Judge Chen found that because the delegation clause would force drivers to pay exorbitant fees just to arbitrate whether or not their substantive disputes even belonged before the arbitrator in the first place, when drivers would not have to pay a court to make that determination, such a clause deprived drivers of any forum for their claims.

The arbitration provision contained three additional unfavorable terms which Judge Chen found were not sufficiently highlighted for the drivers’ attention.  For one, the confidentiality clause precluded the parties from disclosing the existence, contents, or results of any arbitration.  For another, the intellectual property carve-out clause excluded intellectual property disputes from arbitration – something the Court found favored Uber.  Finally, the unilateral modification clause permitted Uber to unilaterally modify the terms of the agreement without notice to the drivers.  As a result of all of the foregoing issues, the Court found the agreements to arbitrate were unconscionable.  Thus, Judge Chen refused to enforce them.

Can an enforceable arbitration agreement even be written? 

Arbitration agreements are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  While many are still disfavored, as I mentioned earlier, they are more likely to be upheld if they are not unconscionable.  The procedural component of the unconscionability analysis usually deals with the formation of the agreement itself.  This includes the characteristics of the parties (e.g., age, literacy, sophistication), the manner and circumstances under which the contract was executed, and whether terms of the agreement are hidden or complex, among other things.  The substantive component looks at the unfairness of the agreement.  Judge Chen, acknowledging that the issue wasn’t fully settled, nevertheless evaluated the arbitration provision through the lens of an employer/employee relationship.  Let me provide some tips that make arbitration agreements more likely to be upheld by courts in the employment context.

  • Keep your agreement to arbitrate in a separate document requiring a separate acknowledgement.

  • While the agreement may cover all workplace disputes between the parties, do not preclude employees from filing charges with state or federal administrative agencies, like the EEOC.

  • If you reserve the right to modify or discontinue the arbitration clause, include a requirement that notice will be given to employees and that the modification or rescission will be applied prospectively.

  • Since cost is a big issue for courts reviewing these agreements, make sure the employee will only be required to pay what the arbitrator finds is reasonable should the employee lose, or make sure the costs to pursue arbitration are not more costly than those to bring a lawsuit.

  • The remedies available in arbitration should be similar to those available in court.

  • Avoid delegation clauses.

As always, there is no substitute for consulting with an attorney when attempting to draft one of these agreements.

© Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume VI, Number 91

About this Author

Vanessa L. Towarnicky, Attorney, Labor, Employment, Steptoe Johnson Law Firm
Of Counsel

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ms. Towarnicky provides guidance to clients with regard to compliance issues arising under state and federal employment laws, including FMLA, ADA...