New Jersey Court Strikes Down ‘Ambiguous’ Jury-Waiver Agreement
New Jersey employers wishing to have employees sign jury-waiver agreements should take note of a recent Appellate Division decision, Noren v. Heartland Payment Systems, Inc., which reaffirms that a jury-waiver provision (like an arbitration provision) must include clear, unambiguous, and sufficiently broad language to encompass all employment-related claims.
In Noren, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, held that a claim brought under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) was not covered by a jury-waiver provision in an employment agreement that waived the right to jury trial for any disputes “under, in connection with or to enforce this Agreement.”
The plaintiff, Greg Noren, was employed by Heartland Payment Systems and signed an employment agreement that included a jury-waiver provision stating that he and Heartland both “irrevocably waive any right to trial by jury in any suit, action or proceeding under, in connection with or to enforce this Agreement.” The jury-waiver provision did not make any reference to statutory claims and did not define the scope of claims as including all claims relating to Noren’s employment. Following Noren’s discharge in 2005, he brought suit against Heartland, including a claim under CEPA. Relying on the jury-waiver provision in Noren’s employment agreement, the trial court denied Noren’s jury trial demand. After a 22-day bench trial, the trial court dismissed Noren’s complaint. Noren then appealed.
The Appellate Division held that the jury-waiver provision in Noren’s employment agreement was unenforceable, as it failed to clearly and unambiguously explain that the right to a jury trial was being waived as to a CEPA claim. While the Appellate Division acknowledged that “[n]o magical language is required to accomplish a waiver of rights” (quoting a 2016 Supreme Court of New Jersey case) and that a jury-waiver “need not ‘identify the specific constitutional or statutory right’ subject to the waiver,” it found that, “by using ‘this Agreement’ as the defining threshold for all suits, actions and proceedings,” the jury-waiver provision limited the category of disputes for which a jury trial was being waived. “[T]o effect a waiver,” the Appellate Division held, “the language must clearly explain (1) what right is being surrendered and (2) the nature of the claims covered by the waiver.” Because the jury-waiver provision failed to satisfy these requirements, the Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court for a jury trial on the CEPA claim.
In light of the Appellate Division’s decision in Noren, New Jersey employers are reminded that, in order to waive statutory causes of action, a jury-waiver provision must be written in plain language that would be clear and understandable to the average person that statutory rights are being waiver.