California Court Upholds Arbitration Clause With Class Action Waiver In Employment Agreement
On January 19, 2006, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District, Division 5, addressed “the enforceability of a pre-employment arbitration agreement containing a class action waiver.” Gentry v. Superior Court, 135 Cal.App.4th 944, 37 Cal.Rptr.3d 790, 791 (Cal.App. 2006). In 1995, while employed by Circuit City, Gentry received an “Associate Issue Resolution Package” and a copy of the company’s “Dispute Resolution Rules and Procedures” setting forth various procedures for resolving employment-related disputes. The documents contained an arbitration agreement that included a class action waiver provision. The company provided each employee with 30 days to opt out of the arbitration agreement, but Gentry did not elect to do so. 37 Cal.Rptr.3d at 791-92.
In 2002, Gentry filed a putative class action against Circuit City in California state court alleging that Circuit City misclassified employees in order to avoid paying overtime. Id., at 791. Circuit City moved to compel arbitration. The trial court compelled arbitration with the class action waiver, and stayed the superior court action. The appellate court stated:
The issue in this case is a narrow one: whether the class action waiver in the Circuit City arbitration agreement is an unconscionable provision that renders the provision unenforceable. We conclude the provision is neither procedurally nor substantively unconscionable. Id., at 792.
Gentry recognized that the California Supreme Court “has found pre-employment arbitration agreements is to be adhesive where the agreement is made a condition of employment.” Id., at 793 (citations omitted). This case was different, however, because “Signing the arbitration agreement was not made a condition of Gentry’s employment; he was given 30 days to decide whether or not to opt out of the agreement, and chose not to do so.” Id. The Court also rejected Gentry’s claim that Circuit City “attempted to ‘sucker unsophisticated employees into opting out’ by touting the advantages of arbitration”; the court found that Circuit City had fairly presented both the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration. Id., at 794.
Finally, the court observed that Circuit City would not preclude litigation by means of the class action waiver: “Gentry has alleged statutory violations that could result in substantial damages and penalties should he prevail on his individual claims.” Id., at 795-96. For all of these reasons, the appellate court believed that Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal.4th 148 (Cal. 2005), which invalidated a class action waiver provision in a consumer contract of adhesion involving a credit card company, “does not render the class action waiver in this case unenforceable.” Id., at 791.
The opinion is well worth reading. If the case remains viable, Gentry will prove extremely useful in preventing employment law class actions. Defense attorneys and in-house counsel are well advised to keep track of the status of Gentry.
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