Employment Law Blog

Categories: Arbitration

New York's Employment Arbitration Ban is Pre-empted by Federal Law. Why New York Employers Need an "Undo" Button.

July 12, 2019

On June 26, 2019, United States District Court Judge Denise Cote, Southern District of New York, held in Latif v. Morgan Stanley & Co., LLC, et al., No. 1:18-cv-11528 (S.D.N.Y. June 26, 2019), that New York’s ban on mandatory arbitration agreements of employment-related sexual harassment claims is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”)

As previously reported in our blog in the wake of the #MeToo movement, New York enacted “sweeping legislation” to “deal with the scourge of sexual harassment”, including C.P.L.R. §7515, titled “Mandatory arbitration clauses; prohibited,” effective July 11, 2018.

As of July 11, 2018, the new law (1) prohibited contracts that require arbitration of sexual harassment claims and (2) rendered such clauses in then-existing contracts “null and void” except, in both instances, “where inconsistent with federal law.” The “exception” for “federal law” was a reference to the FAA, which the United States Supreme Court has routinely held, pre-empts State laws that limit arbitration.

In Latif, the arbitration agreement provided for final and binding arbitration” of any “statutory discrimination, harassment and retaliation claims.” Plaintiff Mahmoud Latif signed the agreement, alleged he was subjected to sexual harassment and ultimately terminated in retaliation for complaining about it. Latif filed suit and relied on CPLR § 7515 in opposition to Morgan Stanley’s motion to compel arbitration.

Judge Cote relied on AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011), in which the United State Supreme Court held that “[w]hen state law prohibits outright the arbitration of a particular type of claim, the analysis is straightforward: The conflicting rule is displaced by the FAA.” As such, Judge Cote held, C.P.L.R. § 7515 is “inconsistent with the FAA” because it specifically prohibited arbitration of sexual harassment claims.”

In a footnote Judge Cote noted that the New York’s June 19, 2019 Bill, amendment of Section 7515, “to encompass mandatory arbitration of claims of discrimination generally, rather than specifically of sexual harassment,” ban would be preempted for similar reasons.

It is highly unlikely that Latif will be appealed, and even if it were, even less likely it will be reversed. As such, FAA-covered employers may rely on mandatory arbitration provisions to resolve sexual harassment claims.

Attorney: Lauren Topelsohn
Related Practice: Labor and Employment
Category: Harassment, Employment Litigation

Lights Out: Class Arbitrations Prohibited by Ambiguous Arbitration Agreements

April 25, 2019

On April 24, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, No. 17-988, in which it held (by a 5-4 vote) that, under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), parties have not agreed to class arbitration where the arbitration clause at issue is ambiguous about the availability of such arbitration. There, a Lamps Plus employee sued the company on behalf of a putative class of employees after a data breach exposed approximately 1,300 employees’ tax information, but the employee had signed an arbitration agreement at the outset of his employment. The agreement stated that all disputes arising out of the employment relationship would be resolved by arbitration and provided that the claims would be resolved in accordance with the rules of the arbitral forum.

Reversing both the district court’s order compelling class arbitration and the Ninth Circuit’s affirmance, the Supreme Court, relying on one of its prior decisions in 2010, reasoned that ambiguity—like silence—in an arbitration agreement regarding class arbitration is insufficient to infer that the parties affirmatively agreed to such arbitration. The Court also rested heavily on what it deemed the fundamental differences between class and individual arbitrations, only the latter of which the Court claimed was envisioned by the FAA. Class arbitration, the Court proffered, does not allow for “lower costs, greater efficiency and speed, and the ability to choose expert adjudicators to resolve specialized disputes.” The Court also eschewed the lower courts’ reliance on the contra proferentem doctrine (ambiguity in a contract construed against the drafter), which it called a “doctrine of last resort,” reasoning that its use by the lower courts was inconsistent with the fundamental rule that arbitration is a matter of consent.

In dissent, Justice Ginsburg pilloried the majority for “how treacherously the Court has strayed from the principle that arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion.” Observing the current state of arbitration and its present uses, her dissent called for urgent action by Congress to “correct the Court’s elevation of the FAA over the rights of employees and consumers to act in concert. In a separate dissent, Justice Kagan believed that resort to the neutral state contract law principle of contra preferendum—a neutral interpretive principle utilized by all 50 states—was appropriate and required if the arbitration agreement was ambiguous. Justice Kagan chided the majority for disregarding the parties’ actual arbitration agreement.

The Lamps Plus decision is important because it signals that arbitration agreements that are ambiguous as to the availability of class arbitration will be construed as prohibiting the same. Indeed, Lamps Plus (and the Court’s prior decision in Stolt-Nielsen regarding an arbitration clause completely “silent” as to class arbitration) raises an interesting question: is there even a need for an affirmative class arbitration waiver? While in the abstract, perhaps the answer is “no,” the safer and less expensive answer for employers and other companies seeking to preclude class arbitration (and class actions) is “yes.” Dissents notwithstanding, Lamps Plus is yet another win for companies in the Roberts’ Court.

Attorneys: Steven Adler and Brian Block
Related Practice: Labor and Employment
Category: Arbitration, Employment Litigation

Groundbreaking Employment Legislation in New Jersey Precludes Arbitration and Confidentiality

March 26, 2019

On March 18, 2019 groundbreaking employment legislation was enacted in New Jersey. While it is only a few paragraphs long, it makes three significant changes to the employment law landscape in the Garden State.

First, Senate Bill No. 121 bars provisions in an employment agreement that waive any substantive or procedural right or remedy relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment (although it does not apply to union employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”)).

Second, the law bars any prospective waiver of rights or remedies under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10-5-1 et seq. (the “NJLAD”) or any other statute or case law.

Third, the law precludes confidentiality of any settlement involving a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment.

What does this mean for New Jersey employers? Most importantly, this law appears to run head-on into employers’ efforts over the past ten years and even longer to force these types of claims into arbitration. Since 1990 the NJLAD has provided for a trial by jury, NJLAD 10:5-13. Therefore, requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements for future claims would violate this new legislation because it would cause an employee to waive a substantive right or remedy under the NJLAD. Although it is too early to tell, the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), however, may override this portion of the legislation.

Other provisions in an employment agreement that limit or waive substantive or procedural rights or remedies also are barred. For example, an agreement cannot forbid employees from filing charges of discrimination or retaliation with an administrative agency, such as the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (“NJDCR”) or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and can’t require an employee to waive the right to punitive damages or legal fees if successful.

There also may be a bigger issue lurking here. Section 1b. of the law provides that no right or remedy under any employment statute or case law can be prospectively waived. Does this suggest that section 1a. -- which provides that an “employment contract” cannot waive any rights or remedies relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment -- bars releases of previously asserted employment claims? This may require the DCR to approve proposed settlement agreements before such claims can be waived. The term “employment contract” is not defined in the law. However, section 2a. refers to both “employment contracts” and “settlement agreements” and, therefore, the likely interpretation of 1a. is that employees or former employees can release NJLAD and other employment claims in settlement agreements without DCR or EEOC approval.

As a result of the “Metoo Movement”, the legislation forbids confidentiality. The driving force behind this provision is to protect employees from harassment, retaliation and discrimination caused by someone who acted similarly in the past that they otherwise would not have known about due to confidentiality clauses. How will this impact litigation? Many employers only settle in order to avoid bad publicity. Will this legislation force more cases to trial? The legislation tries to protect employers to a limited extent. It provides that should an employee reveal sufficient details of the claim so that the employer is reasonably identifiable, the employer will not be bound to any non-disclosure provision. Does that go far enough? Why should an employer be put on the defensive and have to explain why it settled if a plaintiff’s claims were frivolous and settled by the employer solely to avoid the time and money defending such specious claims?

Finally, the law takes effect immediately and applies to all contracts and agreements entered into, renewed, modified or amended on or after the effective date. We, therefore, suggest that all employers have their employee manuals and employment agreements reviewed prior to any amendments or renewals of those agreements.

Attorney: Steven Adler
Related Practice: Labor and Employment
Category: Employment Litigation, Discrimination, Harassment

Time To Review Your Company's Personnel Policy

November 14, 2018

As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, the end of the year can’t be too far away. Now is a good time to start reviewing your Company’s personnel policies so that your house can be in order to start the new year.

Here are a few questions for your HR team to answer to determine whether you need outside counsel to review your personnel policies and practices:
  1. When was the last time your Employee Manual was reviewed? There have been a number of significant changes in the law that might impact your policies.
  2. Does your Company’s sick leave policy comply with NJ’s paid sick leave law? The new law took effect October 29th.
  3. Has the Company reviewed its pay policies? There were significant changes this year in New Jersey concerning equal pay. In just the past few days Hewlett Packard was hit with a gender pay gap lawsuit.
  4. Do you have a workforce in New York state? If so, has your Company provided them with mandatory sexual harassment prevention training? Has your Company issued a compliant policy? This law became effective October 9th and applies to all employers. It requires annual training. New Jersey also requires training of managers and staff members.
  5. Does your Company require employees to arbitrate disputes? When was the last time your arbitration policy was reviewed? There have been some significant changes in this area. Both Google and Facebook recently announced that they will not require employees to arbitrate sexual harassment claims.
  6. Does your Company require releases when severance is paid? Do the agreements require confidentiality? If so, it might interfere with the Company being able to deduct the severance payments as a business expense.
The Labor & Employment Law Group at the Firm is available to answer any questions you may have or help bring your Company into compliance.

Attorney: Steven Adler
Related Practice: Labor and Employment
Category: Employee Benefits

NJ Paid Sick Leave Policy

October 9, 2018

Every employer in New Jersey, regardless of size, needs a written Paid Sick Leave policy in place and distributed to employees no later than October 29, 2018. Please contact us if you need assistance drafting this policy or updating your other personnel policies.

Whether as stand-alone policies or those accumulated in an employee manual, the following are the types of policies which must, or at the very least should, be in writing in NJ:

  1. Paid Sick Leave policy;
  2. Anti-harassment policy;
  3. Equal Employment Opportunity policy (recommended);
  4. Vacation policy;
  5. Equal Pay Act policy;
  6. Whistleblower (CEPA) policy;
  7. Family and Medical Leave Act/NJ Family Leave Act policy (for employers with at least 50 employees);
  8. Confidentiality, Non-Solicitation and Non-Compete policy; and Arbitration policy.
Now is a great time to update your company’s policies so that they can be rolled out to your employees in 2019.

Attorney: Steven Adler
Related Practice: Labor and Employment
Category: Paid Sick Leave

Supreme Court Curtails Employees' Right To File Class Actions

May 29, 2018

On May 21, 2018 the United States Supreme Court delivered another blow to employee rights. In Epic Systems v. Lewis, the Court issued a monumental decision protecting employers from class action lawsuits.

In Epic Systems, the Court upheld the right of employers, as a condition of employment, to require employees to arbitrate claims individually on a one-on-one basis rather than collectively or as a class. According to the Court, this can be accomplished simply by sending an e-mail to employees informing them if they don’t note their objection, they will be considered to have consented to arbitration on an individual basis. This decision effectively precludes workers from suing in court or filing for arbitration when their claims are small, such as when suing for an employer’s failure to pay minimum wages or overtime pay. According to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent, “[t]he inevitable result of today’s decision will be the underenforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers.”  Tip to Employers: Consider requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements or send an e-mail informing employees that, if they don’t object, they will be bound to arbitrate their dispute on an individual basis. 

Attorney: Steven Adler
Related Practice: Labor and Employment

New York's Six New Sexual Harassment Prevention Laws

May 9, 2018

On April 12, 2018, Governor Cuomo signed New York’s latest budget that includes six laws reflecting the concerns of the Metoo# movement that employers need to know. 

Effective immediately: 

  • Businesses Must Protect Non-Employees from Sexual Harassment.  The law expands the sexual harassment protections under New York’s Human Rights Law to non-employees (independent contractors, vendors, and their employee) who perform services at an employer’s work place. 
  • Settlement/Judgment Involving Government Employees. Government officials and employees may not use public funds to resolve sexual harassment claims, and must reimburse any State or local agency that pays a judgment entered against a government as a result of the offending official or employee’s conduct. 

Effective July 11, 2018: 

  • Restrictions on Non-Disclosure Provisions for Sexual Harassment Claims. Use of such confidentiality clauses are enforceable only if: (1) they conform with the complainant’s preference; and (2) as with a release under Older Workers Benefit Act (OWBPA), the complainant has 21 days to review the agreement (which cannot be shortened), followed by a seven day revocation period. This law impacts all “General Releases” of employment claims that include a confidentiality provisions by requiring that such release “carve out” sexual harassment from the release of any claim under the New York Human Rights Law.
  • Mandatory arbitration, no more? New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules, Article 75 will be amended to prohibit agreements that require the arbitration of disputes relating to sexual harassment, except “where inconsistent with federal law.” S7507-C, Part KK, Subpart B.  Since Federal law encourages arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 et seq., this provision may be pre-empted until (and unless) the United States Congress passes a corresponding prohibition. 

Effective October 9, 2018:
Mandatory Sexual Harassment Policy, Prevention Training and Complaint Procedure.  The New York State Department of Labor and Division of Human Rights are required to develop and publish a model sexual harassment prevention policy and a model sexual harassment prevention training program for use by employers.  All New York employers are required (a) to adopt the model policy and training program or, establish their own that equals or exceeds the minimum standards of the model policy and program; and (b) distribute the written policy and provide sexual harassment training to all employees at least annually.

  • The model sexual harassment prevention policy will:
    • Prohibit sexual harassment
    • Explain what sexual harassment is and provide examples 
    • State that sexual harassment constitutes employee misconduct 
    • Advise what remedies are available under federal, state and local law for victims of sexual harassment, and the available forums (administrative and judicial) for adjudicating such complaints
    • Include a model complaint form and standard investigative procedure;  and
    • Prohibit retaliation for making a sexual harassment complaint, or for testifying or assisting in any proceeding relating to such a claim
  • The model sexual prevention training will explain:
    • What sexual harassment is and provide examples 
    • Additional responsibilities of supervisors
    • Employee’s rights under State and federal laws governing sexual harassment, and available remedies and forums for adjudicating such complaints 

Effective January 1, 2019:
Government Contractors.  As part of the bidding process for State contracts, bids must include a statement certifying that the bidding entity has implemented a written policy addressing sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual harassment training to all of its employees. With respect to no-bid projects, the State has the discretion to request such certification. 

 

Attorney: Lauren Topelsohn
Related Practice: Labor and Employment
Category: Harassment

Stormy Daniels' gag order explained. Is it fair?

March 21, 2018

The Me Too and Time's Up movements rekindled the nation's collective awareness concerning sexual harassment and abuse which had all but disappeared since the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.

What contributed to this lack of discourse concerning the prevalence of sexual harassment in our society over the past 25 years? The use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements surely played a part -- as have mandatory arbitration agreements required by employers.

NDAs and confidentiality clauses are standard fare when parties settle sexual harassment and abuse cases.

In exchange for a settlement payment -- such as the $130,000 payment made on President Trump's behalf to Stormy Daniels -- the victim of harassment agrees not to discuss the claims made, or the terms, and sometimes even the existence, of the settlement.

These agreements usually also call for significant financial penalties should the plaintiff violate the confidentiality clause. For example, in the agreement at issue in the Trump-Daniels lawsuit, Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, is required to pay the president $1 million for each of her breaches of the confidentiality clause. Trump's lawyer claims she has violated the terms 20 times.

Is this agreement enforceable?

Probably not because the $1 million liquidated damage amount for each breach appears to be an unenforceable penalty rather than an estimation of likely damages should confidentiality be breached. For the same reason, it also isn't fair and most plaintiffs' attorneys would never allow a client to sign such a provision (unless their client is desperate for the money or the attorney believes the clause is unenforceable).

So far, however, this confidentiality clause has kept Daniels relatively quiet. Had there been no such provision, or if the court in the pending litigation refuses to uphold it, she undoubtedly will "tell all" of the sordid details in a book deal, which is likely to follow -- and, regardless, she may possibly do so on "60 Minutes" this weekend.

Meanwhile, as the porn star touted passing a polygraph test to prove she's not lying about her 2006-2007 tryst with Trump, another woman is suing to get out from under a 2016 confidentiality agreement so she can discuss her alleged affair with Trump. This week former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Karen McDougal, has filed suit in Los Angeles.

Confidentiality clauses serve useful purposes.

They protect the reputation of the alleged harasser when frivolous claims are brought. They also protect the plaintiff who does not want it known that she was subjected to sexual abuse or that she sued her employer. Finally, confidentiality clauses make it easier to settle cases because they protect the good will of the employer.

In fact, companies will pay more to a victim of harassment as hush money to avoid the impact of these types of allegations on their bottom-lines. Bad publicity from these cases can be devastating, as Harvey Weinstein's now bankrupt company recently learned.

On the other hand, as seen lately, confidentiality clauses enable harassers to continue their pattern of abuse and expose other unsuspecting victims to this same treatment. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of these provisions, the time has come to limit the use of these "gag-orders" and Congress agrees.

Buried deep inside the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a provision which disallows tax deductions for monies employers pay to harassment victims and for legal fees if the parties enter into a confidentiality agreement. In essence, since late December parties must choose between deductibility and confidentiality.

For now this seems to be a fair middle ground. It enables companies to protect themselves and alleged harassers against frivolous claims by insisting upon confidentiality while at the same time also providing victims with some leverage to insist upon no confidentiality.

Lawyers of course will find some work-arounds, whether through stronger clauses confirming that the settlement is not an admission of liability or requiring the victim to confirm in an agreement -- whether or not it is true -- that there simply was no harassment. The settlement value of harassment cases also might go down somewhat to make up for a company's loss of the tax deduction when it is insisting upon confidentiality.

Only time will tell whether this law goes far enough to expose harassers and deter their behavior in the first place.

Attorney: Steven Adler
Related Practice: Labor and Employment