AB 51 at a Crossroad: Can California Employers Still Compel Employees to Arbitrate Disputes?

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California Assembly Bill 51 (“AB 51”) has been in the news because it imposes a far-reaching ban on California employers requiring employees to arbitrate employment disputes. AB 51 was set to take effect on January 1, 2020, but its effect was temporarily stopped by a court injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller on December 30, 2019, in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce. A fuller hearing on whether the court will extend the injunction is set for January 10, 2020. If the injunction is extended, AB 51 will remain in limbo as long as that case remains pending, and very possibly permanently.

AB 51, if it is allowed to take effect, would have far-reaching implications for California employers who use arbitration agreements for resolution of disputes with employees. AB 51 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 10, 2019, and applies to “contracts for employment entered into, modified, or extended on or after January 1, 2020.” The law prohibits any person from requiring applicants and employees, as a condition of employment, continued employment, or the receipt of any employment-related benefit, to waive any rights, forum, or procedure established by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and the California Labor Code.

The Impact of AB 51
Although AB 51 was originally promoted to target the #MeToo movement and was characterized as a anti-sexual harassment law, because many sexual harassment claims against employers have been kept from public view by resolutions in private arbitrations rather than public court proceedings. But the new law covers much more than just sexual harassment claims. In practical effect, AB 51 would prohibit most employers from requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements for nearly all types of employment law claims, including any discrimination claims covered under FEHA and for any claims brought under the California Labor Code. AB 51 also precludes employers from threatening, retaliating or discriminating against, or terminating any job applicant or employee for refusing to consent to arbitration or any other type of waiver of a judicial “right, forum, or procedure” for violation of the FEHA or the Labor Code.

Nor can employers avoid AB 51 by having a standard arbitration agreement that requires applicants or employees to “opt out” to avoid. The law effectively prohibits employers from using voluntary opt-out clauses to avoid the reach of the bill. New California Labor Code Section 432.6(c) states that “an agreement that requires an employee to opt out of a waiver or take any affirmative action in order to preserve their rights is deemed a condition of employment.”

In addition, new Government Code Section 12953 states that any violation of the various provisions in AB 51 will be an unlawful employment practice, subjecting the employer to a private right of action under FEHA. Although this will presumably require an employee to exhaust the administrative remedy under FEHA, this provision would nevertheless lead to further exposure for California employers who utilize arbitration agreements with their employees. Importantly, however, AB 51 explicitly does not apply to post-dispute settlement agreements or negotiated severance agreements.

Federal Preemption of AB 51?
Generally, the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq., (“FAA”) preempts state laws like AB 51 that attempt to regulate or restrict arbitration agreements. Under the FAA, a state may not pass or enforce laws that interfere with, limit, or discriminate against arbitration, and state laws attempting to interfere with arbitration have repeatedly been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as preempted by the FAA. AB 51, however, expressly states that it does not invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the FAA. Proponents of AB 51 argue that it is not preempted by the FAA because it only impacts “mandatory” arbitration agreements and does not affect “voluntary” agreements.

Impending Court Challenges
Many questions surrounding the validity and application of AB 51 remain unanswered. Therefore, legal challenges on the ground that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA were inevitable. On December 6, 2019, the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA. The complaint seeks a permanent injunction to halt enforcement of AB 51 until its legality is determined. The January 10, 2020 hearing of the preliminary injunction may give strong indication which way the Court will turn on the issue for the time being, but the ultimate determination will likely take years to wend its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court.

What Should Employers Do In Response to AB 51?
As this challenge to AB 51 makes its way through the courts, employers with ongoing arbitration agreements (or those interested in implementing arbitration programs) face a difficult choice starting in 2020: Play it safe and strike all mandatory arbitration agreements, or maintain the status quo until the litigation plays out. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every employer.

Employers currently using arbitration agreements should consider either staying the course based on the assumption that AB 51 will be held preempted by the FAA and therefore unenforceable, or suspending their arbitration programs until more clarity on AB 51 is provided. Employers implementing arbitration programs after January 1, 2020 should consider including in their arbitration agreements specific language to conform with Labor Code 432.6 and emphasizing the voluntary nature of the agreement.

The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel remain vigilant on employment law developments to advise businesses on all aspects of employee legal relations, including updates on the use of arbitration agreements as uncertainty looms.

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New California Law to Classify Employees and Independent Contractors

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On September 11, 2019, California lawmakers passed California Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), codifying and clarifying the California Supreme Court’s landmark 2018 decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, which fundamentally altered the test for determining the classification of workers as employees or independent contractors in California. We previously blogged about the Dynamex decision, under which workers are presumed to be employees for purposes of claims for wages and benefits arising under Industrial Welfare Commission wage orders, and companies must meet a three-pronged “ABC” test to overcome this presumption and establish that an individual is an independent contractor. AB 5 would codify the ABC test into law.

AB 5 has been sent to Governor Gavin Newsom, who recently endorsed it in an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee, and he is expected to sign it into law.

Under AB 5, a new Section 2750.3 would be added to the California Labor Code. Section 2750.3, subsection (a)(1), will state that, for purposes of the Labor Code, the Unemployment Insurance Code, and the wage orders of the Industrial Welfare Commission, a person providing labor or services for remuneration shall be considered an employee rather than an independent contractor unless the hiring entity demonstrates that all of the following conditions are satisfied:
(A) The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact;
(B) The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and
(C) The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

Under the new law, California workers can generally only be considered independent contractors if the work they perform is outside the usual course of a company’s business. Conversely, a company must classify workers as employees if the company exerts control over how the workers perform their duties, or if their work is part of a company’s regular business.

AB 5 has far-reaching implications for California businesses who classify their workers as independent contractors because it extends the scope of the Dynamex ruling from only Industrial Wage Commission Orders to include claims for wages and benefits under the Labor Code and Unemployment Insurance Code. The Dynamex decision applied only to rules governing minimum wages, overtime and meal and rest breaks, but under AB 5, individuals classified as employees must also be afforded workers’ compensation in the event of an industrial injury, unemployment and disability insurance, paid sick days and family leave.

However, AB 5 is also narrower than the Dynamex decision in that it exempts certain occupations from the new test. The new Labor Code section would provide limited exemptions for certain occupations, including direct sales salespersons, licensed estheticians, licensed electrologists, licensed manicurists (until January 1, 2022), licensed barbers and licensed cosmetologists from the application Labor Code Section 2750.3 and the holding in Dynamex, provided that the individual:
• Sets their own rates, processes their own payments, and is paid directly by clients;
• Sets their own hours or work and has sole discretion to decide the number of clients and which clients for whom they will provide services;
• Has their own book of business and schedules their own appointments;
• Maintains their own business license for the services offered to clients; and
• If the individual is performing services at the location of the hiring entity, then the individual issues a Form 1099 to the salon or business owner from which they rent their business space.

If a company can meet its burden of showing that the individual meets the above criteria, then the determination of proper classification for that individual would be governed by S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, the 1989 decision that has been the prevailing law for wage order cases in California prior to Dynamex. Borello established an 11-factor inquiry into the degree of control a company exerts over the worker’s performance of his or her duties: whether the hiring entity has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired; the right to discharge at will, without cause; whether the worker is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; the kind of occupation and the skill required in the particular occupation; who supplies the instrumentalities, tools and the place of work for the person doing the work; the length of time for which services are to be performed; the method of payment; whether or not the work is part of the hiring entity’s regular business; and whether or not the parties believe they are creating an employer-employee relationship.

Another aspect of AB 5 worth noting is that it would not allow an employer to reclassify an individual who was an employee on Janaury 1, 2019 to an independent contractor due to the measure’s enactment.

With the law set to become effective on January 1, 2020, companies, particularly in the salon and beauty industry, would be wise to reassess the classification of their workers to ensure compliance with the new law. The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have extensive experience advising businesses on best practices regarding proper worker classification, and will be continually monitoring developments related to AB 5 as they occur.

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