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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No Fooling! On April 1, Almost All Employers are Subject to New Employment Regulations in California

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Effective April 1, 2016, new regulations of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) impose stringent new anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements on almost all employers having any employees in California.  Unlike in the past, the new amendments to regulations under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) apply to any employer having five or more “employees,” any of whom are located in California.  The word “employees” is important, because the new FEHA regulations count toward the minimum of five “employees” unpaid interns, volunteers and persons out on leave from active employment.  Further, it appears that this new FEHA regulation is intended to apply even to employers with headquarters outside of California if any of their employees are located in California.

The FEHA regulatory amendments require all affected employers to have written policies prohibiting workplace discrimination and harassment.  The policies must apply to prohibit discrimination and harassment by co-workers, who are made individually liable for their own violations, and by third parties such as vendors in the workplace.  The regulations demand that the written policy list all currently-protected categories protected under FEHA:  Race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.  Prohibited “sex discrimination” includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and related medical conditions.  Interestingly, the regulations also prohibit discrimination against employment applicants holding a special California driver’s license issued to persons without proof of legal presence in the United States.  It is not yet clear how this will work in conjunction with the employer’s existing Federal obligation to confirm eligibility for employment.

The employer’s written policy must specify a confidential complaint process that satisfies a number of criteria.  Workplace retaliation for making good faith complaints of perceived discrimination or harassment is prohibited.  The written policy must be publicized to all employees, with tracking of its receipt by employees.  If 10% of the employer’s work force speaks a language other than English, the written policy must be translated to that language.

Further, the new regulations attempt to resolve a number of uncertainties about who is protected, specifying that both males and females are protected from gender discrimination, and requiring that transgender persons be treated and provided facilities consistent with their gender identity.  There are many other changes, such as a new entitlement to four months for pregnancy leave that is not required to be taken continuously.  If an employer has more than 50 employees, there are additional requirements, such as periodic sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors.

Employers operating in California are well advised to review their policies and practices, and to consult with qualified counsel regarding changes that may be required.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys help clients remain compliant with laws, regulations and case developments affecting employers in California.

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