Changing Messages from Courts on AB 51: Now Employers Cannot Require Arbitration Agreements

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For those employers who have been following the evolving history of Assembly Bill 51 (“AB 51”), which regulates California employers’ ability to have agreements to arbitrate any disputes with their prospective or hired employees, there is a new twist:  In a September 15, 2021 decision, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S., et al. v. Bonta, et al., Case No. 20-15291, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a District Court decision to conclude that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) did not preempt California AB 51’s ban on employment conditioned upon mandatory arbitration agreements. As explained below, this Ninth Circuit ruling may soon have a substantial impact on employers’ arbitration policies going forward.

In 2019, California passed AB 51, which added section 432.6 to the California Labor Code and section 12953 to the California Government Code to generally prohibit employers from requiring applicants or employees to agree to arbitrate as a condition of employment. AB 51 made it illegal for an employer to require applicants or 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 Conkle firm has written previously about the potential effects of AB 51.

AB 51 had been set to take effect on January 1, 2020, but on December 30, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller issued a preliminary injunction, preventing AB51 from taking effect. Judge Mueller concluded that “AB 51 placed agreements to arbitrate on unequal footing with other contracts and also that it stood as an obstacle to the purposes and objectives of the FAA.” Bonta, No. 20-15291 at 12. In other words, Judge Mueller decided that AB 51 discriminated against arbitration agreements in a manner that is prohibited by the superseding federal law of arbitrations, the FAA.

California appealed Judge Mueller’s ruling.  On September 15, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a split (2-1) decision partially reversing the District Court’s order. The Ninth Circuit held that the FAA did not preempt AB 51 with respect to its prevention of conditioning employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement. On this basis, the Ninth Circuit vacated the preliminary injunction that had stopped AB 51’s enforcement, so at present there is nothing stopping AB 51 from taking effect very soon.

For employers, this means that, unless there are further decisions by the Ninth Circuit or the United States Supreme Court, AB 51’s mandate that employers cannot condition employment or continued employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement will shortly go into effect. However, employers should be aware that AB 51 does not apply retroactively, which means that arbitration agreements previously signed by employers before AB 51 can still be enforced.  ([Proposed] Labor Code §432(f).)

A common question Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are receiving is whether, even under AB 51, an employer is allowed to request that employees or prospective employees sign an arbitration agreement. The answer is yes. However, because the Ninth Circuit’s decision is somewhat muddled on this point, there is no clear answer to the natural follow up question, “What can I do if the employee refuses?”

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the enforcement provisions of AB 51 are preempted “to the extent that they apply to executed arbitration agreements covered by the FAA.” Bonta, No. 20-15291 at 29. The dissent in Bonta attacks the majority’s reasoning as illogical:

In case the effect of this novel holding is not clear, it means that if the employer offers an arbitration agreement to the prospective employee as a condition of employment, and the prospective employee executes the agreement, the employer may not be held civilly or criminally liable. But if the prospective employee refuses to sign, then the FAA does not preempt civil and criminal liability for the employer under AB 51’s provisions.

Bonta, No. 20-15291 at 47. As the dissent argues, the majority’s reasoning could result in liability to the employer where the employer fails while attempting to engage in the prohibited conduct of forcing an employee or prospective employee to sign an arbitration agreement, but the employer would not have liability when the employer succeeds in engaging in that same prohibited conduct.

What does this ultimately mean for employers? We expect the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to be challenged by a request for an en banc review by a larger panel of the Ninth Circuit’s justices, or by a writ to the U.S. Supreme Court (which has recently been quite hostile to Ninth Circuit rulings that it has chosen to review).  Such a challenge could result in yet another “stay” that would effectively restore the injunction issued by Judge Mueller and preclude AB 51 from taking effect. However, unless a stay is issued, AB 51 is set to go into effect in the near future.

While much uncertainty remains as a result of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, AB 51 will increase potential liability for employers that condition employment on arbitration agreements, as well as provide more power to employees who do not wish to arbitrate. Employers that currently have policies conditioning employment or continued employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement should continue to monitor the status of AB 51, should prepare for the possibility that it will not be able to require arbitration agreements going forward and should reevaluate the benefits and risks related to conditioning employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement.

CK&E attorneys keep updated on developments in the law that affect employers in California, including their rights to arbitrate disputes with applicants and employees.  Stay tuned for additional developments in this saga of AB 51.

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LGBTQ Discrimination is Now Prohibited Nationally, but California was Ahead of the Trend

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As headlines across the country have blared, on June 15, 2020 in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that firing an individual for being homosexual or transgender is unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of sex under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. But this rule is nothing new in California, which has long prohibited employment and housing discrimination on the basis of an individual’s LGBTQ characteristics.

Title VII’s message is “simple but momentous”: An individual employee’s sex is “not relevant to the selection, evaluation, or compensation of employees.” The statute’s message for our cases is equally simple and momentous: An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions.

Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, U.S. Supreme Court

In bold and straightforward language the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bostock decision affirmed that any consideration of sex, homosexuality or transgender status in the course of adverse employment decisions is a violation of Title VII, even if there were other factors in the decision:

An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other factors besides the plaintiff ’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee—put differently, if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer—a statutory violation has occurred.

California’s equivalent rule is based on its Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which prevents employers from in any manner “discriminating” against persons based on their sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation (among many other protected classes). While news stories about the Bostock decision emphasized hiring and firing decisions, “discrimination” can involve much broader employment concerns that involve consideration of prohibited classifications, such as:

  • – Transferring, demoting or taking other “adverse employment actions” with respect to an employee
  • – Paying an employee less than similarly situated employees
  • – Providing fewer or worse benefits to an employee than similarly situated employees
  • – Requiring additional conditions of employment for one employee compared to similarly situated employees

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision did not weaken California’s existing protections for gay and transgender individuals, but provides an additional source of protection for them. California employers should continue to actively prohibit and take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination in the workplace, and keep in mind that unlawful “discrimination” can encompass many types of adverse employment actions beyond hiring and firing decisions.

To guide our business clients, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay updated on the latest developments in employment law, including anti-discrimination and wage & hour concerns.

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Conkle Firm Attorneys and PCPC Lobby California Legislature about SB 574 and AB 495

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On April 3, 2019, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys John Conkle and Raef Cogan joined the Personal Care Products Council (“PCPC”) in Sacramento, California to lobby members and staff of the California Legislature on pending legislation important to members of the personal care products industry, including Senate Bill 574 and Assembly Bill 495.

CK&E attorneys, PCPC staff and participating industry representatives visited legislative offices to advocate for positions favored by personal care products industry members. Over the course of more than 15 meetings with legislators and their aides, the group focused its advocacy on two pending bills that, if enacted, would have significant consequences for the U.S. cosmetics industry as a whole. Conkle, Kremer & Engel has previously written about Senate Bill No. 574 (“SB 574”) introduced by Senator Connie Leyva and Assembly Bill No. 495 (“AB 495”) introduced by Assembly Members Al Muratsuchi and Buffy Wicks. These are important bills that if enacted would have significant consequences for the U.S. cosmetics industry as a whole.

SB 574, also known as the “Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act of 2019,” would require cosmetic manufacturers to disclose fragrance of flavor ingredients that appear on any one of 27 “designated lists.” CK&E attorneys explained during the meetings that a viable version of this bill may be presented in the future, but that as written SB 574 threatens cosmetic companies’ confidential business information, results in duplicative regulation and relies on faulty, unscientific “lists” to determine what information manufacturers must disclose.

AB 495, is entitled the “Toxic Free Cosmetics Act,” and would dramatically increase the number of cosmetics listed as “adulterated,” without justification. CK&E attorneys explained that under AB 495 as proposed, any cosmetic that contained even trace amounts of identified ingredients would be labeled “adulterated” and would be banned outright. Some ingredients sound scary, like lead, but are in fact naturally occurring and cannot be completely eliminated from cosmetic (or many other) products. Others are preservatives that have been deemed completely safe for use in cosmetics by the FDA and other regulatory bodies.

Both SB 574 and AB 495 are coming up for committee vote soon. Conkle, Kremer & Engel will stay apprised of the results and will provide updates on this legislation that is important to the cosmetics industry.

PCPC California Lobby Day also featured presentations from Allen Hirsch, Chief Director of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”), Karl Palmer from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (“DTSC”), Joseph Calavita from the Air Resources Board, and Senator Bill Quirk, Chair of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee. The regulators spoke about important upcoming actions by their agencies. Senator Quick focused on the importance of protecting our environment from toxins, primarily greenhouse gasses. Each of these presenters stressed a need for more information sharing between the industry and the respective regulatory and legislative bodies.

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