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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