California employers – especially those that required employees to sign arbitration agreements – have reason to celebrate. On February 15, 2023, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chamber of Commerce v. Bonta, (Case No. 20-15291) 2023 WL 2013326 (9th Cir. Feb. 15, 2023), ruled that AB 51, a California law effectively prohibiting and criminalizing mandatory arbitration provisions in employment agreements, is invalid because it is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).
This development was not unexpected, as the U.S. Supreme Court has rendered a series of decisions supporting arbitration and striking down state laws prohibiting arbitration clauses in employment contracts as violations of the FAA. Yet despite this precedent, the California legislature has tried time and time again to enact anti-arbitration laws that creatively seek to avoid FAA preemption. AB 51 was the most recent attempt to circumvent the FAA.
AB 51 added California Labor Code Section 432.6, which prohibited employers from: (1) requiring employees to waive, as a condition of employment, the right to litigate certain claims in court; and (2) retaliating against applicants for employment or employees based on their refusal to waive such rights. Id. at (a) & (b). These two prohibitions by themselves would almost surely be preempted by the FAA but the California legislature sought to avoid that result by adding § 432.6(f), providing that nothing “in this section is intended to invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the [FAA].” To give the statute teeth, AB 51 also amended other codes to impose civil and criminal liability on an employer who violates Labor Code Section 432.6. Together, these provisions had the strange effect of imposing criminal and civil liability on employers who enter into arbitration agreements that are valid and enforceable.
The Chamber of Commerce of the United States filed a lawsuit seeking to declare that AB 51 was preempted by the FAA. In 2020, the trial court granted temporary injunctions against enforcement of AB51, because the court found that the Chamber of Commerce was likely to succeed in establishing that AB51 is preempted by the FAA. For that reason, employers did not feel the brunt of AB51 while the challenge made its way through appellate court.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (after some unusual twists, including a published decision that was later withdrawn by the Court) ultimately agreed with the trial court. The Ninth Circuit held that although AB 51 does not expressly prevent the formation of employment contracts containing an arbitration provision, it clearly disfavors the formation of arbitration agreements by placing civil and criminal liability on employers who require employees to sign arbitration agreements. That kind of penalty is an exception to generally applicable law that allows employers to require agreements, such as confidentiality agreements, as a condition of employment. The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has held that “state rules that burden the formation of arbitration agreements stand as an obstacle to the FAA.” Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. Partnership v. Clark, 137 S.Ct. 1421, 1423 (2017). In addressing AB 51’s strange mechanism of imposing liability for the formation of valid contracts, the Court held that that “[a] state rule interferes with arbitration if it discriminates against arbitration on its face or if it covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that have the defining features of arbitration agreements.” Id. The Court held that “[b]ecause the FAA’s purpose is to further Congress’s policy of encouraging arbitration, and AB 51 stands as an obstacle to that purpose, AB 51 is preempted.” Id., at *10.
California employers should welcome this decision. The decision clarifies that businesses have broader freedom to contract as they see fit, and that it is permissible, even in California, to require employees to sign mandatory arbitration provisions as a condition of employment. The overall perception is that arbitration results in faster, less expensive resolution of employee-employer disputes, and keeps employment disputes out of California courts. Still, there are other schools of thought that believe that employment arbitrations can be more expensive for employers than the courts because private arbitrators often charge high hourly rates, the fees and costs of the arbitration must be advanced by employers, and dispositive motion victories (for example, a successful motion to dismiss a frivolous claim) are less common in arbitration. As well, even if arbitration is enforceable some employees may file their claims in court in the hope that the employer fails to take action to enforce arbitration.
Moreover, there are important limitations on employment arbitration agreements in California. In Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., 24 Cal.4th 83 (2000), the California Supreme Court held that employer-employee arbitration agreements may be “unconscionable” and unenforceable if they do not include provisions for: (1) a neutral arbitrator; (2) all remedies allowed under statutes; (3) adequate discovery procedures; (4) a written and well-reasoned arbitration decision; and (5) the employer’s payment of all costs unique to the arbitration process itself.
It is predictable that the same labor groups that supported AB 51 will continue to try to develop alternative measures to restrict employment arbitration agreements. Employers are well-advised to consult with well-qualified employment attorneys to stay on the right side of the rapidly changing laws. The attorneys at the Conkle firm stay abreast of developments and are well equipped to help your business navigate all aspects of wage & hour, discrimination, class actions, Private Attorney General (PAGA) claims and employment law, including the intersection of employment arbitration and litigation. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have many years of experience drafting arbitration provisions in conformance with California law and handling employment disputes—whether in arbitration or litigation.
Amanda Washton and Alec Pressly