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New California Law Prohibits Pre-Dispute Employment Arbitration Agreements

CPR Speaks Blog

California last week enacted a new law that prohibits employers from requiring job applicants, or any existing employee, to enter into pre-dispute arbitration agreements as a condition of employment.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law Oct. 10. It also criminalizes any retaliation against an employee who refuses to enter into a pre-dispute arbitration agreement.

Assembly Bill 5, introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D., San Diego, says that a violation of the amended California Labor Code is a misdemeanor. Despite the law’s harsh prescriptions for violators, the bill clarifies that it does not purport to invalidate any existing arbitration agreement that is consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act.

The California Chamber of Commerce identified AB 51 as a “job killer.” (See the chamber’s press release ahead of the first major hearing on the bill in March at http://bit.ly/2pmYYEu.)  The chamber said that the new law conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. Partnership v. Clark, 137 S.Ct. 1421 (2017), among many cited cases that it notes are part of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence favoring arbitration agreements. The chamber predicts that the law will be challenged and overturned, preempted by federal law. (You can read the chamber’s statement in opposition to the California Legislature, joined by 41 local chamber and specialized industry groups, at http://bit.ly/33zTLIz.)

As other jurisdictions wrestle with local restrictions, courts are beginning to see challenges.  A New York federal court last spring stuck down a New York state pre-dispute mandatory arbitration bar in a decision that was mirrored by the California Chamber’s view. See Latif v. Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, No. 18-cv-11528, 2019 WL 2610985 (S.D.N.Y. June 26, 2019), where the U.S. District Court held that a newly enacted New York state law that invalidated pre-dispute employment arbitration agreements was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act. See also, Andrew Garcia, “Update: Legislatures on Invalidating Pre-Dispute Arbitration Agreements,” CPR Speaks blog (Aug. 1) (available at http://bit.ly/2IPg6dd).

AB 51 is one of three bills signed by Gov. Newsom, a Democrat who took office in January, that expanded California’s workplace protection laws.  “Work is about more than earning an income,” he stated, adding, “For many, a job can provide a sense of purpose and belonging–the satisfaction of knowing your labor provides value to the world. Everyone should have the ability to feel that pride in what they do, but for too many workers, they aren’t provided the dignity, respect or safety they deserve. These laws will help change that.”

That move is a big change from Newsom’s predecessor. The new law is a reintroduction of an identical 2018 bill that was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat–the second time Brown vetoed legislation restricting arbitration.  The California Chamber of Commerce opposition letter quotes Brown’s 2018 veto extensively, including the Kindred Nursing decision, which noted, “A rule selectively finding arbitration contracts invalid because improperly formed fares no better under the [Federal Arbitration Act] than a rule selectively refusing to enforce those agreements once properly made. Precedent confirms that point.”

An August California court decision, however, shares the new law’s skeptical arbitration view. In OTO LLC v. Kho, 447 P.3d 680 (Cal. 2019) (available at https://stanford.io/2ON8f3x), the California Supreme Court rejected the validity of an arbitration agreement because, among other reasons, the defendant required plaintiff Kho to sign the agreement as a condition of his employment.

The court found that the porter who delivered the agreement remained at Kho’s place of work until he signed the agreement, which created an impression that he had to sign it immediately. Therefore, the court ruled that since Kho had no choice but to sign the arbitration agreement or lose his job without an opportunity to review the agreement in his native language, it could not be enforced.

To view the bill in its entirety, click here.

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