I never thought hyenas essential
They’re crude and unspeakably plain
But maybe they’ve a glimmer of potential
If allied to my vision and brain
– “Be Prepared,” The Lion King
The song goes on to warn that “you can’t be caught unawares.” Be prepared. The song neglects to remind companies to check their arbitration agreements for two essential clauses, but that’s why you have me.
The Supreme Court delivered its first Kavanaugh-authored opinion late last week. It was a short, punchy, and unanimous decision with no mention of cartoon hyenas or warthogs, but it clarifies an important point under federal arbitration law: If an agreement calls for disputes to be resolved by an arbitrator, a court cannot override that contractual agreement — even to decide a threshold question like whether the dispute is subject to arbitration.
This is a case of Who decides who decides.
Many arbitration agreements contain carve-outs, saying that certain types of disputes are not subject to arbitration. A common carve-out allows parties to go to court to get an injunction to prevent imminent harm.
The issue here was whether a carve-out like that could be presumed by the court (since it was not explicitly in the agreement), or whether the arbitrator had to decide what was subject to arbitration. The court ruled:
When the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, the courts must respect the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract.
How does this apply to you? Two important points:
First, carve-outs: Your arbitration agreements should be drafted to include carve-outs that allow parties to go to court to seek injunctive relief to prevent imminent harm. Specific types of disputes should not be subject to arbitration. If your employee or contractor is about to reveal a trade secret, you need the ability to run to court and get immediate relief. Arbitration is too slow to prevent that danger.
Second, arbitrability: If you fear that a court might invalidate the arbitration agreement or attempt to override it, include a provision like this: “Any disputes regarding whether an issue is subject to arbitration shall be resolved by the arbitrator.”
This case was decided under the Federal Arbitration Act, which is the federal law that favors enforcement of agreements to arbitrate disputes, subject to a few limited exceptions. One of those exceptions is also now before the Supreme Court in New Prime v. Olivieri, a case we discussed here. It relates to independent contractors in the transportation industry and whether the Federal Arbitration Agreement applies. A decision in New Prime will be issued sometime this term.
Arbitration agreements are an important tool that should be in your toolbox, especially if your company is concerned about class action claims, either from employees or independent contractors.
For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.
© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.