9th Circuit: "No" to O'Melveny Dispute Resolution Plan
When it comes to employment arbitration agreements, it seems like the more bases you try to cover, the less likely a Court is to enforce them.
Even the highly respected Los Angeles-based international law firm of O'Melveny & Myers has proved itself unable to draft an employment arbitration agreement that satisfies California's procedural and substantive conscionability requirements.
Just today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in Davis v. O'Melveny & Myers held that the law firm's attempt to impose an arbitration agreement upon existing employees with a three-month notice period was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. (For a criticism of the opinion, click here).
In finding that O'Melveny's attempted imposition of the agreement on its employees was procedurally unconscionable, the Court stressed the firm's "overwhelming bargaining power" and the "take-it-or-leave-it" basis upon which the agreement was proffered. Although the Court distinguished provisions that might permit an employee to negotiate a different deal, given its characterization of O'Melveny's bargaining power, we don't imagine this Court would have read such a clause as anything other than illusory.
As the Ninth Circuit stressed, however, a procedurally unconscionable agreement must be "analyzed in proportion to evidence of substantive unconscionability." It thereupon went on to find four provisions substantively unconscionable: the “notice,” confidentiality and, “business justification” provisions, as well as the limitation on initiation of administrative actions.
The challenged notice provision required the aggrieved employee to "give . . . notice of a Claim [within the year it arose] along with a demand for mediation" or it would be "lost forever." Quoting Richards v. CH2M Hill, Inc., the Court held this provision substantively unconscionable because it would deprive the employee of the right to assert the "continuing violation doctrine available in FEHA suits" a benefit that flows only to the employer.
The challenged confidentiality provision -- prohibiting mention of the mediation or arbitration "to anyone not directly involved" - was also found to be unduly favorable O'Melveny. As the Court explained:
Such restrictions would prevent an employee from contacting other employees to assist in litigating (or arbitrating) an employee’s case. An inability to mention even the existence of a claim to current or former O’Melveny employees would handicap if not stifle an employee’s ability to investigate and engage in discovery. The restrictions would also place O’Melveny “in a far superior legal posture” by preventing plaintiffs from accessing precedent while allowing O’Melveny to learn how to negotiate and litigate its contracts in the future. Id. Strict confidentiality of all “pleadings, papers, orders, hearings, trials, or awards in the arbitration” could also prevent others from building cases. . . It might even chill enforcement of Cal. Labor Code § 232.5, which forbids employers from keeping employees from disclosing certain “working conditions” and from retaliating against employees who do so.
The challenged exemption for alleged breaches of confidentiality was also found to be unenforceable. "As written," held the Court, the provision permitting a "non-mutual exception allowing [O'Melveny] a judicial remedy to protect confidential information" was “one-sided and thus substantively unconscionable.”
Finally, the Court held that the agreement's preclusion of employee complaints to agencies charged with the well-being of California's citizens such as the Department of Labor, was contrary to public policy and therefore substantively unconscionable as a matter of law.
There you have it. One of the best law firms in the country was unable to draft an employment arbitration agreement that could pass public policy muster.
Would anyone else like to give it a try?