California Legislature Acts to Outlaw Pre-Employment Mandatory Agreements to Arbitrate Labor Code Claims

by Fenwick & West LLP
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In late August, the California Senate and Assembly passed AB 465, which, if signed by Governor Jerry Brown, will make pre-employment mandatory agreements to arbitrate Labor Code violations against California public policy starting January 1, 2016. AB 465 would create a new statute that prohibits employers from requiring a candidate to “waive any legal right, penalty, remedy, forum, or procedure for a violation of [the Labor Code], as a condition of employment, including the right to file and pursue a civil action or complaint with, or otherwise notify, the Labor Commissioner… or any court or other governmental entity.” The section explicitly covers “an agreement to accept private arbitration.” The bill makes it unlawful to threaten, or retaliate or discriminate against, a person who refuses such a waiver. An employee may recover reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in enforcing rights under the new statute.

Even if the bill becomes law, certain forms of pre-employment arbitration agreements would remain enforceable, even if they cover Labor Code violations. For instance, those agreements that are knowing and truly voluntary—i.e., not made as a condition of employment—would be valid, but the employer would have the burden of proving these facts if challenged. Further, the new statute would not apply to persons registered with a self-regulatory organization under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 or employees represented by counsel in negotiating the agreement.

AB 465 is principally backed by organized labor, with the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO sponsoring the bill. A lobbyist for the federation cited an uptick in the instances of low-wage workers being unable to recover unpaid wages before the California Labor Commissioner due to an arbitration agreement they did not understand or know they signed. The bill is opposed by many groups, including the Civil Justice Association of California and the California Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has identified AB 465 as one of the 2015 Job Killers, citing the increased burden on the judicial system and noting likely preemption by the Federal Arbitration Act.

If AB 465 becomes law, the long-term legal impact is unclear. Not only will it prohibit pre-employment, mandatory agreements to arbitrate Labor Code violations, but it may also reach class action waivers, which the California Supreme Court recently upheld in the employment context (see July 2014 FEB). The substantive reach of the prohibition is also unclear, expressly covering a “legal right, penalty, forum, or procedure” for a Labor Code violation, but remaining silent on other employment-related statutes such as the Fair Employment and Housing Act (codified in the Government Code). Moreover, the statute will almost certainly be challenged under the Federal Arbitration Act, which reflects a liberal policy favoring arbitration enforceability and pre-empts state rules that disfavor arbitration. The ambiguity in breadth and pre-emption uncertainty leave employers in an unenviable position if the bill becomes law.

AB 465 (and the other employment-related bills described below) remain on Governor Brown’s desk for consideration, and we will continue to monitor and report on developments.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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