Fourth Circuit Finds Employer Cannot Compel Arbitration of Former Employee’s Discrimination Claims

Carlton Fields
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently ruled that two employment-related arbitration clauses did not “clearly and unmistakably” govern a former employee’s discrimination claims, and that the arbitrability of those claims is rightfully decided by the court, rather than an arbitrator.

Plaintiff signed two arbitration agreements with Rent-A-Center (RAC), his former employer, one when he was initially hired in 2002, and a second when he applied for a new position in 2012. Plaintiff was ultimately hired for a different position in 2013, but did not sign a new arbitration agreement with RAC at that time. Plaintiff later filed this action against RAC for discrimination arising out of his 2013 employment. RAC moved for summary judgment and to compel arbitration, arguing Plaintiff’s claims were subject to the 2002 and 2012 arbitration agreements. The district court denied the motion, however, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Citing seminal arbitrability decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, including one involving RAC, the Fourth Circuit found the parties did not “clearly and unmistakably” intend to arbitrate claims relating to Plaintiff’s 2013 employment. To the contrary, the court found a reasonable juror could conclude from the parties’ actions that they agreed to modify the arbitration agreements to exclude any disputes relating to Plaintiff’s 2013 employment. Given this uncertainty, the court held that the district court, not an arbitrator, had the authority to decide questions of arbitrability (i.e., whether Plaintiff’s claims were subject to arbitration pursuant to the 2002 and 2012 arbitration agreements). For the same reason, the court also affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment, finding a genuine issue material fact as to the parties’ intent to arbitrate these particular claims.

Kabba v. Rent-A-Center, Inc., No. 17-1595 (4th Cir. April 13, 2018)

 

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