Ninth Circuit Compels Investment Banker to Arbitrate Statutory Employment Discrimination and Civil Rights Claims Despite Assumption That “Knowing Waiver” Doctrine Applied to Claims

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Shannon Zoller sued her former employer, GCA Advisors LLC, for violations of the Equal Pay Act, California’s Fair Pay Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1871, among other alleged violations. GCA moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration agreements contained in various documents that Zoller signed when she began her employment, but the district court denied the motion, finding that the “knowing waiver” doctrine applied to Zoller’s statutory claims and that she had not knowingly waived her right to bring her claims in a judicial forum.

The “knowing waiver” doctrine is a “judicially created requirement that narrows the [Federal Arbitration Act’s] scope when other federal statutes explicitly limit the enforcement of arbitration agreements. The standard requires a party to an arbitration agreement to waive knowingly and explicitly their right to judicial determination of their Title VII claims.” The Supreme Court has held that, while not all statutory claims may be appropriate for arbitration, if a party agreed to arbitration, the party will be held to that agreement unless the party could prove a congressional intent to preclude a waiver of judicial remedies for the statutory rights at issue. Such an intent would be found in the statutory text, legislative history, or an “inherent conflict” between arbitration and the statutes’ underlying purposes.

Rather than engage in such an analysis, the district court analogized the claims brought by Zoller to other types of “civil rights claims” to which the knowing waiver doctrine had been held to apply. The Ninth Circuit noted that this analysis was incorrect but nevertheless assumed, without deciding, that the doctrine applied to Zoller’s claims. The court held that the arbitration agreement’s “clear language encompassing employment disputes” and additional evidence of Zoller’s knowing waiver were sufficient to meet the doctrine’s requirements. The contractual agreements “included explicit language regarding employment disputes so that Zoller’s statutory claims [were] clearly encompassed by the [arbitration] agreement.” In addition, Zoller, who was an attorney before becoming an investment banker, was given “full access” to the documents providing for arbitration and an opportunity to consult with legal counsel of her choice before signing. As such, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court, finding that Zoller had knowingly waived her right to a judicial forum and compelled the parties to arbitrate all of her claims.

Zoller v. GCA Advisors, LLC, No. 20-15595 (9th Cir. Apr. 14, 2021).

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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