Many retail employers require their employees to agree to arbitrate employment-related disputes as a condition of employment. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that workplace arbitration agreements are enforceable according to their terms, and state law that restricts such enforcement is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). Notwithstanding those pronouncements, states, such as New York and New Jersey, have crafted legislation designed to nullify an employee’s agreement to arbitrate certain employment-related claims.
In response to the #MeToo movement, New York and New Jersey have enacted legislation banning workplace arbitration agreements covering sexual harassment and discrimination claims. On April 12, 2018, New York State, as part of its 2018-2019 budget, amended § 7515 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (“CPLR”) to prohibit employers with four or more employees from incorporating mandatory, pre-dispute arbitration clauses in written employment contracts requiring the resolution of allegations of claims of sexual harassment. Additionally, any such clause in a contract entered into after the effective date of the law would be rendered null and void.
On June 19, 2019, the New York legislature passed a bill (which, as of the date of this post, has yet to be signed into law) that makes sweeping changes to New York’s harassment and discrimination laws. Among other things, the bill again amends § 7515 of the CPLR to ban mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in written employment contracts requiring the resolution of allegations of claims of workplace discrimination generally, not just sexual harassment claims and renders any such clause null and void.
On March 18, 2019, New Jersey Governor Murphy signed legislation that declares unenforceable any “provision in any employment contract that waives any substantive or procedural right or remedy relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12.7(1)(a). The law further provides that “[n]o right or remedy under the [Law Against Discrimination], or any other statute or case law shall be prospectively waived.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12.7(1)(b). Both provisions can be construed to prohibit the waiver of a right to a jury trial as required by an arbitration agreement.
Many observers have questioned whether these laws restricting arbitration would be preempted by the FAA. A recent decision in the Southern District of New York, Mahmoud Latif v. Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, No. 18cv11528 (DLC), 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107020 (S.D.N.Y. June 26, 2019), confirms that state laws targeting enforcement of arbitration agreements are vulnerable to attack on FAA preemption grounds.
As discussed below, in Latif, the court held that New York’s ban on the arbitration of sexual harassment claims was unenforceable as preempted by the FAA. The court also stated, in a footnote, that the as yet unsigned June 19, 2019 New York legislation would be preempted by the FAA for the same reasons. Latif suggests that employers covered by the FAA can be more confident that their agreements seeking to arbitrate employment-related claims will be enforceable.