New Employee Onboarding, Document Execution, and Arbitration Agreements in Georgia

One of the more common issues employers and employees may encounter regarding a possible discrimination lawsuit is the existence of a valid arbitration agreement. Many employers include these agreements with other contractual documents that new hires sign as part of their “onboarding” process. Whether you’re a worker looking to litigate a discrimination claim or an employer seeking to compel arbitration (or ensure that your arbitration agreement is valid under the law,) it pays to get advice and representation from an experienced Atlanta employment discrimination lawyer.

The key for employers seeking to utilize arbitration to resolve workplace discrimination disputes is ensuring that everything about these agreements meets the law’s tests for validity. If the agreement is valid and enforceable, then the employer can get an order compelling arbitration rather than litigating in court. If the agreement isn’t valid under the law or no agreement exists at all, then the worker has the right to proceed in court.

A flaw — either in the wording or the execution process — can potentially sabotage the employer’s preference for arbitration, as one employer found out recently.

The employee started with a for-profit college in Florida in August 2018. Her job application contained language stating that she voluntarily agreed to arbitrate “all claims and disputes… related… to my employment or the termination of my employment.” The document also stated that “arbitration will be the sole and exclusive remedy for any such claim” and that “both [the employer] and I agree to forego any right we each may have had to a jury trial.”

A subsequent offer letter stated that the offer was contingent upon the worker agreeing to the terms of the arbitration agreement.

After the employee sued for age discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the employer promptly filed a motion to compel arbitration.

The crux of the arbitration dispute was not the employer’s word choice, but rather the process of executing the agreements.

The worker signed her offer letter; however, she desired not to assent to the terms of the arbitration agreement. Rather than simply leave the signature line blank, she affirmatively wrote “No Refused” on the line. Based on that non-signature, the trial court ruled that the worker never signed and, therefore, the two sides never consummated a valid agreement to arbitrate.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose rulings control federal cases in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, agreed.

Lessons From This Non-Agreement Case

This ruling offers a couple of significant pointers for employers and workers about new employee onboarding, document execution, and arbitration agreements. One is, quite clearly, the profound importance of carefully scrutinizing the signature process. The undisputed facts showed that the woman’s first name started with “N.” Her last name started with “R” and was seven letters long. This created the possibility that a cursive version of “No Refused” could look like her signature.

However, the woman did sign documents in other places and those signatures bore little to no resemblance to the way she wrote “No Refused” under the arbitration agreement language. Had the employer more closely scrutinized the execution process, it might have caught the woman’s refusal of the arbitration terms and addressed it at that time.

Two, the case shows what the courts will (and won’t) consider in this type of dispute. The employer contended that it was entitled to put on evidence to “resolve contested facts and credibility issues” regarding whether its office manager told the worker she could refuse the arbitration agreement or whether the manager believed the “No Refused” inscription was a signature. The courts uniformly rejected that position, pointing out that, regardless of what the manager believed or what she did or did not tell the woman, the undisputed facts revealed that the employee never signed on the line and, in the absence of a signature, there could be no valid agreement.

There are multiple ways in which an employer may be unsuccessful in enforcing an arbitration agreement because that agreement wasn’t valid. Whether you’re a worker needing to overcome such an agreement or you’re an employer desiring to enforce one (or ensure that your documents and practices meet the law’s tests for validity,) the skilled Atlanta employment discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert are here to help. Contact us today at 404-873-8048 or through this website to schedule a consultation and put our knowledge and experience to work for you.

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