Just because you’ve got the right to arbitrate a claim doesn’t mean that you have to arbitrate that claim. If you’ve read my blog before, you know that arbitration is a great form of alternative dispute resolution for many claims. But, employers should think carefully before arbitrating employment disputes: Arbitration Isn’t Always Good for Employers. In conducting that analysis, one factor for employers to consider is the amount of fees that they will pay to an arbitrator in comparison to the value of the employee’s claim.
In Hernandez v. Acosta Tractors, Inc., No. 17-13057, 2018 WL 3761126 (11th Cir. Aug. 8, 2018), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals confronted an employer who was having second-thoughts about the wisdom of arbitrating a claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act. (“FLSA”). Julio Hernandez claimed that his employer, Acosta Tractors, failed to pay him overtime. Mr. Hernandez sued in federal court and Acosta Tractors moved to dismiss the case because he signed an arbitration agreement. The judge agreed, and dismissed Mr. Hernandez’s case in favor of arbitration.
Acosta Tractors soon began to experience sticker-shock with the arbitration process. Mr. Hernandez was one of three employees who were arbitrating FLSA claims. Acosta Tractors asked the arbitrator to consolidate the three proceedings into one, but the arbitrator refused. The arbitrator also ordered 29 depositions to be taken in the three separate proceedings.
At this point, I need to be clear: an arbitrator is essentially a paid judge. Every time the arbitrator works on a case, he bills the parties for his work — usually at rates of $350.00 per hour or more. Additionally, if a third-party organization, like the American Arbitration Association is involved, they will charge for their work on the case. As a result, administrative fees quickly add up.
In Acosta Tractors’ case, it received bills for administrative fees in the amount of $33,100 and $43,640 in the other two cases, and $25,875 in Mr. Hernandez’s case. At this point, faced with over $100,000 in administrative fees, Acosta Tractors cried “uncle,” and tried to go back to federal court. It refused to pay the arbitration fees, and asked the federal judge to re-assert control over the case. But, the judge was not pleased. He found that Acosta Tractor defaulted in arbitration, and thus was also in default in federal court. Ultimately, the judge entered a default judgment in Mr. Hernandez’s favor in the amount of $7,293.00.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the judge’s ruling for further consideration. The Eleventh Circuit found that the trial judge should not have entered a default judgment based solely upon the failure to pay administrative fees in arbitration. Instead, the Eleventh Circuit directed the trial judge to determine whether Acosta Tractors “acted in bad faith in choosing not to pay its arbitration fees.” The court suggested that a “good faith inability to afford the arbitration fees” would be a factor in Acosta Tractors’ favor, but also noted that its decision “to abandon arbitration after getting adverse rulings from the arbitrator certainly looks like forum shopping.”
To me, the biggest lesson for employers to learn from Hernandez is: “look before you leap.” Arbitration is going to be expensive for everybody involved. In Mr. Hernandez’s case, Acosta Tractors was billed $25,875 in administrative fees on an overtime claim that was worth $7,293. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like Acosta Tractors could have saved money by keeping this FLSA case in federal court.