As I discussed last week, arbitration agreements are popular with Alabama employers and the Alabama Supreme Court: The Supreme Court Really Likes Arbitration. While Alabama has become a favorable venue for arbitration, other jurisdictions, like California, remain hostile. In particular, some judges find that employment arbitration agreements are unconscionable. In other words, the employer possesses so much bargaining power in the employment relationship that the employee should not be bound by a “take it or leave it” arbitration policy. In an effort to avoid such determinations, some employers have inserted opt-out provisions into their arbitration agreements.
In 2016, Brian Berkley wrote a great article discussing the benefit of opt-out provisions: Can Opt-Out Provisions Save Arbitration Clauses? An opt-out provision gives the employee the opportunity to escape arbitration. Typically, the provision is buried deep within an arbitration agreement and gives the employee the opportunity to avoid arbitration by providing written notice to the employer within 30 days of signing the agreement or receiving arbitration training. By inserting an opt-out provision, employers are hoping to convince judges that arbitration is not unconscionable, because the employee had an opportunity to avoid it. The employer is gambling that the employee never discovers the opt-out language buried in the arbitration agreement.
Recently, however, CVS Drug Stores learned that an opt-out provision can create as many problems as it cures. See Hall v. CVS Health Corp., No. 2:17-cv-00289-KOB, 2018 WL 1182603 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 7, 2018). In that case, Roy Hall sued CVS for, among other things, age and race discrimination. But, Mr. Hall previously participated in a CVS-sponsored course called Arbitration of Workplace Legal Disputes, and he read and understood materials which informed him that he would be required to arbitrate all employment disputes unless he opted out. Judge Karen Bowdre, however, found a factual dispute on whether Mr. Hall actually opted out of the arbitration agreement.
Mr. Hall testified that that he mailed a written letter to CVS within 30 days of training, and he opted-out of the arbitration agreement. Yet, he did not send the letter by certified mail, and he could provide no proof, other than his testimony, that he actually sent the letter. In contrast, CVS could not “prove a negative.” It provided Judge Bowdre with affidavits from employees saying that they never received Mr. Hall’s alleged letter. But, other unidentified employees could have possessed the letter and lost it.
Judge Bowdre decided to resolve the factual dispute by ordering a jury trial. Under her ruling, a jury will decide whether Mr. Hall actually mailed the opt-out letter, and whether CVS actually received it.
Employers typically want arbitration because it helps to streamline the dispute process and it avoids many of the pitfalls associated with jury trials. But, the opt-out clause in CVS’s arbitration agreement has caused the exact opposite outcome. CVS will now have to face the uncertainties of a jury trial, and that trial will further delay the process.
Employers should think carefully before putting an opt-out provision in their arbitration agreement. For nationwide employers like CVS, an opt-out provision might make sense, because it helps with enforcement in fickle jurisdictions like California. But, in Alabama, where the courts have been zealously enforcing arbitration agreements, an opt-out provision might actually be counter-productive.