The Alabama Supreme Court loves arbitration. Arbitration is a private dispute resolution process. As part of an employment contract, an employer and employee can agree that any work-related dispute will be privately-resolved through arbitration, rather than through a law suit in court. In SSC Selma Operating Co. v. Fikes, No. 1160080, 2017 WL 2209884 (May 19, 2017), the Alabama Supreme Court required arbitration of a retaliatory discharge claim under Alabama law.
The Alabama Legislature has authorized several types of retaliatory discharge claims, but the most common claim arises from an allegation that an employer terminated an employee because that employee filed a claim under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. See Ala. Code § 25-5-11.1. In Fikes, the employee claimed that she returned to work following an on-the-job injury and was fired by her employer. She sued for retaliatory discharge under Section 25-5-11.1.
But, the employee previously agreed to an Employment Dispute Resolution program, which required arbitration of all “employment related disputes,” except disputes that “relate[d] to worker’s compensation.” The employee argued that her retaliation claim “related to workers’ compensation,” and should not be arbitrated, because she was fired because of her workers’ compensation claim. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court disagreed. The Court found that the intent of the agreement was to require arbitration of “those employment-related disputes the [employee] would ordinarily be entitled to have resolved by a jury trial, i.e., disputes sounding in tort ….”
The Fikes case is another in a long line of recent cases from the Alabama Supreme Court requiring arbitration. Arguably, these decisions reflect a “strong federal policy favoring enforceability of arbitration contracts ….” Koullas v. Ramsey, 683 So.2d 415, 416 (Ala. 1996). Regardless of the reasons, if an employer enters into a valid arbitration agreement with an employee, the odds are substantial that Alabama’s courts will require arbitration of almost any employment-related claim.