Mandatory Arbitration Agreements: Update on California AB51 – Employer Alert

This blog post is the latest in our running series covering the ongoing battle over Mandatory Arbitration Agreements in Employment.

To recap, On October 10, 2019, California Assembly Bill 51 (“AB 51”) was signed into law, adding Section 432.6 to the California Labor Code. It prohibits California employers from requiring applicants to sign mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment or in exchange for any employment-related benefit. AB 51 also prohibits employers from retaliating against applicants or employees who refuse to sign mandatory arbitration agreements by terminating their employment or taking other retaliatory actions. Under the law, even and an opt out process is still considered a mandatory arbitration agreement. AB 51 does not apply to agreements that have already been signed before January 1, 2020, and only applies to those dated January 1, 2020, or after. Employers who violate the law as drafted could be subject to injunctive relief, lost wages, attorney’s fees, and a violation is considered a misdemeanor under California Labore Code section 433.

AB51’s Ban on Mandatory Arbitration Agreements was immediately challenged in court

In February 2020, Judge Mueller of the Eastern District of California issued a preliminary injunction (as a result of litigation brought by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States and other business groups.  The injunction effectively prevented AB51’s ban on mandatory arbitration from taking effect.  This is where our last article left off.

Between our last article and this article, California appealed……and there was the Covid-19 pandemic.

On September 15, 2021, a three judge Ninth Circuit panel held in a split decision that AB 51 is not fully preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act. In the panel’s decision in U.S. Chamber of Commerce et al. v. Rob Bonta et al., case number 20-15291, Judge Fletcher joined Judge Lucero’s majority opinion which concluded that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) doesn’t preclude arbitration agreements, but merely requires that arbitration agreements between workers and their employers be entered into voluntarily and consensually. Additionally, the panel ruled that the civil and criminal penalties associated with AB 51 “stand as an obstacle to the purpose of the FAA” and declared those aspects of AB 51 preempted by the FAA — in other words not enforceable.

What happened next? 

On October 20, 2021, the Chamber of Commerce filed a petition for en banc review by the Ninth Circuit. As a result of this petition being granted, the Ninth Circuit panel’s September 15, 2021, decision to vacate the district court’s preliminary injunction is stayed, and therefore AB 51’s ban on mandatory arbitration agreements is still enjoined pending the outcome of future rulings.

On February 14, 2022, the same three judge Ninth Circuit panel announced that the rehearing en banc will be deferred until the U.S. Supreme Court decides relevant issues in Viking River Cruises Inc. v. Moriana. This decision was also split with Judges Lucero and Fletcher making the majority, and Judge Ikuta dissenting.

In Viking, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether claims brought under California’s Private Attorneys General Act, which allows workers to sue on behalf of the state of California for labor law violations, can survive federal arbitration requirements. Viking is scheduled for oral arguments on March 30, 2022.

With all this litigation activity at the federal and state level, for the moment, the court’s injunction prohibiting enforcement on AB 51’s ban on mandatory arbitration agreements remains in effect.

Employers with mandatory arbitration provisions in their handbooks should examine their options with the aid of experienced employment counsel.

For additional reading on arbitration agreements, visit Federal Judge Extends Restraining Order Preventing Ban on Employment Arbitration Agreements (AB51) – Adishian Law; California 2020: Employee v. Independent Contractors, Wage and Hour, Arbitration, Discrimination and more – Adishian Law; Arbitration Clauses in Employment Agreements, California Lawyers (adishianlaw.com) and Legal Update: California 2020 – Adishian Law

Up next in our blog: President Joe Biden signed the “Ending of Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 (EFASASHA).”

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