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  • An Interesting Way to Resolve a Case: mediation/binding baseball arbitration

    I previously discussed some of my concerns regarding binding arbitration agreements.  Arbitration has its place, and it can be a very useful tool in resolving cases.  As much of my practice involves employment disputes, drafting an enforceable arbitration agreement can be difficult, and I believe arbitration oftentimes does not meet the objectives that it is intended to achieve (i.e., lower costs, quicker resolution, lower awards, etc.).  There are many variants to the typical arbitration or mediation options, and a recent case caught my eye because it presented one of the more unique variants.

    In Bowers v. Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. (No. D059333), the parties were in the middle of binding arbitration, when they decided to dismiss the arbitration and the accompanying state court action, and participate in “mediation/binding baseball arbitration.”  According to the record, the plan was to:

    participate in a full day mediation. If, at the end of that mediation, the Parties have failed to reach an agreement, the Plaintiffs (Bowers, Seward, and LaBerge) shall provide to the mediator their last and final demand, which demand shall be some amount between $100,000 and $5,000,000, and the Defendants (Companies, Wealth Management, and Enterprises) shall provide to the mediator their last and final offer which offer shall be some amount between $100,000 and $5,000,000. The mediator shall then be empowered to set the amount of the judgment in favor of Plaintiffs against Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. by choosing either Plaintiffs’ demand or Defendants’ offer, such binding mediator judgment to then be entered as a legally enforceable judgment

    At the end of the mediation, the mediator decided to award the plaintiffs the full $5,000,000.00.  That’s right, the “mediator” awarded the money.  This is unusual because typically mediators do not have the power or authority to “award” anything.  The mediator typically helps the parties reach a resolution, but if the parties are unable to reach an amicable (or unamicable?) resolution, the mediator’s job is done.  Because the parties in Bowers agreed the mediator could make a binding award if the mediation failed, the trial court and the appellate court upheld the award. Parties can agree to allow a third party to decide what the parties will pay, even if the evidence is not presented in a typical trial or arbitration setting.

    It’s easy to armchair quarterback this one and second-guess the thinking behind agreeing to such an unusual form of dispute resolution.  Going into the process the parties had to know that the plaintiff’s “last and final demand” was going to be $500,000.00, just like the defendant’s “last and final offer” was going to be $100,000.00.  The case does not provide a lot of facts regarding the underlying claims or liabilities (we only know that it was some kind of defamation claim), but I presume liability was not much of a question, and that the real issue was the amount of damages.  The big risk for each side is that, knowing the other side’s “last and final” number is likely going to be the highest or lowest allowed by the parties’ agreement, the resulting mediator’s “award” was essentially going to be an all or nothing deal.  I suppose there was the possibility that had the parties stuck with the original arbitration the arbitrators could have awarded significantly more than the $5,000,000.00 ceiling to which the parties agreed, but it seems like a pretty high risk given the fact that the mediator receives information differently than an arbitrator, a judge or a jury.

    I am a big proponent of mediation.  Given the costs and risks involved in litigation, mediation offers the parties the opportunity to have a say in the outcome of the resolution.  I’m not so sure I would be willing to hand that control over to the mediator.  The process of presenting my case in mediation differs significantly to how I present my case to the trier of fact.  I’m not sure how my presentation would have to change if I knew that at the end of the day the mediator was going to “decide” the case.

    If you want to read the case, you can find it here.

    The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego
    95 South Market Street, Suite 520
    San Jose, CA 95113
    Tel. 408-293-6341
     
    Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman, former associate of The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego.
     
    Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law, but we cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.
     
    Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the Law Office of Phillip J. Griego. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be posted in this blog and the Law Office of Phillip J. Griego cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.Phillip J. Griego represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

  • Arbitration Clause in Independent Contractor Agreement Invalid

    Employers doing business in California know, or should know, that arbitration agreements are oftentimes thrown out as being “unconscionable.”  See Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, and its progeny.  If the employment arbitration agreement is procedurally and substantively unconscionable the courts will not enforce the agreement.  In the typical employer-employee context, the courts oftentimes have no trouble deciding the agreement is procedurally unconscionable because the employer drafts the agreement and gives it to the employee on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.  The courts believe an employee’s option to find a job elsewhere does not mitigate the inequality of bargaining power between the employer and employee.

    But what about an arbitration clause between a company and an independent contractor?  Does the same analysis apply and will the court be more or less likely to find the agreement procedurally unconscionable?  In Wherry v. Award, Inc.  (11 C.D.O.S. 2413), a California Appellate Court decided that the fact that “plaintiffs are independent contractors and not employees makes no difference in this context.”

    Whether the company uses employees or independent contractors, arbitration agreements should be reviewed by knowledgeable counsel before using or executing the agreement.  I have my own view on whether arbitration clauses are a good idea in the first place, but if you do business in California you need to be aware of the issues that you will face should you enter into an arbitration agreement.

    The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego
    95 South Market Street, Suite 520
    San Jose, CA 95113
    Tel. 408-293-6341
     
    Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman, former associate of The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego.
     

    Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law, but we cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

    Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the Law Office of Phillip J. Griego. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be posted in this blog and the Law Office of Phillip J. Griego cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

    Phillip J. Griego represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

  • Arbitrator Not Allowed To Determine Validity of Arbitration Agreement

    Another California Appellate Court recently held that the court, not the arbitrator, can determine whether an arbitration clause in an employment agreement is valid. Because California courts have frequently refused to enforce arbitration agreements in the employment context, many employers have started inserting provisions that require the arbitrator, not the court, to determine the validity of the arbitration agreement.

    In Murphy v. Check ‘n Go of California, Inc. (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 138, the court refused to uphold a similar provision, finding that “While the language of the agreement [regarding arbitration of unconscionability issues] could not be clearer, plaintiff’s alleged assent to this provision was vitiated by the fact that it was set forth in a contract of adhesion, i.e., a standardized contract drafted by the stronger party and presented to the weaker party on a take it or leave it basis [citation].” Now, a second appellate court came to the same conclusion. See Ontiveros v. DHL Express 08 C.D.O.S. 8379.

    The decision is not all that surprising, as arbitration agreements have taken a tough beating in the last decade. Under current laws many, if not most, arbitration agreements between employees and employers in California are unenforceable. Those that are enforceable usually require the employer to pay for the cost of arbitration. In many cases the costs of arbitration are greater than the amount the plaintiff would have been awarded in court.

    I know many employers desire arbitration agreements, but I don’t know that arbitration is necessarily a wise decision. There used to be two main benefits to arbitration: 1) Arbitration was considered less costly and less time-consuming and 2) Employers could avoid a runaway jury.

    Recent court decisions have eradicated the first benefit by requiring employers to pay for almost 100% of the arbitration costs and allowing virtually full discovery in the arbitration proceedings. Now, instead of allowing a judge or jury to decide the case for free or for nominal jury fees, the employer must pay an arbitrator between $450 to $750 per hour or more to review the case, rule on any applicable motions and decide the merits of the case. Our office handled one particularly contentious arbitration where the client paid over $200,000.00 in arbitrator fees alone.

    As to the other main benefit (avoiding the runaway jury), I’m not convinced this is sufficient justification to throw money at an arbitrator. Some assume that a jury tends to award more to a plaintiff than an arbitrator, but I have not seen any statistics supporting this assumption. Even if it is true, keep in mind that only 1% of the cases that are filed in court go all the way to trial. This statistic is essentially the same in arbitration. That means you are paying an arbitrator’s fees to avoid the 1% of cases that go to trial. Also keep in mind that, at least in many counties, more than half the cases that go to trial result in a defense verdict. So, really, the employer is paying the arbitrator’s fees in 100% of cases to avoid less than one-half of 1% of the cases that might possibly result in a runaway jury verdict.

    There are several other justifications for arbitration, but I can’t say I am convinced by any of them. Some argue that arbitrators are more likely to rule in favor of the employer because the employer is more likely to appear before that arbitrator in the future. Having spoken with numerous arbitrators and people that conduct arbitration on a frequent basis I have never heard of an instance where the “repeat-player” effect had any impact on a case. Because many lawyers still hold to this belief, or for some reason do not want to litigate in arbitration, some lawyers may avoid cases with enforceable arbitration agreements. Therefore, having an enforceable arbitration agreement may help decrease the number of lawsuits that actually get filed against the company. This is just an assumption and it’s not likely we could ever really find out how many cases were NOT filed as a result of an arbitration clause.

    Drafting an enforceable arbitration agreement is possible, but be careful what you wish for. Keep in mind that in order to be enforceable with respect to most of the claims an employee might bring, the employer will have to pay for the arbitration fees and afford the employee the same protections the employee would have in court. Employers should carefully considering the consequences before using arbitration agreements.

    The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego
    95 South Market Street, Suite 520
    San Jose, CA 95113
    Tel. 408-293-6341
     
    Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman, former associate of The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego.
     

    Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law, but we cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

    Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the Law Office of Phillip J. Griego. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be posted in this blog and the Law Office of Phillip J. Griego cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

    Phillip J. Griego represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.