You are in the midst of the job hunt. Each day is filled with interviews and tedious applications that only find their way to a black box, which seems to only produce either silence or a carefully, but politely, worded emails thanking you for your application and perhaps informing you that you are just not quite the right fit. Finally, after months of searching, you receive your first offer. Terms and conditions are swept aside at the thought of income; you can finally support yourself. You naturally sign the various, legally complex documents they need and prepare for your first day. Years pass, and you decide it is time to take on new endeavors. You inform your superior and they take it with grace. Upon your exit, however, you are reminded of a single document you signed; a document which limits your right to go to court. You discover you are bound by an arbitration agreement.
There are many things wrong with the American judicial system, several of which can be found within the processes that are influenced by financial gain and interest groups. However, there are few aspects of the law that are so blatantly unjust as arbitration agreements. An arbitration agreement is a document, typically signed at the start of employment, that restricts your ability to go to court and instead forces you to go through a process naturally called “arbitration.”
Arbitration can be thought of as going to court, but on a much smaller scale. You still conduct discovery, take depositions, file motions, and engage in the necessary processes that are typically found within US Courts. However, your case is presented to an arbitrator rather than a judge or jury. The arbitrator is the decisionmaker; for all intents and purposes, they are the judge in your matter. They are a neutral figure, but the employer typically gets to choose who they want to serve as arbitrator.
Imagine a sporting event where your competitor gets to choose who the referee is. You would hope that the referee would abide by the rules, be neutral, and remain unbiased. However, you are keenly aware that opposing side did not choose this referee blindly; there is a reason the other team chose this specific person. Perhaps the chosen referee tends to favor teams from the opposing side’s geographic region; perhaps the referee tends to rule against underdogs; or perhaps the opposing team has a positive history with the referee. Regardless, they are in some way advantaged. In arbitration, the employer is similarly advantage. It is due this fact that arbitrations are inherently unfair to the plaintiff. The author is painfully aware of how blatantly illegal this may be appear. After all, how could your employer possibly limit your right to go to court?
Unfortunately, the law very much allows for this to happen. The rationale is that you knowingly consented to it when you signed the myriad documents you were given when you started your employment. “You should have done your due diligence,” a decisionmaker may say. This naturally raises the questions of how you can avoid being bound by an arbitration agreement. The answer is to simply read your initiating documents. Look for terms like “arbitration” or for some language involving waivers. If you discover this, then you may want to try to negotiate out of it. However, employers rarely budge on these matters and you will more than likely have to make the decision to either bind yourself or pursue employment elsewhere.
Nonetheless, all of this should not dissuade you from pursuing your case should you have been wronged, you should still very much call out wrongdoing when it occurs in the workplace. Arbitration does not devalue the merits of your case, but it does alter the odds. Should you find yourself restricted by the tendrils of an arbitration agreement or if you suspect that you are, then you should speak to an employment attorney to gain confirmation and discover what your options are.