Opinions and Legal Insights

Shout It Like a Helium-Filled Gator: Don’t Limit Your Arbitration Agreements to Work-Related Disputes

Fig. 3. Atmosphere exchange during the experimental procedure without handling the subject

A team of researchers studying the vocalizations of Chinese alligators have won an Ig Nobel Prize for their method. They put the gators in helium-filled tanks and observed variations in their calls.

Sign me up.

I want to write papers with sentences like this one: “High-energy frequency bands in the bellows of the Chinese alligator were shifted towards higher frequencies when the animal vocalized in the heliox condition.”

My writing, for better or worse, is more focused on agreements. Here’s something to remember when writing arbitration agreements.

One of the main benefits of an arbitration agreement is the ability to prohibit class action lawsuits. When using arbitration agreements with employees or independent contractors, don’t forget to include the class action waiver. (There are pros and cons to mandatory arbitration, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

Too often, the scope of arbitration agreements is too narrow. Many agreements require arbitration of work-related or employment-related claims only.

Go broader. Expand your range, but without using helium.

In this case, a group of drivers alleged that a rideshare app company mishandled a data security breach. The drivers tried to bring a class action.

The court instead required them to seek relief one-by-one, in individual arbitration actions. That’s because their agreements required them to arbitrate disputes with the company and prohibited class litigation. The arbitration agreement here was broad enough to cover data breach claims.

Quick side note on what the legal dispute was really about: The drivers argued that the agreements were unenforceable. They pointed to the transportation worker exception in the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA generally protects the enforcement of arbitration agreements, but it doesn’t apply to transportation workers in interstate commerce. The dispute was whether drivers who pick up passengers at airports for local rides are acting on interstate commerce because the passengers and their luggage flew in from other states. The district court said no, that these local drives are not interstate commerce, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

For our purposes, the lesson here is to be thoughtful about the scope of claims subject to arbitration. Go broader than just work-related claims. A data breach can be an expensive class action to defend if thousands of people are affected. Any single individual arbitration, however, is probably not worth the effort for a plaintiff’s lawyer. The damages for an individual arbitration will be too small to make it worth pursuing.

(The “go broad” concept has limits, and there are some claims that should be carved out of arbitration agreements, so I don’t want to overstate the point.)

Anyway, be creative and thoughtful when drafting agreements. Be sure the scope of covered claims is sufficiently broad. Careful planning can avoid class actions — or just maybe it can win you an Ig Nobel Prize.

Bonus track: Here’s audio of a helium-induced alligator bellow.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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