Contractual Arbitration Clauses and Unconscionability – IL 4th Dist. Case Note

Courts generally favor contractual arbitration clauses. The reason is that they (in theory at least) save litigants’ time and money and also reduce court congestion.

Arbitration provisions appear in varied business settings ranging from franchise agreements and personal services contracts to employment agreements and most everything in between.

Willis v. Captain D’s , 2015 IL App (5th) 140234-U examines an arbitration clause in the employment contract context and whether the clause is expansive enough to cover an employee’s sexual harassment claim involving a co-worker.

There, a plaintiff grocery store cashier signed an employment contract that contained broad arbitration language.  Claiming her co-employee sexually harassed her and the defendant did nothing to stop it, the plaintiff filed multiple state court tort claims without first demanding arbitration. The trial court denied the employer defendant’s motion to compel arbitration finding the plaintiff’s assault and battery claims did not arise out of her employment and were beyond the scope of arbitration.  Defendant appealed.

Held: Reversed

In finding that plaintiff’s claims fell within scope of the arbitration clause, the court announced the key rules that govern arbitrability:

Under the Illinois Uniform Arbitration Act, 710 ILCS 5/1 et seq., parties are bound to arbitrate the issues they agreed to arbitrate;

– A court (not an arbitrator) decides whether a particular dispute is subject to arbitration;

– The two main arbitrability issues are (1) whether the parties are bound by a given arbitration agreement, and (2) whether an arbitration provision applies to a particular type of controversy;

– Where two parties mutually agree to arbitrate, there is sufficient consideration to bind each side to the arbitration provision;

– Inclusion of the phrase “arising out of” or “related to” in connection with an arbitration agreement denotes broad application of the arbitration agreement;

– An arbitration clause will be deemed procedurally unconscionable where it’s difficult to find, read or understand and where a party didn’t have reasonable opportunity to appreciate the clause;

Substantive unconscionability will negate an arbitration agreement where it’s terms are blatantly skewed in one side’s favor to the exclusion of the weaker contracting party or where arbitrating would impose substantial costs on a party;

– Continued employment after notice of an arbitration agreement is sufficient consideration to enforce the agreement.

(¶¶ 12-32)

Validating the arbitration clause, the court held that it was supported by consideration. It found the employer’s promise to employ the plaintiff and to keep employing her in exchange for plaintiff signing the employment contract was sufficient to bind the plaintiff to the arbitration agreement.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s unconscionability arguments. On the procedural unconscionability front, the court found that the plaintiff had two separate occasions to review and accept the arbitration agreement (plaintiff was previously hired a few years ago by the same defendant) and the arbitration language conspicuously appeared in all-caps. It wasn’t buried in a maze of fine print.

Substantively, the court found that the plaintiff failed to support her claim that submitting to arbitration was cost-prohibitive – especially since the court filing fee exceeds the contractual arbitration fee.

The court also found that the arbitration agreement encompassed the plaintiff’s claims. While her assault and battery claims were against an individual employee, her remaining claims against the corporate defendant sounded in negligent hiring, retention and supervision. In light of the arbitration clause’s sweeping language, these claims clearly fell within the reach of the arbitration clause.

Take-aways:

– The court (not an arbitrator) determines whether a dispute is subject to arbitration;

– A promise of employment conditioned on employee signing arbitration agreement will likely meet requirements of a valid contract;

– Broad arbitration language that contains “arising out of” and “related to” phrasing will constitute strong support for a broad application of an arbitration clause.

Published by

PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.

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