Many companies require employees to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of getting hired or keeping their jobs. Arbitration agreements are often included in employment contracts, but they also can be in separate agreements. Arbitration is when a case is decided by one or more professional arbitrators, rather than by a judge and jury. Arbitration is often referred to as “binding arbitration” because there is a very limited right to appeal from an arbitrator’s decision, meaning that normally the arbitrator’s decision is final. While arbitration certainly is not the end of the world, for a variety of reasons most employment lawyers in New Jersey and New York who represent employees (myself included) would much prefer a jury trial. As a result, it is important to understand whether your arbitration agreement is enforceable.
To determine whether an arbitration agreement is enforceable under New Jersey law, the first question is whether you entered into the agreement “knowingly” and “voluntarily.” Unfortunately, those terms are not necessarily interpreted the way you might think. Rather, it boils down to whether you understood or should have understood that you were waiving your right to a jury trial. It does not necessarily mean you actually read or understood the rights you were signing away.
There are many other factors judges consider when determining whether an arbitration agreement is enforceable. Usually, the most important factor is how clearly the agreement states the employee is giving up his right to a jury trial. But other factors can include the employee’s level of education and business experience, how much time the employee had to review the arbitration agreement before he signed it, how much input (if any) the employee had in negotiating the terms of the arbitration agreement, whether the employee was represented by a lawyer before he signed the arbitration agreement, and whether the employee received something extra in exchange for signing the arbitration agreement.
Even if an arbitration agreement appears to be enforceable, an employee might have a legal defense that would prevent the employer from enforcing it and sending the case to arbitration. For example, an arbitration agreement is not enforceable if the employee can prove it was the result of fraud, or if the employer waived its right to enforce the agreement. Another more complicated defense to an arbitration agreement is when the agreement is what lawyers call an “unconscionable contract of adhesion,” which basically means it is extremely favorable to one party (the employer), the other party (the employee) had little or no ability to negotiate its terms, and it would be extremely unfair for a court to enforce it.
If you have entered into an arbitration agreement and want to know whether you still have a basis to bring your employment law case in court, you should contact an experienced employment lawyer.