Employer Cannot Be Compelled to Arbitrate Class Claims Absent Express Agreement to Do So
Today a California court held that where an employment arbitration agreement is silent on the issue of whether class claims may be arbitrated, the employer may not be ordered to arbitrate such claims. In Kinecta v. Sup. Ct., the employer and employee had an agreement that any disputes between them arising out of the employment relationship would be resolved by binding arbitration. Notwithstanding the agreement, the plaintiff employee filed a wage and hour class action against Kinecta in California state court. Kinecta moved to compel arbitration of the plaintiff's individual claims and to dismiss the class allegations from the complaint. The trial court granted the motion to compel arbitration, but denied the motion to dismiss the class allegations, thereby effectively requiring Kinecta to arbitrate class claims. Kinecta appealed and the court of appeal agreed with Kinecta that it should not have been ordered to arbitrate class claims. The court of appeal relied on the United States Supreme Court 's decision in Stolt-Nielsen v. Animalfeeds Intl., 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010), in which the Supreme Court held that a party cannot be compelled to arbitrate class claims unless the party has expressly agreed to do so. The arbitration agreement between Kinecta and its employee was silent on the issue of classwide arbitration. Because there was no express agreement to arbitrate class claims, the court held that they could not be compelled to arbitration based on Stolt-Nielsen. As a result, the court of appeal issued an order directing the trial court to dismiss the class allegations.
In its decision, the court of appeal considered whether the agreement's practical prohibition on an individual pursuing claims as a class action in any forum was enforceable under the California Supreme Court's decision in Gentry. The court noted that “there is some question” whether Gentry is still good law or whether it is preempted by the United States Supreme Court's decision in AT&T v. Concepcion. However, the court held that it need not decide that issue because even if Gentry is still good law, the plaintiff had failed to make an evidentiary showing that the waiver of class claims would be unenforceable under the standards set forth in Gentry.