In Epic Systems v. Lewis, the U.S. Supreme Court recently approved the use of arbitration agreements that include class action waivers. So this seems an opportune time to reassess the pros and cons for employers of using mandatory workplace arbitration agreements.

The Pros

  1. There are no runaway, emotion-fueled jury verdicts. Arbitration awards can be high, but they tend to be more closely rooted in reality.
  2. The procedures (including discovery) are more streamlined than cases in court.
  3. Although plaintiffs can still publicize what they want, arbitrations are generally more private than court trials.
  4. The cases settle more cheaply. 
  5. The cases usually resolve more quickly in arbitration than in court.
  6. The attorneys’ fees are usually lower.
  7. If you win, the other side’s opportunity to appeal is very limited.
  8. It is now clear that you can require employees to waive the right to pursue class actions.

The Cons

  1. It’s easier for unrepresented parties to bring weak claims.
  2. Forum and arbitrator costs are higher and, in California and many other jurisdictions, the employer bears the vast majority of those costs.
  3. While Epic Systems resolved the issue of class action waivers, the California Supreme Court has said “no” to mandatory arbitration of Private Attorney General Act claims. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court may need to address that issue. Also, there have been repeated efforts in Congress to outlaw the practice.
  4. Employees generally don’t like losing access to jury trials. Lately, there have been concerted attempts by some to argue that arbitration agreements protect sexual harassers. However, any remedy that an employee can recover in court against a harasser is available to the same extent in arbitration.
  5. If you lose at arbitration, your opportunity to appeal is very limited.
  6. It can be harder to get cases out on dismissal or summary judgment.
  7. While it hasn’t been my experience, some say that arbitrators tend to “split the baby.” (How I hate that cliche! I don’t like “throwing out the baby with the bath water” either. Leave the poor baby alone!)
  8. As our friends at Wage & Hour – Developments and Highlights point out, plaintiffs’ lawyers who previously filed class actions may now start filing multiple individual arbitrations for wage and hour violations, which could subject employers to burdens and expenses that rival class actions.

The Deciding Factor:

Having tried and arbitrated dozens of cases for employers over the years, I believe that – for most employers – the pros outweigh the cons. Most cases end up settling and cases subject to arbitration tend to settle more cheaply. The fact that there’s no risk of an emotion-fueled jury verdict changes the whole settlement calculation. Employees and their attorneys can’t base their negotiation position on the fact that, if they just get before a jury, they have a shot at a windfall. So if you’re an employer who doesn’t have arbitration agreements with your workers, seriously consider whether it’s time to develop one.