- Suppose there’s an old employment agreement between the employer and employee. Then the employer fires the employee.
- But there’s been a few intervening events and it’s not exactly clear that the employment agreement still applies.
- Indeed, there’s another contract (let’s call it an supplier agreement) that seems to provide an independent basis for ending the relationship.
- Nevertheless, the employment agreement contains an arbitration provision. Are the parties still required to go to arbitration even when one party (namely the employer) argues the contract is void?
Yes, says a new Connecticut Appellate Court decision called Stack v. Hartford Distributors, Inc..
(For background, the employment lawyers out there should look first at a 2007 Supreme Court case that established the strong preference to enforcement of arbitration provisions, which you can find here. The rest of us can carry on.)
For the court, it noted that the employer appears to “concede that the arbitrator should decide its contention that the employment contract is void and unenforceable” but because the issues of the termination don’t have anything to the employment agreement itself, there was “nothing to arbitrate”.
The court disagreed and said the employee was entitled to have an arbitrator decide whether he was terminated properly under the employment agreement.
Here, the court said, the employment agreement, “which was entered into by the parties on November 2, 2010, the parties agreed, specifically in paragraph 14, to arbitrate any disputes ‘regarding the interpretation or enforcement of this Agreement or any provision hereof’ that could not be settled by mediation administered by the American Arbitration Association. Additionally, paragraph 16 of the agreement provided in relevant part that ‘[t]his Agreement shall constitute the entire Agreement between [the employer and [the employee] with respect to the subject matter hereof.'”
And, the court went on to add, there was no dispute the employer terminated the employee or that there was an arbitration clause. While the employer may claim that the employment agreement was void and unenforceable, that issue is still properly before an arbitrator.
In doing so, it relied on that prior Connecticut Supreme Court decision that ‘‘an arbitration provision is severable from the remainder of the contract . . . [and], unless the challenge is to the arbitration clause itself, the issue of the contract’s validity is considered by the arbitrator in the first instance.’’
The takeaway for employers: If you add an arbitration provision to your employment agreements, it’s likely to be read broadly in Connecticut.
In other words, be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.