• 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.

For those living in Connecticut, the Connecticut Lottery shootings of over a decade ago are still a vivid reminder of how quickly a tragedy can visit a workplace. 

On the 10th anniversary of that horrible day, I wrote a piece about how that incident really awakened Connecticut employers to the need to think about workplace violence issues.

Over the last several years, I’ve discussed steps that an employer can consider to reduce the threat of workplace violence in the wake of other workplace incidents

But I noted then that any suggestion that these types of incidents could be avoided is really Monday-morning quarterbacking.

This morning brought word of another random workplace shooting visited on yet another Connecticut employer.

Nine dead. Others injured.

Families shattered. Dreams destroyed.

An unspeakable tragedy and one for which I feel sick for the families affected.  

There may be some employers that  want use this incident to revisit their own policies or ask what they could do to reduce the risk of workplace violence.  Metal detectors at the doors? Armed guards? Allowing employees to bring guns into work? More training? "Zero-tolerance" on workplace violence policies? Reviewing social media websites?

OSHA has a whole section of their website devoted to workplace violence issues.

Yet ultimately, all I keep asking is whether there really anything to "learn" from this incident other than being reminded of the fact that bad things happen to good people.

Despite all the guidance and advice that can be given, the awful truth is that there really is no way to prevent tragedies like this from ever occurring.  An employer can do everything "right" and yet still a rampage ensues by someone committed to carrying out a terrible crime.

That’s not to say that employers should ignore the issue; they shouldn’t. But we also should be careful not to draw conclusions from an incident like this too.

Indeed, as we look for answers from this tragedy, perhaps its best to acknowledge that we can never truly understand what brings people to commit evil and that despite whatever efforts we might make, something like this will sadly happen again.