Friday, January 12, 2018
C.A. Gives Guidance on Employee Handbook Provisos
Says Acknowledgement of Receipt of Company Policies Doesn’t Constitute a Promise to Be Bound by Them
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An employer that wanted to compel its employees to arbitrate any disputes they might have with the company failed to render its desired procedure compulsory by merely stating it in an office handbook and securing the recipients’ acknowledgement of receipt of the document, but not securing an express agreement to the provision, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has held.
Justice William Bedsworth of Div. Three wrote the opinion, filed Wednesday, which was not certified for publication.
The opinion also declares that Orange Superior Court Judge Kim Dunning (now on assignment to the Court of Appeal for this district) did not err in denying a motion to compel arbitration with prejudice, thus barring an effort seeking enforcement of three earlier express agreements to arbitrate.
Defendant Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center’s employee Eda Olivares, who sued for alleged Labor Code violations, “did not agree to anything contained in the employee handbook appellants sought to enforce; at best she merely acknowledged she had received it,” Bedsworth wrote.
The 2012 handbook in issue was provided electronically, though employees could send it to a printer. The handbook said:
“I acknowledge that I have accessed and reviewed an electronic copy of the September 2012 Handbook….I further understand that the Handbook contains important information about the Company’s general personnel policies and about my privileges and obligations as an employee….I Agree By clicking I Agree, you indicate your acceptance of the statement above.”
Olivares entered her name and the date, clicked on “I agree,” and hit “Submit.”
Bedsworth agreed with Dunning that doing so did not create a contractual agreement to be bound by the terms of the handbook, especially in light of the admonishments in it that employees served on an “at-will” basis and “this Handbook is not a contract of employment.”
The jurist wrote:
“The Employee Handbook Receipt, which appellants refer to as the ‘acknowledgement,’ does not contain language obliging Olivares to arbitrate. When she clicked on ‘I Agree,’ she was agreeing, among other things, that she had received a copy of the handbook….Nowhere, however, is there language along the lines of ‘I agree to be bound by the terms and conditions of my employment’ or ‘I agree to all the obligations set forth in the handbook.’ All she agreed to, according to the receipt, was that she accepted ‘the statement above,’ i.e., that she had received a copy of the handbook and so on. Calling this document a ‘receipt’ further obscured any possible contractual nature or intent.”
Olivares, whose employment began in 2006, purportedly signed two express agreements to arbitrate that year and one in 2007. In its memorandum of points and authorities in support of the motion to compel arbitration, the employer observed in a footnote that even if the 2012 acknowledgment was not binding on Olivares, her previous express agreements were.
When Dunning denied the motion to compel arbitration and the defendants’ counsel indicated a desire to petition further based on those express agreements, the trial judge barred further litigation.
Bedsworth set forth:
“We agree with the trial court that appellants failed to petition for enforcement of the earlier arbitration agreements. The furtive reference to them in a footnote—while the body of the argument section promoted the 2012 handbook exclusively—looks too much like sandbagging to suit us. At the very least, it deprived Olivares of adequate notice about the basis of the petition so that she could respond comprehensively to it.
“The question before us is what to do about this situation. Do we allow appellants a do-over, or do we affirm the trial court’s decision that they had put all their cards on the table at once and could not keep a couple of aces up their sleeves?
“We believe the court was within its discretion to refuse to allow appellants a do-over….A rule permitting serial petitions to compel arbitration under these circumstances is simply a recipe for abuse.”
The case is Olivares v. Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, G053514.
Attorneys on appeal were Elizabeth Staggs-Wilson, Keith A. Jacoby, Henry D. Lederman and Anthony G. Ly of Littler Mendelson for the employer and Matthew J. Matern and Matthew W. Gordon of Matern Law Group for Oliveras.
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