Cue the R.E.M folks, because the Supreme Court of Missouri issued a 4-3 opinion recently that appears to upend many employment arbitration agreements in that state. Baker v. Bristol Care, Inc., __ S.W.3d__, 2014 WL 4086378 (Mo. Aug. 19, 2014). However, the situation is not as dire as it may seem.
The high court in Missouri agreed with the lower court that the arbitration agreement in the parties’ employment contract was invalid (and therefore the employer could not compel arbitration of the putative class action claim by plaintiffs seeking unpaid overtime). In particular, it concluded that “there was no consideration to create a valid arbitration agreement” for two reasons: continued at-will employment was insufficient consideration; and the arbitration agreement was illusory.
In this case, the employee was first asked to sign an arbitration agreement upon receiving a promotion to a managerial position. But the managerial agreement allowed the employee to be terminated without notice and receive only five days’ compensation. Based on that, the court characterized the arrangement as at-will employment, and followed earlier Missouri cases finding “continued at-will employment is not valid consideration to support” an arbitration agreement. That conclusion puts Missouri at odds with many other courts around the country. However, the court relied on its ability to apply generally applicable Missouri contract law, even in the context of the FAA, and found “an offer of continued at-will employment is not valid consideration [for an arbitration agreement] because the employer makes no legally enforceable promise to do or refrain from doing anything it is not already entitled to do.”
The arbitration agreement also allowed the employer “to amend, modify or revoke this agreement upon thirty (30) days’ prior written notice to the Employee.” The court concluded that that statement allowed the employer to modify the agreement “unilaterally and retroactively,” making it illusory. The court hypothesized that the provision allowed the employer, in the course of an arbitration that was not going its way, to provide the employee notice that “effective in 30 days, it no longer would consider itself bound by the results of the arbitration.” For that reason, the employer’s argument that the arbitration agreement was supported by consideration due to its “mutuality” failed.
For employees, this is another case in the string of cases finding arbitration agreements illusory and therefore unenforceable. For employers who are worried about arbitration agreements in Missouri, I have an easy solution. Make sure that if you have a modification clause, it does not apply to existing disputes. That simple change would have likely make this arbitration agreement enforceable and probably avoided the class action. (The Missouri Supreme Court made clear that the arbitration agreement was “enforceable if either source of consideration [was] valid,” so true mutuality alone should be sufficient.)
In my view, though, the enforceability of this arbitration agreement should never have been considered by the court. The parties’ agreement gave the arbitrator “exclusive authority to resolve any disputes relating to applicability or enforceability of this Agreement.” The Missouri Supreme Court found that clause did not give the arbitrator authority to address the plaintiff’s defenses to arbitration, however, because they were about contract formation, which it distinguished from contract enforceability. While contracts professors and hornbooks talk about peppercorns being necessary to form a contract in the first place, in real life consideration is an enforceability issue. It is not a dispute about whether the parties really signed the contract, or had authority to sign, or whether this document really was incorporated into the parties’ agreement, which are the type of challenge to the entire arbitration agreement that SCOTUS has said do belong in court. Buckeye Check Cashing v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440, 444 n.1 (2006). Instead, it is an argument that the employee’s assent to the contract should be invalidated post-hoc because the contract did not meet state law rules, more akin to unconscionability challenges than true formation challenges.