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Appellate Division Reminds Employers of the Essential Elements Needed to Support an Enforceable Arbitration Agreement

The Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C.A. §1 et seq., and the New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 et seq., reflect the federal and state public policies favoring arbitration as a means for resolving disputes. Since these legislative initiatives, New Jersey courts have routinely enforced agreements to arbitrate employment disputes. Nevertheless, whether a specific arbitration agreement is enforceable under standard contract principles remain an issue that is often challenged before the courts. Enforceability will turn on whether there was a “meeting of the minds” to arbitrate, and whether both parties “clearly and unambiguously” agreed to waive statutory rights, such as a judicial forum and a right to trial by jury.

A recent ruling from the New Jersey Appellate Division in Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, No. A-2580-17, is a cautionary tale for employers seeking to draft or enforce agreements to arbitrate. In Flanzman, the Court invalidated the arbitration agreement, finding that there was no “meeting of the minds” because the agreement failed to specify the forum where the arbitration would be held (e.g,, the American Arbitration Association or the Judicial Arbitration and Mediations Services) or specify a method for selecting a different arbitration forum, nor any process for conducting the arbitration. The Court observed that “had this been done, the parties then would fully understand both the [jury] rights that had been waived and the rights that have taken their place.”

In reaching its conclusion, the Court pointed to the following cases where arbitration agreements were invalidated by the courts: Atalese v. US Legal Serv. Group (agreement failed to clearly indicate the waiver of a trial by jury); Leodori v. Cigna Corp. (finding no evidence that the employee consented to an arbitration agreement contained in an employee handbook that included a contractual disclaimer); Kleine v. Emeritus at Emerson (finding a lack of mutual assent because the arbitration process contemplated by the arbitration agreement was unavailable when the parties executed their contract); and NAACP v. Foulke (invalidating agreement because it did not clearly and consistently express the nature and locale of the arbitration forum).

These decisions clearly illustrate that despite the well-settled policy favoring arbitration, employers nevertheless make costly missteps by failing to properly draft arbitration provisions that will withstand the scrutiny of the courts. Employers should have their arbitration agreements reviewed by employment law counsel to ensure they contain the requisite elements of enforceability identified by the courts.

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