Arbitration agreement enforceable even though worker signed two months after starting her new job

An employee could be forced to arbitrate a gender harassment claim against her employer even though she didn’t sign the arbitration agreement until two months after she started her job, a federal judge in North Carolina recently ruled.

Employer Ross Stores hired the employee in question, Amy Lesneski, to work as a second-shift supervisor at its distribution center in Rock Hill, North Carolina, in October 2014. Two months later, she signed a “dispute resolution agreement” in which she agreed that she wouldn’t be able to take her employer to court over any potential disputes that might arise. Instead, any claim would be decided by a private arbitrator.

Six months later, Lesneski quit her job and sued the employer in federal court for gender harassment.

When the employer demanded the case be dismissed and ordered into arbitration, Lesneski argued that the agreement shouldn’t be enforced. According to Lesneski, the employer presented her with the agreement two months after starting her job and told her that if she didn’t sign it, she’d have to resign. This, she argued, made the agreement “unconscionable” and therefore void.

But the judge disagreed, finding that the agreement and the circumstances surrounding it weren’t one-sided enough to “shock” the average person’s conscience. Therefore, the agreement was enforceable under North Carolina’s “strong public policy” favoring arbitration.

Lots of states have a similar policy favoring arbitration, as do the federal courts. Still, employers shouldn’t read this decision as a go-ahead to spring any kind of agreement on their employees at any time, particularly one that impacts important rights. They should still talk to an employment lawyer about the law in their own state.