Over Lawyering Renders Arbitration Agreement Unenforceable

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Arbitration Agreement’s Impermissible Waiver Of Employee’s PAGA Claims Invalidated The Entire Agreement Under Its Unambiguous “Savings Clause And Conformity Clause” – Over Lawyering Renders Arbitration Agreement Unenforceable

Westmoreland v. Kindercare Education LLC, 90 Cal.App.5th 967 (2023)

Rochelle Westmoreland was employed by Kindercare Education LLC. As a condition of employment, when Westmoreland was hired, Westmoreland electronically signed a “Mutual Arbitration Agreement Regarding Wages and Hours.” Although the agreement expressly excludes any claims that cannot be required to be arbitrated as a matter of law, it also contains a provision described as a “Waiver of Class and Collective Claims” providing that covered claims will be arbitrated only on an individual basis and that the arbitrator may not adjudicate form of a class, collective, or representative claims. Complicating matters further, the arbitration agreement also contains a so-called “Savings Clause & Conformity Clause” requiring that if any provision of the agreement is determined to be unenforceable or in conflict with a mandatory provision of applicable law, it shall be construed to incorporate the mandatory provision of law, and/or the unenforceable or conflicting provision shall be automatically severed and the remainder of the agreement shall not be affected unless the Waiver of Class and Collective Claims is found to be unenforceable in which case the entire agreement is rendered invalid and any claim brought on a class, collective, or representative action basis must be filed in court of competent jurisdiction. This “Savings Clause & Conformity Clause” is referred to as the “Poison Pill.”

When Westmoreland was fired, she filed a representation action under PAGA. Kindercare moved to compel arbitration of Westmoreland’s individual non-PAGA claims and to stay her PAGA claim. The trial court granted the motion. Westmoreland sought a writ of mandate. The Court of Appeal held that the unenforceable PAGA waiver was not severable from the rest of the agreement and, therefore, it rendered the entire agreement unenforceable. The California Supreme Court and then the United States Supreme Court rejected Kindercare’s subsequent petitions for review and for certiorari.

Kindercare filed a renewed motion to compel arbitration and then, following Viking River, argued that Viking River compelled a finding that Westmoreland’s PAGA claims must be divided: the “individual” PAGA claim sent to arbitration and the “representative” PAGA claim pursued in court. The Court of Appeal would have agreed but for Kindercare’s Poison Pill:

Had Kindercare simply included a waiver of representative claims in its arbitration agreement and not included the poison pill at the end of the agreement, the result here could have been substantially similar to that in Viking River – the PAGA claims could be divided: the “individual” PAGA claim sent to arbitration and the “representative” PAGA claim pursued in court.
Ironically, the language and structure of Kindercare’s arbitration agreement necessitates a result similar to the “claim joinder” rule in PAGA that Viking River deemed problematic when imposed by state law. The poison pill effectively prevents us from sending Westmoreland’s “individual” claims under PAGA (representing the State of California but pursuing “individual” remedies based on the plaintiff’s status as a former employee) to arbitration while allowing litigation in court of her “representative” claims under PAGA, which involve the rights of other “aggrieved employees.”
The arbitration agreement, in this case, sought to address the uncertainty in the law in 2016 concerning the waiver of representative claims under PAGA by using the poison pill provision to prevent litigation on parallel tracks if it ever became clear that even one of Westmoreland’s potential class or representative claims could not be waived and would have to be pursued in court. The provision is unambiguous and “presents an all-or-nothing proposition.” The provision leaves no room for Kindercare to choose to bifurcate Westmoreland’s claims between arbitration and court; it instead invalidates the agreement.
In sum, having exercised our discretion to hear Kindercare’s appeal as a writ of mandate, we conclude that the arbitration agreement is invalid by operation of the unambiguous “Savings Clause and Conformity Clause.” As a consequence of Kindercare’s drafting decisions, and absent further stipulation between the parties, the arbitration agreement is “invalid” and so Kindercare must litigate all of Westmoreland’s claims in court.