If you signed an arbitration agreement that broadly covers "employment-related issues," then most likely you can be forced into arbitration. Many employees have attempted to fight being compelled into arbitration, based on different principles of law and fairness. However, it seems that the agreement to arbitrate applies in most cases to workers' compensation retaliation claims, right along with other employment disputes.
Alabama's current law on arbitration of Worker's Compensation Retaliation claims
The main argument litigants make in opposition to arbitration is that their claim does not fall within the scope of the arbitration agreement. Although the facts of each person's case are different, employers usually craft their arbitration agreements broadly enough to cover nearly every type of claim.
In Ryan's Family Steakhouse, Inc. v. Kilpatric, an employee sued for retaliatory discharge after filing a workers' compensation claim. Unfortunately, the employee had signed an agreement to arbitrate all "employment-related disputes." The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals held that the workers' compensation claim fell within the scope of the arbitration agreement. The court also rejected the employee's argument that public policy generally precluded the arbitration of workers' compensation retaliatory discharge claims.
A different approach to challenging arbitration of workers' compensation claims
In a recent Florida case, Audio Visual Innovations, Inc. v. Spiessbach, an employee also claimed he was terminated after filing a workers' compensation claim. His employer moved to compel arbitration. Florida has a specific statute that prohibits workers' compensation retaliation. The employee argued on appeal that the arbitration agreement "substantially diminished the statutory remedies" set out in Florida's statute. However, the appellate court decided that, because the employee was not required to pay the arbitrator's fees, and the arbitrator was authorized to grant any relief that a court could grant, the arbitration agreement was valid.
Also interesting in the Florida case is the fact that the arbitration agreement at issue excluded claims for "workers' compensation benefits." But, since this employee was claiming retaliation, that claim was not excluded under the parties' arbitration agreement. The court held that a petition for workers' compensation benefits in Florida is filed with the Office of the Judges Compensation Claims, whereas a claim for workers' compensation retaliation is filed in Circuit Court.
Is arbitration of these claims better or worse than a trial?
That all depends. For most employers, the primary benefit of arbitration is that they can avoid the hostile "runaway juries," who often give employees favorable verdicts. However, because most employees challenge arbitration agreements, the cost of defending that agreement in court and then paying the arbitrator's fees if the employee is successful, may prove to be more expensive that court litigation. Not to mention the fact that arbitrators are usually hesitant to rule in favor of an employer without having a hearing. Whereas, in court, an employer could win the case on summary judgment.
Needless to say, the value of arbitration for the employer depends on many factors. Unfortunately, employees are in for a fight if they signed an arbitration agreement that includes workers' compensation claims of any kind.
If you feel you have suffered retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.