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Beware of Multilingual Employment Arbitration Agreements


A recent employment case out of California demonstrates the issues that may arise when employment agreements, particularly arbitration clauses, are drafted in multiple languages. In that case, the employer required a Hispanic employee to sign both the English and Spanish version of the handbook which included an arbitration clause. However, the Spanish translation was different from the English in a very significant way. Ultimately, the court found the arbitration agreement to be unenforceable.

Background of Carlos Juarez’s Employment

Carlos Juarez, an hourly employee, worked at a hand car wash since 2012. During his employment, the company established a new policy requiring arbitration of employment claims and included it in the employee handbook. In 2013, Juarez was required to sign two acknowledgments that he received the handbook containing the new arbitration agreement and that he agreed to its terms. One acknowledgment was in English and the other was in Spanish. He was also required to sign a separate acknowledgment that he received a copy of the dispute resolution agreement, which was in Spanish.

Wage and Hour Violation Claims Arise

In 2016, Juarez brought claims against his employer for various wage and hour violations that included failure to pay minimum wage, earned wages, overtime compensation, and rest break and meal compensation. In response, his employer filed a motion to compel arbitration based on the language in the employee handbook that had been added in 2013. The language as stated would have included claims relating to compensation. Juarez also brought claims under the California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA).

Severability of Invalid Clauses

One of the distinctions found in the language of the dispute resolution clause was related to the severability of certain clauses. Specifically, the English version stated that the denial of the right to bring a PAGA action was severable in the event a court found said denial unenforceable. However, the Spanish version provided that the denial of the right to bring a PAGA action was not severable.

Provisions Regarding Language Translations

The handbook at issue also included the following provision: “This Handbook may be translated into languages other than English as a convenience to our employees. Any ambiguity between this Handbook and any translated version will be governed by the English version.”

Denial of the Motion to Compel Arbitration

Ultimately, the trial court denied the motion stating that there were significant contradictions in the severability of the PAGA waiver clause in the English-language version and the Spanishlanguage version of the handbook. As such, the court applied the principle that, in the face of ambiguous language in an arbitration clause, the agreement is to be construed in against the party that drafted the language. The reasoning is that the drafting party created the ambiguity in the language.

Was This Simply an Error in Translation or Intentional Deceit?

The court did not make a ruling as to this question. Instead, it merely pointed out that “at best, the difference in the severability clauses in the English-language and Spanish-language versions of the handbook is negligent; at worse, it is deceptive.” If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King , LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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