I’ve recently written a series of posts regarding the Berman hearing process available for employees to resolve wage disputes before the Labor Commissioner. See previous posts: Overview Of Berman Hearings Before The Labor Commissioner and How To Prepare For a Berman Hearing. But can an employer have an employee sign an arbitration agreement in which the employee agrees to waive any rights to a Berman hearing, and all claims against the employer must proceed directly to arbitration? A good question, to which there is not currently an answer. The issue is currently under review by the California Supreme Court in the case Sonic-Calabasas A, Inc. v. Moreno.
This also leads to the issue of why might an employer want to have all claims proceed directly to arbitration, and skip-over the Berman hearing. As the California Supreme Court stated in its initial review of the Sonic-Calabasas case in early 2011, the Berman hearing provides the employee a number of benefits:
These provisions include the Labor Commissioner’s representation in the superior court of employees unable to afford counsel, the requirement that the employer post an undertaking in the amount of the award, and a one-way attorney fee provision that requires an employer that is unsuccessful in the appeal to pay the employee’s attorney fees.
It is an interesting background on how the Sonic-Calabasas case proceeded through the Courts. The California Supreme Court has already ruled on the Sonic-Calabasas case in the early part of 2011. At that time, the Court held that a waiver of the Berman hearing process in the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and contrary to public policy, and was not preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Therefore, the California Supreme Court ruled that this waiver of the Berman hearing process was not an enforceable provision of the arbitration agreement. However, shortly after this ruling, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, a separate case out of California in which the US Supreme Court held that the FAA preempted California law and found that a class action waiver provision in arbitration agreements can be enforceable. For more information on AT&T Mobility you can listen to my podcast on the case here. The employer in Sonic-Calabasas A v. Moreno filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court to review the California Supreme Court’s ruling invalidating the Berman hearing waiver in the arbitration agreement. The US Supreme Court granted review, but recently sent the case back to the California Supreme Court to review the case again and to apply the standards set forth in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. So, we are waiting for the California Supreme Court to review the issue once again to have a definitive answer to the question.