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May 24, 2005

email did not create duty to arbitrate

The company president sent an email to all employees, including Roderick Campbell, and attached a new policy containing an arbitration clause. When Campbell sued under the ADA, the company moved to compel arbitration. Motion denied. Campbell v. General Dynamics Government Systems Corp (1st Cir 05/23/2005).

The company's theory was simple. They sent an email with a new policy attached, and that was an offer which Campbell (an at-will employee) accepted by continuing to work. Presto, a contract, enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

The 1st Circuit said this agreement could not be enforced as to Campbell's claim arising under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The court assumed that the agreement would be enforceable under state law.

The ADA contains a dispute resolution provision, Section 513 (42 USC 12212):

Where appropriate and to the extent authorized by law, the use of alternative means of dispute resolution, including settlement negotiations, conciliation, facilitation, mediation, factfinding, minitrials, and arbitration, is encouraged to resolve disputes arising under this Act.

The focus became the statutory word "appropriate." The court found no general problem with the use of email, and even cited the E-Sign Act (15 USC 7001-7031). The problem was that the company typically did not use email to handle personnel matters, and had never before used email as means of creating a contractual term that was to become a condition of employment. In addition, the email message did not sufficiently bring home to Campbell that the attached policy contained an arbitration clause that would bind him if he kept working. In short, the email did not provide the employee with "minimally sufficient notice by signalling to a reasonable employee that the Policy was a contractual instrument whose terms would be deemed accepted upon continued employment."

My view: The court applied federal law here, although the language is "offer-and-acceptance," suggesting state law of contract formation. The federal law is ADA Section 513.

This is an intensely fact-driven case. It does not mean employers can't use email to form contracts (including contracts to arbitrate ADA cases) that will be enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. It means that the email (or whatever communication method is used) must contain enough of a "red flag" to put an employee on notice that the employer intends to change the contractual relationship.

For more discussion, see Michael Fox's comments at Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer.

Posted by Ross Runkel, Editor at LawMemo, publisher of Employment Law Memo. Try it.

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