What Happens When Your California Employer Forces You to Sign an Arbitration Agreement Written in a Language You Don’t Comprehend

For many people, applying for a job is a relatively stressful process, and sometimes starting a new job can be, too. Imagine in the midst of these stresses being asked to sign a document written in a language you don’t read or speak. For some Spanish-speaking workers in California, that is what happens to them when they seek or start a new job. If you sign an agreement to arbitrate your employment disputes as part of the application or “new hire” processes that is written in a language you don’t understand, you may not be able to assert that that language barrier created a lack of mutual assent and therefore a lack of a valid contract. You may, however, have other avenues to assert that the foreign-language arbitration agreement you signed is not enforceable. If you find yourself in this type of scenario in your discrimination or wrongful termination lawsuit, you should be sure you have skilled California employment counsel representing you in your case.

The above general scenario is essentially what happened in M.M.’s case. M.M. had worked at a nursing home as a certified nursing assistant for five years when she filed a complaint against her employer. Among other things, the CNA alleged that her employer had engaged in disability discrimination and constructive wrongful termination. In response, the employer sought to take the dispute out of the courts and move it into an arbitration hearing. The employer argued that it was entitled to arbitration because it and the CNA had signed an agreement, as part of her employment application, agreeing to arbitrate all disputes that arose in relation to M.M.’s employment. M.M. also signed two subsequent documents in which she agreed to be bound by the employer’s “Alternative Dispute Resolution Policy,” which included arbitrating all employment disputes.

The CNA’s argument was that the agreement was not valid. Specifically, she asserted that she read and spoke Spanish, did not understand spoken or written English, and never received a copy of any of the arbitration agreement documents in Spanish. Because she allegedly never understood any of the arbitration agreement documents she signed, she argued that there was no “meeting of the minds” that is necessary for a valid and enforceable contract. She also argued that enforcing the agreement was unconscionable because the entity seeking to enforce the agreement did not sign the document. (The entity took over control of the operations at the facility where M.M. worked three years after she started in 2011).

The trial judge ruled in favor of the employee, concluding that there was no meeting of the minds. The appeals court reversed that ruling. An inability to understand the words on a document you signed is not a valid defense. In California, a person who signs a contract “is deemed to assent to all its terms,” and if a party “cannot read, he should have it read or explained to him.” In situations like this, that means that the employee should have demanded a translation before signing.

That does not mean that M.M. lost her case completely, however. The outcome of this appeal illustrates the importance of asserting all arguments that can properly apply to your case. M.M. argued that there was no meeting of the minds and that the agreement was unconscionable. The appeals court rejected the “meeting of the minds” argument but sent the case back to the trial court where the employee could resume asserting her argument that the agreement was unconscionable.

If you have been wrongfully terminated from your job or have been the victim of workplace discrimination, the Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch are here to help. We have spent many years to helping those harmed by discrimination and other illegal employment practices. To learn more about how we can help you, contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Employment Contracts, Arbitration Clauses, and Your California Wrongful Termination Lawsuit, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Jan. 25, 2018

How a California Worker Got to Pursue Her Discrimination Case Despite Signing an Arbitration Agreement, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Dec. 14, 2017

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