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FMG Law Blog Line

Employee Claim is Scattered, Smothered, and Covered by Waffle House Arbitration Agreement

Posted on: October 19th, 2017

By: Brad Adler and Will Collins

A recent Georgia Court of Appeals case not only reinforced that state law permits the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) to control arbitration agreements, but also illustrated that state law broadly interprets and defines claims arising from employment when determining whether a claim is covered by an arbitration agreement. In Waffle House, Inc. v. Pavesi, 2017 Ga. App. LEXIS 442, No. A17A1281 (October 4, 2017) the Georgia Court of Appeals held that an employee’s personal injury claims for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of a co-worker were all covered claims subject to mandatory arbitration under the arbitration agreement signed by the employee because: (1) the agreement showed intent to be governed by the FAA and that intent was not destroyed by merely referencing that the agreement is governed by Georgia law; and (2) the agreement covered the claims arising out of employment and, under Georgia law, this language is interpreted broadly such that “nothing more than a causal connection is required to show that a claim arose out of that relationship.”

In October of 2015, the Waffle House franchise where the complainant, Brian Mikeals, worked was re-purchased from the franchisee by Waffle House, Inc. At that time, all employees were required to re-apply for non-probationary employment and complete on-boarding paperwork, including an arbitration agreement. Mikeals entered into the arbitration agreement on November 6, 2015 and again on November 14, 2015, due to a problem in the Waffle House computer system requiring employees to complete the paperwork for a second time.

In December of 2015, Mikeals suffered a severe injury at work after a co-worker placed an illegal substance in his drink. After Mikeals’ court appointed guardian initiated this suit, Waffle House filed an emergency motion to compel arbitration. The trial court denied the motion; however, the Court of Appeals reversed.

First, where the agreement stated that it “should be construed in a manner consistent with the principles and provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act … [T]his Agreement shall be governed by and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the State of Georgia” the Court of Appeals found that the language demonstrated the parties’ intent to be bound by the FAA. Contrary to the trial court, the Court of Appeals concluded that the passing reference to a Georgia choice of law provision did not transform the intent of the parties to be subject to the Georgia Arbitration Code. Instead, the court emphasized that Georgia law permits the parties to agree to arbitrate claims and elect that such arbitration will be governed by the FAA.

Second, the court reinforced the broad application and coverage of claims arising from an employment relationship. Here, the arbitration agreement covered all claims “arising out of any aspect of or pertaining in any way to [Mikaels’] employment” and included specific language listing tort claims as covered. Before even discussing that the claims in this case were tort claims that the agreement expressly covers, the court emphasized that it has a long history of broadly including claims arising from a special relationship, requiring “nothing more than a causal connection . . . to show that a claim arose out of that relationship.” According to the court, the only claims that do not arise out of an employment relationship are those “which do not have any relationship to an employee’s work or relationship to the employer.” So, the bottom line is that this decision reinforces the need to be deliberate and wise in drafting an arbitration clause and further highlights a tendency in many courts to view an arbitration provision with a wide lens.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Brad Adler at [email protected] or Will Collins at [email protected].

When is Engineering Required? City of Atlanta Issues New Code Interpretation

Posted on: October 18th, 2017

By: Cheryl H. Shaw

The City of Atlanta recently published its second International Residential Code interpretation of 2017, confirming that structural designs utilizing Structural Composite Lumber (SCL) must be designed and sealed by an engineer licensed to practice within the State of Georgia. The stated purpose of the binding interpretation is to provide consistency between the Office of Building staff and design professionals who issue construction documents in multiple jurisdictions.

In issuing the interpretation, the City noted the IRC’s requirement that structural elements which do not conform to the prescriptive requirements of the code must be “designed in accordance with accepted engineering practice.” To this end, while visually-graded lumber is regulated by span tables within the code, SCL, a proprietary engineered wood product, does not have span tables or design values represented within the IRC. Instead, design values are furnished by manufacturers. Although manufacturers have created design software that is widely available, the only party authorized to provide an “engineered design” for structural elements is an engineer.

Accordingly, all residential construction documents submitted for permit that utilize SCL must be designed and sealed by a licensed Georgia professional engineer. In addition to identifying the type, size and manufacturer of the SLC, the engineer must provide other design-specific information.  A link to the interpretation with a complete list of requirements can be found here: 2007-IRC-002. The requirements apply to Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL), Parallel Strand Lumber (PSL), Laminated Strand Lumber (LSL), and Oriented Strand Lumber (OSL).

Unnecessary engineering can increase construction costs, but failing to obtain required engineering can result in costly delays. Understanding when engineering is required—and when it is not—is critical to the success of your project. FMG’s Construction Law practice group is here to help. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Cheryl H. Shaw at [email protected].

 

Federal Circuit Scorecard – Title VII & Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Posted on: October 13th, 2017

By: Michael M. Hill

A Georgia case is in the running to be the one the Supreme Court uses to resolve the question of whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex and certain other characteristics) also includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court is widely expected to take on this issue at some point, but no one knows exactly when or which case it will be.

In Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, 850 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2017), a former hospital security guard alleged she was harassed and otherwise discriminated against at work because of her homosexual orientation and gender non-conformity.  While the trial court dismissed her case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals partially reversed.  The Eleventh Circuit held that Evans should be given a chance to amend her gender non-conformity claim, but it affirmed dismissal of her sexual orientation claim.

The issue, in most federal circuits, is a distinction between (1) claims of discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes (e.g., for a woman being insufficiently feminine), which the Supreme Court has held is discrimination based on sex, and (2) claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which all but one federal circuit has held is not discrimination based on sex.

At present, this is how things stand now:

  • In the Seventh Circuit (which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), sexual orientation discrimination does violate Title VII.
  • In every other federal circuit, sexual orientation discrimination does not violate Title VII.
  • But no matter where you are, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) takes the position that sexual orientation discrimination does violate Title VII.

To make matters more confusing, the full court of the Second Circuit (which covers New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) is considering whether to affirm its past position that sexual orientation is not protected by Title VII or to join the Seventh Circuit. In that case, the EEOC of course is arguing that sexual orientation is a protected category, but the U.S. Department of Justice has filed an amicus brief to argue that sexual orientation is not protected.  In the words of the Department of Justice, “the EEOC is not speaking for the United States.”

The long and short of it is that, until the Supreme Court weighs in, employers need to be mindful of the federal law as interpreted in their circuit, while also understanding that the EEOC enforces its position nationwide whether or not the local federal circuit agrees with it.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Michael M. Hill at [email protected].

Court Holds that Eleven Claims are Subject to Single Limit

Posted on: October 13th, 2017

By: Joyce M. Mocek

Recently, the Eleventh Circuit, applying Florida law, held that eleven claims of bodily injury by separate patients all against a pharmacy and pharmacist for negligence in repackaging a drug for injections constituted “related claims” under the insurance policy(ies) at issue.  Amer. Cas. Co. of Reading, Pa. v. Belcher, No. 17-10848, 2017 WL 4276057 (11th Cir. Sept. 27, 2017)

In this case, a pharmacy and pharmacist allegedly repackaged drugs from larger vials into single dose syringes for injections into eyes of patients, but did not take the necessary steps to prevent contamination.  The syringes allegedly became contaminated, and eleven patients that were injected with the drugs suffered severe vision loss and/or blindness.   Both the pharmacist and pharmacy tendered the eleven claims to their professional liability carrier- which were separate errors and omissions policies issued by the same insurer, each policy with a $1 million per claim and $3 million aggregate limit of liability.

The insurers defended the claims presented against the pharmacy and pharmacist subject to a reservation of rights and asserted that the claims were “related claims,” subject to the $1 million per claim limit.  The trial court held that the claims were logically connected and thus “related claims.”   

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court, holding that the test to determine whether the claims were related was whether they were logically or causally connected by any common fact or circumstance.   In this case, the Court found that the claims were logically connected because a single technician supervised by the same pharmacist prepared each syringe using the same process at the same location, violating the same health and safety regulations.

If you would like to know more about this decision or other insurance coverage matters, please contact Joyce Mocek at [email protected]

 

FINRA Tightens Expungement Requirements

Posted on: October 12th, 2017

By: Brett C. Safford

On September 25, 2017, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued a “Notice to Arbitrators and Parties on Expanded Expungement Guidance” (hereafter, the “Notice”). The Notice continues the recent pattern of FINRA issuing rules and notices which further limit a broker’s ability to expunge his or her Central Registration Depository (CRD) record.

In 2015, FINRA launched an extensive advertising campaign for its BrokerCheck website. FINRA describes BrokerCheck as “a free tool to research the background and experience of financial brokers, advisers and firms.” However, as BrokerCheck becomes an increasingly utilized resource for customers and potential employers, the impact of a broker’s disclosures on his or her career becomes more significant. With the increased impact of a broker’s disclosures, the necessity of ensuring that those disclosures are accurate likewise increases. Consequently, expungement—a legal action which allows brokers to remove inaccurate disclosures—has taken on greater importance.

FINRA’s expungement procedures are governed by FINRA Rules 12805 and 13805. In the Notice, FINRA advises, “The procedures are intended to ensure that expungement occurs only when the arbitrators find and document one of the narrow grounds specified in Rule 2080.” The three “narrow” grounds specified in FINRA Rule 2080 are: (1) the claim, allegation or information is factually impossible or clearly erroneous; (2) the registered person was not involved in the alleged investment-related sales practice violation, forgery, theft, misappropriation or conversion of funds; or (3) the claim, allegation or information is false.”

By describing the grounds for expungement set forth in Rule 2080 as “narrow,” FINRA is signaling to its arbitrators that expungements are the exception, not the norm. The Notice further advises, “Expungement is an extraordinary remedy that should be recommended only under appropriate circumstances. Customer dispute information should be expunged only when it has no meaningful investor protection or regulatory value.” Yet, FINRA fails to define “appropriate circumstances” or how to assess “meaningful investor protection” or “regulatory value.” Arbitrators are also instructed to request a copy of the broker’s BrokerCheck report and to “carefully review the report when considering whether expungement is appropriate.” Arbitrators are to “pay particular attention to the ‘Disclosure Events’ section of the report.” The Notice, however, is unclear as to what arbitrators should take away from their review the BrokerCheck report. No guidance is offered as to what extent arbitrators should factor a broker’s prior disclosures into their analysis of the pending request for expungement.

The Notice also emphasizes that “[i]t is important to allow customers and their counsel to participate in the expungement hearing in settled cases if they wish to” and instructs arbitrators to allow the customer and their counsel to appear at the hearing; allow the customer to testify (in person, telephonically, or by other method); and allow the customer’s counsel or a pro se customer to introduce documents and evidence, cross-examine the broker and witnesses, and present opening and closing arguments at the hearing. In expungement only cases where an associated person files arbitration claims solely for the purpose of seeking expungement, the Notice advises arbitrators to “order the associated persons to provide a copy of their Statement of Claim to the customer(s) involved in the customer’s arbitration case that gave rise to the customer dispute information (underlying arbitration).”

Finally, the Notice states, “A broker may not file a request for expungement of customer dispute information arising from an underlying customer arbitration until the underlying customer arbitration has concluded.” When the broker is a named respondent in the underlying customer arbitration and he or she can present a defense, this rule prevents inconsistent rulings, i.e., the broker is found liable for claims in the underlying customer arbitration while obtaining expungement of that claims in the expungement-only arbitration, or vice versa. However, this rule also applies to brokers who are not named in the underlying customer arbitration. This means that before bringing an action to expunge a meritless disclosure from his or her CRD records, an unnamed, falsely-accused broker must sit on the sideline and await the resolution of an arbitration which he or she cannot present a defense. As such, a broker’s BrokerCheck report can include a false and erroneous disclosure for years before expungement is obtained—causing significant harm to the broker’s professional reputation.

In sum, the Notice continues the trend of FINRA toughening the requirements for expungement. Public protection against crooked brokers is essential and needed, but FINRA’s expungement guidance is increasingly creating a framework in which innocent brokers may struggle to obtain necessary and justified expungements.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brett Safford at [email protected].