Monday, August 29, 2011

“May” I have another (lawsuit)? One word sinks employer’s efforts to force arbitration

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of arbitration of employment disputes. Conventional wisdom says that binding arbitration keeps down costs and speeds up resolutions. I’ve yet to be convinced. Many employers, though, continue to drink the arbitration Kool-Aid by requiring employees sign alternative dispute resolution agreements as part of their employment. Sherwin-Williams appears to be one of them. Its choice of one key word in its Problem Resolution Procedures, however, cost the paint company its chance to litigate an ex-employee’s age discrimination claim in its forum of choice.

The word at issue in Hyde v. Sherwin-Williams Co. (8/25/11) [pdf] is “may.” Sherwin-Williams’s Problem Resolution Procedures provide:

These procedures may be used by employees to challenge the unresolved differences regarding application of Company policies, procedures or practices which affect their employment situation. These procedures are intended to be an exclusive, final and binding method to resolve all covered claims to the fullest extent permitted by law. Failure to use these procedures may preclude employees from pursuing any other legal right they may have in court or in other forums.

An Ohio appellate court concluded that the use of the word “may” disposed of Sherwin-Williams’s attempt to force an ex-employee to litigate his age discrimination claim in court:

We find that Sherwin-Williams’ repeated representations that an employee’s failure to follow the PRP “may” preclude that employee from seeking redress in outside forums expressly contradicts appellants’ position that the procedures outlined in the PRP are the exclusive method for resolving employee disputes. By virtue of the language used … appellants implied that there would be circumstances where an employee would not be prevented from pursuing resolution of their legal claims in outside forums, i.e., that the PRP procedures are not mandatory, final, or binding.

What’s worse for Sherwin-Williams is that 8 years ago another panel of the same appellate court reached the same conclusion about the same language in a prior version of the same PRP.

What’s the takeaway from this case for employers? In drafting agreements and policies, words matter. If you mean “must,” say it. Don’t say “may” (especially when a court has already told you that “may” doesn’t pass muster).

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or