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Employment & Labor Law Blog Legal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

Missouri Supreme Court: There Must be Sufficient Evidence at Trial to Support Each Alternative of a "Disjunctive" Jury Instruction

March 7, 2019 | Noemi Donovan

The Missouri Supreme Court's recent holding in Kader v. Bd. of Regents underscores the importance of ensuring that each alternative of a disjunctive verdict directing instruction is supported by sufficient evidence at trial. Because the Court found there was not substantial evidence to support each alternative of the circuit court's disjunctive instructions, the instructions were erroneous and prejudicial. As a result, it reversed the $2.5 million verdict in favor of plaintiff Kader, a former Harris-Stowe State University ("HSSU") professor, who filed claims of national origin discrimination and retaliation against HSSU under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

Kader, an Egyptian national, came to the United States in 1999 to pursue her graduate education. After working on the faculty at HSSU while completing her doctorate, she was promoted to assistant professor upon completion of her studies when she received her degree.  In a performance review several years later, Kader believed she received lower ratings because of her race, religion and national origin and filed a discrimination complaint with HSSU.  

Plaintiff worked at HSSU under a J-1 visa, which is a non-immigrant visa for individuals approved to participate in work and study based exchange visitor programs.   A J-1 visa requires an employer sponsor and the facility where she attended graduate school originally sponsored her visa from 2007 until 2010.  HSSU supplied information needed to maintain her visa while she was on the HSSU faculty and indicated it would assist her with obtaining a new visa when her J-1 expired.  Typically, exchange visitors on J-1 visas return to their home countries for at least two years when their visas expire and then apply for a new visa if they decide to return.  Kader did not want to return to Egypt so she filed for a waiver of the two year waiting period to obtain an H1-B visa and continue teaching at HSSU. 

While waiting to learn if she received a waiver of the two year waiting period, she applied for an O-1 extraordinary person visa as an alternate means to obtain work authorization.  She requested HSSU provide documentation to supplement her O-1 application, which HSSU supplied.  When Kader had not heard about whether her visa was granted, she contacted the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and learned it had requested additional information from HSSU, but had not received a response.  Two days before her J-1 visa expired, plaintiff contacted HSSU about her O-1 application and the request for additional information.  HSSU denied receiving the request.  The O-1 application was then denied and HSSU did not appeal the denial. 

Kader then did not receive the waiver she sought in conjunction with her H1-B visa request before her J-1 visa expired.  Because she no longer had J-1 status, she was required to leave the U.S. within 30 days unless she obtained another visa. HSSU notified her that her contract for the next academic school year would not be renewed because she lacked a valid visa.

Kader filed suit against HSSU, alleging race and national origin discrimination and retaliation under the MHRA. The jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor on retaliation and national origin discrimination for $750,000 in actual damages and $1.75 million in punitive damages. HSSU appealed, asserting that two disjunctive jury instructions were erroneous and prejudicial.  Specifically, HSSU argued that the instructions permitted the jury to find HSSU liable for conduct that is not actionable under the MHRA.

During trial, the court instructed the jury to rule in plaintiff's favor on her national origin discrimination claim if: (1) the jury found HSSU failed to do one or more of five listed acts, including HSSU did not appeal the denial of the O-1 visa petition; (2) plaintiff's national origin or discrimination complaints were a contributing factor to HSSU's failure to do any of those acts; and (3) such failure damaged plaintiff.

Similarly, the other disjunctive jury instruction at issue on the retaliation claim also instructed the jury that it must return a verdict for plaintiff if (1) plaintiff made complaints of discrimination; (2) HSSU failed to do any one of five acts, one of which was not appealing the denial of the O-1 visa petition; (3) plaintiff's complaints of discrimination were a contributing factor in defendant's failure to do one of the five acts; and (4) defendant's actions directly cause or contributed to plaintiff's damages. 

The Missouri Supreme Court emphasized that for disjunctive verdict directing instructions to be appropriate, each alternative must be supported by substantial evidence.  Such an instruction is prejudicial when substantial evidence does not support each disjunctive alternative because there is no way to determine which theory the jury chose.  Therefore, there must have been substantial evidence at trial that HSSU's failure to appeal the denial of plaintiff's O-1 visa application constituted an unlawful employment practice under the MHRA.  Because there was no evidence, the circuit court erred by including a disjunctive instruction that HSSU's failure to seek an appeal of the O-1 visa application in its disjunctive jury instructions.

The outcome in this case serves as an important reminder to defendants that if the plaintiff has failed to introduce sufficient evidence at trial of some element of claimed unlawful conduct, any disjunctive jury instruction proffered by the plaintiff that includes the unsupported claim should be challenged. 

Related Services: Employment & Labor

Attorneys: Noemi Donovan

Missouri Supreme Court Compels Arbitration, Finding Adequate Consideration for Arbitration Agreement with At-Will Employee

March 4, 2019 | Lisa Larkin

In Soars v. Easter Seals Midwest, 563 S.W.3d 111 (Mo. banc 2018), the Missouri Supreme Court ordered that at-will employee’s case be arbitrated and denied the employee’s challenge to the validity of the arbitration agreement as a whole.

As a condition of employment with Easter Seals Midwest (ESM), a charitable organization, each new, at-will employee is required to sign an arbitration agreement. The arbitration agreement provides that, as consideration for employment, the employee will submit all disputes and claims arising out of the employment to binding arbitration. In turn, ESM also agrees to submit all disputes and claims arising out of the employment to binding arbitration. The ESM arbitration agreement also included a delegation clause providing that the arbitrator and not any court had the exclusive authority to resolve any dispute relating to the interpretation, applicability, enforceability or formation of the arbitration agreement. 

Plaintiff Lewis Soars signed the arbitration agreement as a condition of his at-will employment with ESM, and three months later. ESM terminated his employment after he refused to participate in an internal investigation involving accusations against him of abuse or neglect of ESM’s clients. In response, he filed suit against ESM in circuit court for wrongful discharge and race discrimination. ESM filed a motion to compel arbitration. Plaintiff argued the arbitration agreement and delegation clause lacked consideration and mutuality and were unconscionable. The circuit court denied ESM’s Motion to Compel Arbitration, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed. It held that arbitration must be compelled if the parties signed an arbitration agreement that contains a valid delegation clause mandating that the arbitrator has “exclusive authority to decide threshold issues of interpretation, applicability, enforceability, or formation.” Whether or not the arbitration agreement as a whole is valid is for the arbitrator to determine so long as the delegation provision, standing alone, is valid. In this case, the Court found that in the delegation provision both parties mutually agreed to arbitrate all threshold questions of arbitrability. “Because neither ESM nor Soars retains any unilateral right to amend the delegation clause nor avoid its obligations, the delegation clause is bilateral in nature and consideration is present.”  

Significantly, and surprisingly, this is the Missouri Supreme Court’s first opinion holding that referral to an arbitrator should occur, notwithstanding a party’s challenge to the validity of the arbitration agreement as a whole. While the United States Supreme Court has made this same ruling numerous times over many decades, this was the Missouri Supreme Court’s first occasion to consider the issue.

Notably, the Court found that an initial offer of at-will employment was sufficient consideration for the contractual promise to arbitrate claims. This was a major point of disagreement for the dissenting justice, who would have concluded that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because at-will employment, which by its very nature is no employment contract at all, can provide no legal consideration for the arbitration agreement. According to the dissent, because a fundamental component of the at-will employment relationship is the ability for either party to terminate the relationship at any time, there was no valid contract to support the arbitration agreement or the delegation provision. 

Going forward, the majority’s decision should provide comfort to employers that, under Missouri law, their arbitration agreements with at-will new-hires are enforceable and may include provisions placing all claims and controversies into the hands, in the first instance, of the arbitrator, including all objections to the existence, interpretation, application, and enforceability of the arbitration agreement itself.

Related Services: Employment & Labor

Attorneys: Lisa Larkin

Courts favor the Federal Arbitration Act, but some workers are exempt.

January 18, 2019 | Bryan Mouber

In New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, petitioner New Prime Inc. was an interstate trucking company, and respondent Dominic Oliveira was one of its drivers. Oliveira worked under an operating agreement that called him an independent contractor and contained a mandatory arbitration provision. When Oliveira filed a class action alleging that New Prime denied its drivers lawful wages, New Prime asked the court to invoke its statutory authority under the Federal Arbitration Act to compel arbitration.

Oliveira countered that the court lacked authority, because §1 of the Act excepts from arbitration disputes involving “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers. New Prime insisted that any question regarding §1’s applicability belonged to the arbitrator alone to resolve, or, assuming the court could address the question, that “contracts of employment” referred only to contracts that establish an employer-employee relationship and not to contracts with independent contractors. The District Court and First Circuit agreed with Oliveira, and the Supreme Court affirmed, holding that a court should determine whether a §1 exclusion applies before ordering arbitration.

A court’s authority to compel arbitration under the Act does not extend to all private contracts, no matter how clearly the contract expresses a preference for arbitration. In relevant part, §1 states that “nothing” in the Act “shall apply” to “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

For a court to invoke its statutory authority under the Act to stay litigation and force arbitration, it must first know if the parties’ agreement is excluded from the Act’s coverage by the terms of §1. This sequencing is significant, because it means the court and not the arbitrator decides this issue, unlike other issues, which may be delegable to the arbitrator.

The issue for the Supreme Court thus became whether the Act’s term “contract of employment” referred to any agreement to perform work or applied strictly to contracts of employment. The Court held that Oliveira’s agreement with New Prime falls within §1’s exception.

The unanimous opinion relied on the Act’s original meaning for its decision.  Citing dictionaries, statutes, and rulings from the era, Justice Gorsuch concluded that “contract of employment” was understood to encompass “work agreements involving independent contractors.” At the time of the Act’s adoption in 1925, the phrase “contract of employment” was not a term of art, and dictionaries tended to treat “employment” more or less as a synonym for “work.” Contemporaneous legal authorities provide no evidence that a “contract of employment” necessarily signaled a formal employer-employee relationship. Evidence that Congress used the term “contracts of employment” broadly can be found in its choice of the neighboring term “workers,” a term that easily embraces independent contractors.

New Prime also made a policy argument that the Court should order arbitration to further Congress’ effort to counteract judicial hostility to arbitration and establish a favorable federal policy toward arbitration agreements. Justice Gorsuch stated that courts, however, are not free to pave over bumpy statutory texts in the name of more expeditiously advancing a policy goal. Rather, the Court should respect “the limits up to which Congress was prepared” to go when adopting the Arbitration Act.

Finally, the Court declined to address New Prime’s suggestion that it order arbitration anyway under its inherent authority to stay litigation in favor of an alternative dispute resolution mechanism of the parties’ choosing.

Justice Ginsburg, in a concurring opinion, explicitly agreed with the Court’s unanimous opinion that words should be interpreted as taking their ordinary meaning at the time Congress enacted the statute.  However, she also reasoned that Congress may design legislation to govern changing times and circumstances, perhaps foreshadowing future disputes between judicial philosophies.
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About Employment & Labor Law Blog

The BSCR Employment & Labor Law Blog examines topics and developments of interest to employers, Human Resources professionals, and others with an interest in recent legal developments concerning the workplace. This blog will focus on Missouri and Kansas law, and on major developments under federal law, and at the EEOC and NLRB.  Learn more about the editor, David M. Eisenberg, and our Employment & Labor  practice.

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