New U.S. Supreme Court Opinion May Signal End of California Courts' Arbitration Jurisprudence

In West Virginia, the state Supreme Court held that, as a matter of "public policy," pre-dispute arbitration agreements covering claims for personal injury arising from nursing home patronage are void.  In a terse, unsigned opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state high court.
West Virginia's prohibition against predispute agreements to arbitrate personal-injury or wrongful-death claims against nursing homes is a cate- gorical rule prohibiting arbitration of a particular type of claim, and that rule is contrary to the terms and coverage of the FAA.

The West Virginia Supreme Court alternatively held that the arbitration agreement at issue was "unconscionable,"  a state law defense that is a valid exception to the Federal Arbitration Act. 
The U.S. Supreme Court also vacated that alternative holding:

in its discussion of the alternative holding, the state court found the arbitration clauses unconscionable in part because a predispute arbitration agreement that applies to claims of personal injury or wrongful death against nursing homes "clearly violates public policy." Id., at 91a.

On remand, the West Virginia court must consider whether, absent that general public policy, the arbitration clauses in Brown's case and Taylor's case are unenforce-able under state common law principles that are not specific to arbitration and pre-empted by the FAA
Here's why you may care - In California, the Supreme Court and the courts of appeal have fashioned special rules for enforcing arbitration of certain kinds of employment claims (arising from statute or public policy).  Rather than banning agreements to arbitrate outright (as in the West Virginia case), the California courts have come up with a gauntlet of impediments, making it easy to hold arbitration agreements "unconscionable" based on criteria that would not apply to any other kind of contract.  Thus, the California courts apply different rules to agreements to arbitrate certain kinds of claims, but not others. 

Given the Supreme Court's recent case law, these state law rules may not be long for this world. Of course, Congress could amend the Federal Arbitration Act or the Supreme Court's membership might change, in which case all bets are off.

This case is Marmet Healthcare Center v. Brown and the opinion is here.

US DOL Proposing New FMLA Regulations

The U.S. Department of Labor has issued a notice of proposed regulations regarding a couple of FMLA issues.  The draft regulations implement recent modifications to the FMLA contained in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.

There will be changes to military servicemember leave. There also will be new rules for certain airline employees, who would otherwise be ineligible for leave.  According to the DOL, the proposed
regulations cover the following:
  • the extension of military caregiver leave to eligible family members of recent veterans with a serious injury or illness incurred in the line of duty;
  • a flexible, three-part definition for serious injury or illness of a veteran;
  • the extension of military caregiver leave to cover serious injuries or illnesses for both current servicemembers and veterans that result from the aggravation during military service of a preexisting condition;
  • the extension of qualifying exigency leave to eligible employees with covered family members serving in the Regular Armed Forces;
  • inclusion of a foreign deployment requirement for qualifying exigency leave for the deployment of all servicemembers (National Guard, Reserves, Regular Armed Forces);
  • the addition of a special hours of service eligibility requirement for airline flight crew employees; and
  • the addition of specific provisions for calculating the amount of FMLA leave used by airline flight crew employees.
The DOL has created a web page containing links to the proposal, fact sheets, and more here.

Employers may comment on the draft regulations before April 16, 2012.  For details on how to comment, see the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here.  Instructions regarding comments are at the beginning of this document.


New "Hiring Goal" for Federal Contractors

The OFCCP, the arm of the US Department of Labor, handles affirmative action obligations for federal contractors. For employers subject to OFCCP jurisdiction - The agency has proposed new regulations that would establish a "goal" for employers to employ individuals with disabilities.  The goal is 7%.  You can find the proposed rule and other information from the DOL here.