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Supreme Court Rules on Union Waivers of Civil Rights Claims in Collective Bargaining Agreements

December 2, 1998

Most collective bargaining agreements contain grievance procedures which mandate that disputes be resolved through arbitration, and courts generally read such provisions expansively to require that virtually all workplace disputes be brought to arbitration rather than to court. In a recent decision, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employee covered by a collective bargaining agreement containing such an arbitration clause was not required to use the arbitration procedure to seek redress for an alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the "ADA"). In Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corporation, 1998 WL 788796 (November 16, 1998), the Court unanimously ruled that in order for a union to waive an employee's right to assert statutory discrimination claims in federal court, the provision in the collective bargaining agreement requiring arbitration of such claims must be "clear and unmistakable." A general arbitration clause, requiring arbitration of all "matters under dispute," did not meet this standard, and the employee was therefore free to pursue his ADA claim in court.

Caesar Wright, a longshoreman, worked under a collective bargaining agreement and a related agreement, the Longshore Seniority Plan, both of which contained an arbitration clause requiring employees to use arbitration procedures to settle all "matters under dispute" between the parties. In 1992 Wright was injured on the job, and he attempted to return to work in 1995 after settlement of his claim for permanent disability benefits. When the stevedoring companies discovered that Wright had previously settled a claim for disability benefits, they refused to employ him. Wright then brought suit in federal court, alleging that this refusal-to-hire violated the ADA. The U.S. District Court dismissed the case, however, because Wright failed to pursue his discrimination claim through the grievance and arbitration procedure provided by the collective bargaining agreement, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.

The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court held that a generally-worded arbitration provision of a collective bargaining agreement, such as the provision to which Wright was subject, cannot bar access to federal courts by employees seeking redress under the civil rights laws. The Court stated that it "will not infer from a general contractual provision that the parties intended to waive a statutorily protected right unless the undertaking is explicitly stated'." In other words, an employee cannot be required to submit his or her discrimination claim to arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement where the agreement does not "clearly and unmistakably" require resort to arbitration with respect to such claims. In Wright's case, the arbitration clause required that "matters under dispute" be arbitrated, which could be interpreted to mean only matters in dispute under the contract. Because the agreement did not contain an anti-discrimination provision, Wright's discrimination claim arguably did not arise under the collective bargaining agreement, and the Court therefore concluded that the arbitration provision did not constitute a clear waiver of the right to assert that claim in court.

In view of its finding that the particular arbitration clause at issue did not contain a clear and unmistakable waiver, the Supreme Court was careful to state that it was unnecessary to rule on the question of validity of a provision in a collective bargaining agreement explicitly requiring arbitration of statutory discrimination claims.

Most employers are of the view that it is advantageous to defend a discrimination claim before an arbitrator, rather than in a jury trial in court. Accordingly, in order to increase the possibility of requiring employees to pursue statutory discrimination claims in arbitration, unionized employers should consider seeking to include specific language requiring arbitration of such claims in the arbitration provisions of their collective bargaining agreements.