Seyfarth Synopsis: California courts are often hostile towards defendants that seek to require litigious employees to honor their arbitration agreements. The defendant’s plight might seem more stark still if the defendant has not itself signed the agreement. But defendant employers still have means of enforcing such agreements, which can be especially significant in class actions claiming joint employment.

Despite the strong federal policy favoring arbitration, it is no secret that enforcing arbitration agreements in California can be tough. The task is tougher yet for the defendant that finds itself being sued by someone with whom the defendant has never had a contractual relationship, although she has signed an employment arbitration agreement with a co-defendant. This is because, under the general rule, one must be a party to an arbitration agreement in order to invoke it.

With recent waves of litigation seeking to expand the scope of joint employment, the issue of enforcing arbitration agreements on behalf of nonsignatories has become increasingly important. One typical situation involves a staffing company being sued by an employee who, looking for a deeper pocket, also sues the staffing company’s client. In another typical situation, a franchisee’s employee sues both the franchisee and the franchisor. Suppose, in both situations, the employer and the employee have agreed to arbitrate any claims between them. But in both situations, the upstream defendant (in our situations, the client or the franchisor) has never had a chance to negotiate an arbitration agreement with the plaintiff, as the plaintiff and the upstream defendant have never had any contractual relationship at all. In those cases, the upstream defendant experiences the worst of both worlds: it is being sued as the plaintiff’s “employer” and yet, not really being the plaintiff’s employer, the upstream defendant has never had the chance to implement an arbitration agreement with the plaintiff.

As it turns out, there is hope for enforcing the arbitration agreement on behalf of the upstream defendant in these situations, even though it never signed the agreement. There are three exceptions to the nonsignatory rule. Application of the first two can depend on how the claim is pleaded. Application of the third is relatively sure, if the upstream defendant plans properly to assure itself that the arbitration agreement in place is adequate. We discuss each of the three exceptions below.

Agency

Nonsignatories may enforce an arbitration agreement under an agency theory. If the plaintiff claims that a defendant acted as the agent of a party to an arbitration agreement, then the non-party defendant may enforce the agreement. This claim often arises where the plaintiff alleges that the non-signatory defendant was a joint employer. Earlier this year, a California appellate case upheld the enforcement of an arbitration agreement under this very theory. Employers seeking to avail themselves of this theory should carefully evaluate the allegations in the complaint against them. If they meet these standards, then asserting an agency theory may be a successful way to enforce the agreement.

Equitable Estoppel

A lesser known exception available to nonsignatories seeking to enforce an arbitration agreement is equitable estoppel: a nonsignatory defendant can compel the signatory plaintiff into arbitration when the claims against the nonsignatory are “intimately founded and inextricably intertwined” with the underlying contract obligations. Equitable estoppel applies when the claims are based on the same facts and inherently inseparable from the arbitrable claims against the signatory defendant. A California court recently acknowledged this theory in the employment context, particularly because the plaintiff made no effort to distinguish between his claims against his employer (the signatory) and the non-signatory defendant.

Again, when considering raising this argument, it is important to carefully analyze the allegations in the complaint. Should they be the same against all defendants, equitable estoppel may be an option for enforcing the agreement.

Third Party Beneficiary

While the first two ways for a nonsignatory to enforce an arbitration agreement may depend on how the plaintiff pleads the case, a more certain basis for enforcement exists where the language of the arbitration agreement clearly expresses an intent to allow nonsignatories to enforce it. The intent to thus benefit a third party can appear even if the agreement does not specifically identify the third party by name. It would be enough if the third party belongs to the class of clearly identified beneficiaries.

The third-party beneficiary exception places a premium on the adequacy of the arbitration agreement’s language. The employer that signed the agreement—the staffing agency, for example, or the franchisee—will have every incentive, as a good corporate citizen, to see that its arbitration agreement benefits not just itself but also potential upstream defendants, such as the staffing agency’s client or the franchisee’s franchisor. And the potential upstream defendant, of course, will be more inclined to deal with a potential joint employer if that employer has in place an adequate arbitration agreement that properly addresses issues of enforcement and that provides, where appropriate, for waiver of class or collective or representative arbitration.

Navigating issues enforcing arbitration agreements in California can be complicated.