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A Pennsylvania appeals court panel has ruled that an employee isn’t bound by the arbitration provision in the company employee handbook because she never received one — despite her signed acknowledgment form stating the contrary. The Superior Court affirmed the denial of the employer’s petition to compel arbitration and stay the judicial proceedings in Quiles v. Financial Exchange Co., a case out of Lehigh County, Pa. The three-judge panel concluded that the company’s policy to arbitrate any workplace disputes was never fully communicated to Luz C. Quiles, who was hired as a part-time teller at a Money Mart store in Allentown, Pa., in June 2001. “Here, Quiles could not validly agree to arbitrate her claims without first having been given a copy of the handbook, the only document that detailed and explained [the dispute resolution program] and the company’s proposed arbitration process,” Judge Richard B. Klein wrote. “Without her acceptance, there was no contract formed between the parties and, thus, no grounds to compel arbitration of the present claims.” Senior Judge Frank J. Montemuro Jr. joined Klein’s opinion, but Judge Joan Orie Melvin concurred in the decision’s result only. Klein noted that the agreement to arbitrate was further invalidated by the “forceful behavior” surrounding Quiles’ signing of the form, as well as her limited education and knowledge of English. Quiles, who is from Puerto Rico, had difficulty with the English language, never completed high school and was unfamiliar with the term “arbitration,” according to the opinion. Klein acknowledged that Pennsylvania’s statutory arbitration act says written agreements to arbitrate disputes are valid and enforceable “save upon such grounds as exist at law or equity relating to the validity, enforceability or revocation of any contract.” However, Klein said, these agreements are upheld only where it’s clear the parties agreed “in a clear and unmistakable manner” to arbitrate. And Lehigh County Common Pleas Judge Alan M. Black found last year that Quiles had signed the acknowledgment form “under pressure” from her supervisor, store manager Catalina Delgado, according to the opinion. Quiles testified at a hearing before Black that Delgado told her to “just ‘f’ sign that because I’m going to get in trouble.” Klein said Black’s finding, coupled with the fact that Quiles didn’t have a lawyer or have a chance to consult one before signing, compelled him to properly determine the parties had not agreed to arbitrate in a “clear and unmistakable manner.” Counsel for Quiles, William P. Coffin of Coffin Durnin & Associates in Easton, Pa., did not return a call for comment. A lawyer for Dollar Financial Group, Stephen G. Harvey of Pepper Hamilton, said he was too busy to comment on the ruling Friday. Money Mart is a retail chain of stores providing money-lending services and owned by Dollar Financial Group Inc. According to the opinion, the company’s handbook stated that all employees hired after June 1995 agreed to be bound by the terms of the company’s internal dispute procedure. Quiles admitted signing the acknowledgment form, which said she had received and read the company handbook, but argues that she never received a handbook. The acknowledgment form itself did not include any details about the company’s arbitration process, mentioning only that the company had “provisions” relating to it, according to the opinion. Quiles has sued Dollar Financial Group Inc. for defamation, claiming it falsely accused her of stealing money and she was fired for this reason, according to the opinion. She testified that she had requested a handbook from her district manager but was never given one, according to the opinion. At the hearing before Black last year, Quiles and two other former Dollar employees, all overseen by Delgado, testified that they hadn’t received the handbook. One employee said he never signed the acknowledgment form. Black found the employees’ testimony credible but not Delgado’s, according to the opinion. Klein quoted two excerpts of the testimony, including this one directed at Quiles: “A: She (Delgado) just came to the front [of the store] and told me — made a copy and told me you need to sign this. And I say, ‘Why’s that?’ And she said, ‘It’s the paper for the handbook.’ I said, ‘Where’s the handbook?’ And she just said, ‘just “f” sign that because I’m going to get in trouble.’ She was very verbally telling things.” “Q: And again, did you ever receive a copy of the handbook?” “A: No, I never received it. Nope. Never.” “Q: Did anybody ever tell you anything about arbitration?” “A: Never heard the word until you told me.” Klein said Quiles was distinguishable from cases cited by Dollar Financial Group’s lawyers holding that a party’s failure to read a contract would not justify nullification or avoidance of the agreement. “Here, without a copy of the handbook, Quiles was not even given the opportunity to read the terms of the arbitration agreement; there was no arbitration clause in the acknowledgement form signed by Quiles and nothing in the form indicated that she would be waiving her right to a judicial forum,” Klein concluded. According to a footnote by the judge, the parties agreed that the defendant’s correct name is Dollar Financial Group Inc., and the use of “Financial Exchange Co.” in the complaint (and, thus, the case’s caption) was incorrect.

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