A federal judge has ruled that a sexual harassment dispute between an assembly line worker and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer must be resolved through arbitration.
U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted Pfizer’s motion to compel arbitration in plaintiff Jenna Keller’s lawsuit.
The issue centered on whether the parties were bound to a valid arbitration agreement, an area of legal subject matter that Rambo noted has been increasingly disputed.
“The enforceability of arbitration clauses and their scope have been among the most frequently litigated issues before the Supreme Court in recent years, particularly in the context of employment disputes,” Rambo said.
In Keller’s case, Pfizer argued that Keller purposefully agreed to arbitration when she was hired and by completing the mandatory arbitration training electronically and acknowledging the arbitration agreement it contained.
Keller argued that she should not be bound by the arbitration agreement because she doesn’t recall entering into the agreement, did not sign a paper version of the agreement and is not familiar with the concept of arbitration.
“Plaintiff’s argument that she should not be bound by the arbitration agreement simply because she did not sign a physical paper contract is as archaic today as the notion that James Joyce is unlawfully obscene,” Rambo said referring to the 1934 U.S. Supreme Court case over the novel “Ulysses.”
“In the specific context of assent to arbitration clauses, courts have found such intent where a plaintiff agreed in a digital format that did not require a signature, electronic or otherwise,” Rambo said, adding, “Moreover, courts have unwaveringly held that continued job performance is a valid method of accepting an agreement to arbitrate in lieu of a signature.”
Additionally, Rambo said employees agree to changes in employment conditions by way of continuing to work at a given company. Having determined that, the analysis turned on whether Keller was given sufficient notice.
“Plaintiff does not deny that she received the relevant agreements or did not agree to them; instead, she merely states that she is not familiar with them and cannot recall their specific contents,” Rambo said. “If plaintiff’s logic were sufficient to defeat evidence of a contractual agreement, any party could escape enforcement simply by stating that they forgot the terms of a contract or could not recall signing the document. Defendant has offered tangible evidence that shows that plaintiff received, read, and affirmatively agreed to the company’s standard arbitration agreement, and plaintiff has offered no evidence that would invalidate or contradict defendant’s evidence.”
Graham Baird of the Law Offices of Eric A. Shore represents Keller.
“It’s our position that at the time she became employed by Pfizer, Ms. Keller did what almost all employees do when they’re onboarded for a new job, which is skim and sign everything that the employer presents. Employees never foresee at the beginning of their employment that they’ll be discriminated against or harassed,” Baird said in an email.
“Ms. Keller had no understanding of what arbitration is or what it means, until Pfizer moved to dismiss her case and compel arbitration several months ago,” he continued. “She didn’t understand what she was signing, much less intend to arbitrate any potential disputes. The court saw it differently, and we respect Judge Rambo’s opinion and order and we’ll abide by it. Generally, the Federal Arbitration Act is a pretty terrible statute, and I’d say it’s unconstitutional, but there seems to be no impetus or grassroots movement to change it and savvy employers (including Pfizer) take advantage of it.”
Pfizer declined to comment.