WASHINGTON D.C. -- January 18, 2002 -- The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may step in to protect the rights of a disabled worker even though he has previously agreed to arbitration of workplace disputes, according to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling (EEOC v. Waffle House, 99-1823). Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the EEOC can seek remedies for individuals such as back pay, reinstatement, and damages.
Eric Baker had signed a workplace arbitration agreement as a condition of his employment as a minimum-wage grill cook at a Waffle House restaurant. Sixteen days later he suffered a seizure at work and was fired. Mr. Baker filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, but Waffle House claimed that he was required to enter into binding arbitration.
The Supreme Court concluded that the existence of an arbitration agreement between Mr. Baker and his employer did not prohibit the EEOC from pursuing Mr. Baker's claim. The agency may sue on behalf of individual workers in such cases; it is not restricted to litigating broad discrimination issues.
The Waffle House decision represents a victory for employees, who have often been forced to accept arbitration and give up their rights to sue in court. Arbitration can be expensive, requiring hundreds or thousands of dollars in filing and hearing fees. Also, arbitrators may have a pro-business bias because they constantly deal with major companies but have little relationship with the average worker.
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) filed a friend of the court (amicus brief) in Waffle House urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the EEOC. The law firm of Brayton Purcell supports the principles espoused by TLPJ in this case. Alan Brayton, the founding and senior partner of the firm, sits on TLPJ's Board of Governors and Executive Committee.