Jury Waivers: A Viable Alternative to Arbitration Agreements

November 4, 2011

By James J. Rooney

Over the past couple of decades, there has been much debate over whether arbitration agreements can be used to prevent employees from asserting discrimination and other employment-related claims in court. Lost in this debate, however, is a simpler and perhaps more reliable means of managing an employer’s risk: a jury waiver. A jury waiver is nothing more than a contractual provision in which an employee waives his or her right to a trial by jury in a legal proceeding brought against his or her employer. Such a provision is most commonly found in an employment agreement that is entered into when an employee is hired, but the agreement can be entered into at other times, such as when the employee obtains a raise or promotion.

Many employers assume that a jury waiver cannot be enforceable. We are, after all, trained from an early age to believe that we have a constitutional right to a trial by jury. In large part, that belief is accurate. The right to a jury trial is embodied in both the United States and New York Constitutions. And yet, the case law is generally clear that a jury waiver, if properly written and entered into, can have the effect of surrendering an employee’s right to a jury trial. 

The more pressing question, then, is not whether a jury waiver is valid, but whether employers should take advantage of this opportunity. Similarly, is a jury waiver preferable to arbitration? Both jury waivers and arbitration agreements help avoid the danger and unpredictability of a jury trial, but there are some distinct advantages to jury waivers. Maybe the most obvious advantage is that, by keeping the process in the judicial system, a jury waiver allows the employer to exercise all of its formal, procedural rights, including the right to conduct discovery; the right to file a motion asking for the dismissal of the case; and the right to pursue a meaningful appeal. Anyone who has been through litigation knows that these tools can be powerful weapons for a defendant.

Detractors of jury waivers may respond by arguing that arbitration is cheaper and less time-consuming. In many instances, they are correct. However, most lawyers would agree that arbitration has become more protracted and expensive in recent years. Although it may still be a cheaper alternative to judicial litigation, that advantage is not as clear-cut as it was in the past. This is in no small part due to the fact that arbitration agreements are often challenged in court. In fact, the litigation over the enforceability of an arbitration agreement can be so costly and time-consuming that it often defeats the purpose of arbitration altogether.

Regardless, those employers who are considering the use of jury waivers must be aware of the best manner in which to frame such a waiver in order to enhance its chances of being held enforceable. The courts have made it clear that a jury waiver must be “knowing and voluntary” in order to be enforceable. As such, a waiver is more likely to withstand challenge if it contains specific references to the statutes for which a jury demand is being waived (e.g., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, etc.). On the other hand, if the waiver is buried in a lengthy, complex contract or is being forced upon an unsophisticated employee who is unlikely to appreciate the waiver’s implications, a court will be less inclined to find that the waiver is truly “knowing and voluntary.” An employer should therefore ensure that the agreement is carefully drafted to make clear the nature and scope of the jury waiver.

Ultimately, although often ignored as a possibility, jury waivers are a viable option for many employers. The state and federal courts have upheld their validity. Accordingly, despite all of the attention given to arbitration agreements, many employers would be well-advised to carefully consider the advantages of a jury waiver instead.

Should Unionized Employers Consider Mandatory Arbitration of Discrimination Claims Under Their Labor Agreements?

August 13, 2009

By Subhash Viswanathan

 Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court  held that a provision in a collective bargaining agreement that requires workers to grieve and arbitrate claims based on anti-discrimination statutes, and thereby waive their rights to sue such claims in court, is enforceable, if it clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate such claims. 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett.  Critical to the court's holding was the fact that the arbitration clause before it explicitly covered statutory discrimination claims and required the arbitrator to apply the relevant statutory and case law in resolving such claims

The Court's decision creates an opportunity for unionized employers to evaluate whether mandatory arbitration of discriminating claims is a prudent strategy given the conditions facing their businesses.  This is not a simple analysis.  It requires evaluation of the potential cost and time savings from arbitration, the advantages and disadvantages of having an arbitrator as opposed to a jury decide the case, and the vastly different standards of review on appeal from the two types of decisions. 


If an employer decides that it is more advantageous to use a system of mandatory arbitration, it is likely that the employer will have to negotiate changes to the arbitration clause in its current collective bargaining agreement.  Many labor agreements have routine non-discrimination clauses and provide for arbitration of all disputes arising under the agreement.  Such clauses are not likely to satisfy the Supreme Court's clear and unmistakable standard for mandatory arbitration of discrimination claims.   The agreement in 14 Penn Plaza which was sufficient: prohibited discrimination under specifically named statutes; explicitly stated that the grievance and arbitration process was the sole and exclusive method for resolving such claims; and authorized and directed the arbitrator to apply statutory law in resolving discrimination claims.

Obtaining union agreement to such a clause is likely to be more difficult going forward.  Prior to the 14 Penn Plaza decision, unions risked very little in agreeing to such clauses because federal courts had interpreted a much earlier Supreme Court decision, Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., as making such clauses ineffective as waivers of the rights of individual union members.  Now unions will face substantial burdens if they agree to clear and unmistakable provisions.  Unions are not likely to have at their disposal much experience or expertise in the area of litigating statutory discrimination claims.  Even if they have that expertise, they may be unwilling to incur the substantial risk of and expense associated with defending breach of the duty of fair representation claims which could be brought by union members who are dissatisfied with the way the union handled their discrimination claims.

Before attempting to negotiate a clear and unmistakable mandatory arbitration provision, employers should also consider that the 14 Penn Plaza decision faces a potential challenge in Congress where the Arbitration Fairness Act is pending.  That bill would prohibit enforcement of pre-dispute agreements that mandate arbitration of statutory employment claims, including discrimination claims under the civil rights law.  While the House version of the bill exempts collective bargaining agreements, the more recent Senate version would apply to them as well and would overrule 14 Penn Plaza.