Second District Orders Published Serpa v. California Surety Investigations, Inc.

Old crest of the club.

Old crest of the club. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the Second District ordered published Serpa v. California Surety Investigations, Inc., et al., No. B237363, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (filed Mar. 21, 2013, modified Apr. 19, 2013).  At the trial court level, the court denied defendants’  motion to compel arbitration, finding the agreement to arbitrate lacked mutuality.  Defendants argued that the requisite mutuality was provided by the bilateral arbitration provisions in the employee handbook, incorporated by reference into the arbitration agreement.  The trial court rejected this argument because defendant could change the handbook at its sole discretion and without notice.  The Second District reversed.

The motion to compel arbitration was based on three documents: (1) “Acknowledgment of Receipt of Arbitration and Agreement to Arbitrate”; (2) “Acknowledgment of Receipt of Employee Handbook”; and (3) a copy of the employee handbook.  Plaintiff contended the agreement to arbitrate is one-sided because it requires her to submit claims against her employer to arbitration but does not require her employer to arbitrate its claims against her: “I understand and agree that if my employment is terminated or my employment status is otherwise changed or any other dispute arises concerning my employment . . . , I will submit any such dispute exclusively to binding arbitration.”

The Court of Appeal agreed that if “that the full extent of the agreement, we would likely agree it lacked mutuality because it requires Serpa to submit to arbitration ‘any such disputes’ involving her employment without imposing a similar obligation on CSI.”

However, because the agreement incorporated the arbitration policy in the employee handbook, the Court concluded that this “salvages the agreement by establishing an unmistakable mutual obligation on the part of CSI and Serpa to arbitrate ‘any dispute’ arising out of her employment.”  Plaintiff argued that the while the arbitration policy in the handbook establishes a bilateral obligation to arbitrate, she insisted that the mutual obligation is illusory because, the employer is authorized to alter the terms of any policy contained in the handbook at its sole discretion and without notice.  The Court disagreed, reasoning that the right to alter the terms was limited by the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implied in every contract.

The implied covenant of good faith prevents one contracting party from “unfairly frustrating the other party‟s right to receive the benefits of the agreement actually made.” (Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 349; accord, American Express Bank, FSB v. Kayatta (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 563, 570.) Thus, it has long been the rule that a provision in an agreement permitting one party to modify contract terms does not, standing alone, render a contract illusory because the party with that authority may not change the agreement in such a manner as to frustrate the purpose of the contract. (See Perdue v. Crocker National Bank (1985) 38 Cal.3d 913, 923 [“„where a contract confers on one party a discretionary power affecting the rights of the other, a duty is imposed to exercise that discretion in good faith and in accordance with fair dealing‟”]; see generally Asmus v. Pacific Bell (2000) 23 Cal.4th 1, 16 [employer‟s right to unilaterally modify employment agreement does not make agreement illusory]; Badie v. Bank of America (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 779, 787-788 [contracting party with unilateral right to modify contract does not have “carte blanche to make any kind of change whatsoever”; unilateral right to modify, when limited by the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requires the party holding the power to affect the other party‟s rights to exercise it in a manner consistent with the reasonable contemplation of the parties at the time of the contract].) Application of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is no different in the arbitration context. In 24 Hour Fitness, Inc. v. Superior Court (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 1199 (24 Hour Fitness), a former employee brought an action against the company, doing business as 24 Hour Nautilus, for sexual harassment and related torts. The employer moved to compel arbitration based on an arbitration policy in its employee handbook, which also contained a provision allowing the company to amend the handbook at its sole discretion. The 24 Hour Fitness court rejected the plaintiff‟s contention the unilateral right-to-amend provision made the arbitration agreement illusory and thus unconscionable. Observing the parties to an arbitration agreement, like any contract, are bound by the contract‟s implied covenant of good faith, the court explained, “Nautilus‟s discretionary power to modify the terms of the personnel handbook on [written] notice indisputably carries with it the duty to exercise that right fairly and in good faith. [Citation.] So construed, the modification provision does not render the contract illusory.” (Id. at p. 1214.)

Judges & Attorneys

Presiding Justice Perluss delivered the opinion for the court, with Associate Justices Woods and Jackson concurring.

Appeal from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Judge Ruth Ann Kwan.

Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton, Fred M. Plevin, Jeffrey P. Ames and Matthew R. Jedreski for Defendants and Appellants, California Surety Investigations, Inc., Two Jinn, Inc., Aladdin Bail Bonds and Peter Holdsworth.

Stevens, Carlberg & McMillan and Daniel P. Stevens for Plaintiff and Respondent Valerie Serpa.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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