Arbitration in employment cases is still new. It is also private. So, researchers have not had access to arbitration decisions or awards. But, a statute passed in California requires the arbitrators to make public their decisions. One Cornell researcher obtained those public awards and found some remarkable trends. The largest provider of arbitration services is the American Arbitration Association. AAA is also the only provider that provides protocols designed to protect employees from the worst sort of arbitration abuses. The report includes some 3900 AAA arbitration awards or decisions over a four year time period. I previously wrote about this study here. But, I want to mention some additional details.
Alexander Colvin found a “repeat player” effect. That is, repeat participants, employers with more than one claim filed against them, receive better results. Repeat players would also include repeat law firms. The unique aspect of employment arbitration is that the employee will almost always have only one arbitration in his/her life. Whereas, the employer may have multiple arbitration matters. The fear is that some arbitrators will curry favor to some degree with the employer in the hopes of securing additional arbitral matters. Most arbitrators are lawyers who have financial incentive to do more, not less, arbitrations. The more arbitrations they do, the more they get paid. Mr. Colvin found that in the “one-shot” employer situation, the employee would win 31.6% of the time. While, in the repeat employer situation, the employee win rate drops to 16.9% of the time. Regarding damages, when the employee did win in a one-shot employer situation, the mean damage award was $40,546. But, in the repeat employer situation, the mean damage award was only $16,134. So, workers have a better chance with the one-time employer, but even then their success rate is lower than in a traditional court.
Out of the 3900 cases, repeat employers included 62% of filings. There might have been more, but the four year window necessarily would have excluded some prior filings.
Compare the above win rates to other forums. Overall, the employee “wins” 21.4% in AAA arbitrations. In California federal court, the employee wins 36.4% of the time. In California state court, the employee wins 59% of the time. Yet, in securities arbitration, which has a much longer history than general employment arbitration, securities industry employees win arbitral hearings some 40-50%. Mr. Colvin does not attempt to explain why employment arbitration employees fare much worse than security dealers. He invites future researchers to answer that question.
Looking at a slightly different problem, what happens when the repeat employer uses the same arbitrator? Does that even make a difference? Mr. Colvin found some 15.9% of the cases included what he describes as “repeat pairings” – that is, the same employer with the same arbitrator. When cases did not involve a repeat pairing, the employee win rate was 18.6%. But, when you had a repeat pairing, the same arbitrator with the same employer, then the employee win rate slid down to 12%. The average damage award for non-repeat pairings was $27,039. But, when the same employer was paired with the same arbitrator, the average damage award was $7,451. So, when the employer has actually worked with the same arbitrator in the past, and the employer is not simply another employer who has done arbitration in the past, the success rate of the employee drops to 12%.
What is a “win”? Mr. Colvin defines a win as any positive finding in favor of the employee, no matter how small the award might be. He seeks the broadest measure of arbitral success as possible. Mr. Colvin suggests in his article that arbitration claims would have lower value than traditional court litigation claims. He is surely correct about that. See the article, An Empirical Study of Employment Arbitration: Case Outcome and Process, here.
Mr. Colvin noted significant differences in AAA arbitrations from individual arbitration agreements. AAA arbitrations are different because AAA requires any employer promulgated arbitration agreement to follow certain procedures. Those procedures ensure the employee pays only a modest fee for the the service. But, AAA arbitration matters that develop out of individual employment agreements see better results for the employee. But, as the researcher notes, individuals with his/her own arbitration agreement typically are higher ranking, are paid more and have much greater resources that the employer promulgated arbitration agreements. According to the data, some 82% of arbitration claimants were paid less than $100,000. So, the AAA arbitration results studied by Mr. Colvin represent by far the more typical experience for American workers.
This study is a stark reminder that employment arbitration is designed for employer success, not employee. The employer who has multiple claims will always come out ahead in this system. Civil-rights receive less protection in the arbitration context.