The California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA) held its 24th Annual Employment Law Conference on October 27-29, 2011 in Monterey, California at the Hyatt Regency Monterey. CELA is celebrating its 25th year Anniversary and its 24th Annual Conference.

There were over 250 attendees at this year’s conference. They have grown from a very small group of attorneys to over 1000 members. CELA is a volunteer driven organization that consists of 13 active committees which are extremely active in education, listserv, amicus briefs, diversity outreach, legislation, technology, and wage & hour. This organization is built on volunteering, collaboration, and networking. Through these committees, the members are actively involved in diversity outreach, scholarships, and fellowships.

Much of the focus of the conference was “The Year in Review” including the current status of recent legislation and decisions on employment related matters this past year. Cliff Palefsky, who is one of the leading employment and civil rights attorneys in the country, covered the Mandatory Arbitration update. Mariko Yoshihara and Steven Pingel, CELA’s Legislative Committee Chairs, covered the legislative update.

Mandatory Arbitration is a hot topic right given the Supreme Court decision which held that consumers do not have the right to sue a company they believe has wronged them. Instead, consumer must arbitrate a disputes pursuant to an existing mandatory arbitration clause. Many consumer or plaintiff attorneys will tell you this decision leans heavily in favor of businesses and employers. CELA hopes that the Arbitration Fairness Act Bill will remedy the present unbalance. The Arbitration Fairness Act — S. 987 — was introduced in May by Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) in the House. It would amend the Federal Arbitration Act to invalidate all arbitration clauses in consumer or employment contracts.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently convened to discuss this legislation. The overall consensus is that there is nothing wrong with the arbitration process itself. The problem is when the consumer has no input in choosing arbitration or trial in the first place. Additionally, most corporations utilize the same arbitration provider, and in many cases, the same arbitrator, over and over again. This means the employee’s individual claim is being decided by someone who makes hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, on a yearly basis from this employer. Clearly, the repeat player bias works to the employee’s disadvantage. The Arbitration Fairness Act would fix this problem by restoring consumer rights in the process and hopefully providing a level playing field.

Mr. Palefsky, who was involved in the initial draft of the Arbitration Fairness Act, does believe that the bill faces some challenges given the Republican controlled house. He believes the most effective resolution is to amend the Fair Arbitration Act back to its original intent: allowing parties with equal bargaining power in big business transaction to utilize arbitration while exempting parties who coerced into arbitration due to inequality of power. Employees have a right to a fair process which includes the right to choose alternative dispute resolution or a jury trial. Mr. Palefsky also added “Regardless, this issue is not going away no matter how many decisions are handed down. This is a significant consumer and civil rights issue, so it is a matter of time before it will have to be addressed.”

Eric Epstein is a CELA attorney who has practiced employment law for over 35 years and also serves as an arbitrator. He states that as an arbitrator, he has never had any concern or reliance on repeat business and feels most arbitrators are fair and reasonable. Mr. Epstein goes on “The big issue is the elimination of class actions suits because the employee as an individual Plaintiff on a class action claim is bound by the employment contract. How to get around the class action waiver is a much larger concern.” In addition, Mr. Epstein adds there are “many benefits to the arbitration process. The key is finding a way to be more transparent, while maintaining confidentiality, in the process.”

 

Several other bills coordinated by the Legislative Committee were vetoed this year because of a new democratic Governor and a conservative house; however, CELA still was responsible for many bills being signed into law which included several pro-worker bills. They also saved the Fair Employment and Housing Commission from elimination. In addition, they were successful in killing many bills that were deemed detrimental to workers.

Another bill referenced several times was the Bereavement Leave (AB325) which was also vetoed by Governor Brown. This bill would have provided job protection for a three day unpaid leave upon the death of a spouse, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, domestic partner or the child of a domestic partner. This bill was vetoed simply because the Governor felt it was not a problem and that the measure would have provided more of a right to sue than what is contained in related statutes.

On a personal note, this was a down to earth, passionate, friendly and inspiring group of people. The diverse group of people made the conference very informative and fun for this first time attendees. I hope to have the opportunity to join them again in the future. Congratulations to CELA in celebrating its 25th Year!

~Toni Jaramilla. As the new Chair of CELA, Jaramilla is very excited for the year ahead. She is honored to take this chair and is looking forward to being part of such a great organization. As a young lawyer, she initially became involved with CELA when she had an interesting sexual harassment case on appeal. CELA members, Anne Richardson and Joe Posner, assisted her with the amicus brief which was an incredible experience—“Ms. Richardson was a stranger to me but still helped me in so many ways and in the end we received an outstanding outcome on the case.”

 

Some of the other keynote speakers included head of the DFEH, Phyllis Cheng, and Assemblyman, Bill Monning (from the 27th District). CELA is an amazing organization that hosts this conference to provide its members with several forums for discussion, collaboration, networking, and community involvement. As Toni Jaramilla notes, “CELA conferences are not only a community building experience but also a huge inspiration in continuing to do the work necessary whether it be advocating for our clients, lobbying in San Francisco, or collaborating as a team with each other. CELA to me is full of integrity, generosity and collaboration.” In addition to focusing on committee updates and mentoring, the conference also celebrated the victories of its member over the course of the last year.

by Anne Sawyer

Having worked for a range of industries from Fortune 500 companies to sole practitioners, Anne Sawyer has over twenty years of paralegal and administrative experience in the legal field. Anne was the Law Firm Administrator and Senior Paralegal for Sawyer & Sawyer in Cypress, California, and also previously worked at Paul Hastings Janofsky Walker and Hilton Hotels Corporation as a senior paralegal and project manager.