Every business with employees should have an employee handbook. An employee handbook is essential because it helps employees to understand what their rights are, what the company’s human resource processes and policies are, standardizes company policies and reduces human resource’s time resolving issues. Handbooks and policies are also often required if an employer wants to take advantage of certain defenses or protections. One very common provision in an employee handbook is a statement advising the employee that nothing contained in the handbook creates a contract between the parties, and the handbook does not alter the “at will” nature of the employment. Recently in Bradley v. Wolf Retail Solutions I, Inc., the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that because a company’s handbook disclaimed all contract rights, the company could not require its employees to arbitrate their claims, despite the fact that the handbook provided that employees’ claims were to be arbitrated.
In Bradley, the plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the employer did not pay overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Illinois Minimum Wage Law. The handbook contained a dispute resolution provision stating that the employee agreed to mediate any dispute with the company and if not successful, the company and employee agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration. The plaintiff received a digital version of the handbook and signed it by clicking a box next the statement: “I have read, understood and accept the terms and conditions stated in this handbook.” The company filed a motion to compel the plaintiff to arbitrate her claims. The court refused to compel arbitration.
In denying the company’s motion to compel, the court stated that because arbitration is a matter of contract, i.e., the parties must first agree to arbitrate in order to be required to go to arbitration, and a party cannot be compelled to arbitrate a dispute when there’s no valid contract to do so. It was, therefore, incumbent upon the employer to prove the existence of a valid contract to arbitrate. The employer pointed to the dispute resolution provision in the handbook, arguing that the employee acknowledged receipt of the handbook and agreed to the policies therein. The court reasoned, however, that the employer could only rely on the dispute resolution clause in the handbook if the handbook is, in fact, a contract. The court found that because the handbook stated “in no uncertain terms” that it is not an employment contract, the company could not require the employee to arbitrate the dispute.
The question is obvious. How can you force an employee to arbitrate claims, thereby eliminating a public record of the proceedings and keeping the case from a jury, when your handbook does not create any contractual right to do so? Similar to your ability to enforce a non-compete with an at-will employee, a separate arbitration agreement will likely be enforceable if the agreement is a stand-alone contract and where consideration is given for the agreement. The consideration may be in the form of a payment, the right to continued employment, or even the agreement to arbitrate a claim itself can be sufficient consideration. In any event, do not assume that your employees will be compelled to arbitrate, rather than litigate, their class action lawsuits if the “agreement” is contained in the employee handbook where no contract is created. Employers have run into similar problems when an employee uses confidential information, but the only confidentiality provision is within the handbook (which by its nature is not a contract). It is also important to ensure that any arbitration agreement with an employee be carefully crafted to eliminate any class or collective claims.
For more information, please contact:
Howard Teplinsky at: email@example.com or 312-368-0100.
John, Alexandria, Mary, Martin, and Yvette, formed the Jammy Sleepwear Company over thirty-five (35) years ago. They were equal partners and formed a corporation. On the advice of their attorneys, the entered into a shareholders’ agreement that contained buy-sell provisions. This type of agreement is sometimes referred to as a “buy-sell agreement”.
Their buy-sell agreement contained various provisions, including under what circumstances a departing shareholder’s shares would be purchased, what the purchase price of those shares would be, and the terms of payment. Since the business was in its infancy, they agreed it would be valued at its “book value”, meaning that the value of the assets on its financial statements, less all obligations, would be the business’s value. There was no adjustment for good will or other intangible assets. Also, the increase in value of any assets would not be taken into consideration. The purchase price to a departing shareholder was to be paid in twelve (12) months, in equal monthly payments. The business was required to purchase a departing shareholders shares.
Since they formed the business in 1980, they acquired other businesses and purchased real estate through a separate LLC. They did not think to have a buy-sell for the LLC.
John has announced he would like to retire, but he has objected to the purchase price as being “unfairly” low. He has advised the other owners that he will keep his interest in the real estate, since it will provide him with a “good stipend” during his retirement. Shortly thereafter, Mary announced her retirement.
The remaining owners are concerned that the business will not be able to support payments to John and to Mary. Also, the remaining owners would prefer that John and Mary also sell their interests in the LLC.
Unfortunately, the shareholders (and LLC members) did not regularly review their buy-sell agreement. As the value of the business grew, the amount of the payments increased and would put a strain on the cash flow of the business. If more than one owner were to retire, it would cause a bigger strain. Either the business would have to borrow money, the owners would have to make capital infusions, new investors would be needed, or the business would need to be sold.
Some buy-sell agreements address these types of situations, by limiting the amounts that must be paid out to departing owners on an annual basis. For example, the payments cannot exceed a specific dollar amount or a percentage of gross profits. Also, when the owners buy real estate to be used by the business, they might consider including the real estate as a part of the buy-sell process.
Buy-sell agreements should be reviewed periodically to ensure they continue to meet the needs of the business and its owners. Levin Ginsburg has been advising business owners regarding legal aspects of their businesses, including buy-sell agreements for almost forty years.
Please contact us with any questions you have regarding your business (including any buy-sell issues) at 312-368-0100 or Morris Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer: In a consumer transaction, no.¹ In a commercial transaction, it depends.
A typical “confession of judgment” provision in a commercial contract (e.g., a promissory note) authorizes the creditor upon a default under the agreement to obtain a judgment for the amount owed without notice to the debtor(s) or guarantor(s), and allows the creditor to immediately execute on the judgment. The clause will most likely contain a “warrant of attorney” authorizing the appointment of an attorney to appear for the debtor, to waive personal jurisdiction and service, and to consent to an amount due and owing by the creditor. Thus, a party in default under an agreement containing a confession of judgment provision often first learns about the lawsuit against him after collection efforts have begun, when his bank accounts have been frozen or a lien has been recorded against his property. Courts will permit this judicial “shortcut” only if (a) the contractual provision is enforceable in the first place, and (b) the creditor takes the right steps to obtain the judgment after a default.
On the first point, a judgment by confession is void where it requires extrinsic evidence to prove the underlying debt. The Illinois Supreme Court in Grundy County Nat. Bank v. Westfall, 49 Ill.2d 498, 500–01 (1971) has held: “Judgments by confession are circumspectly viewed. … ‘The power to confess a judgment must be clearly given and strictly pursued, and a departure from the authority conferred will render the confessed judgment void.’ The extent of the liability undertaken must be ascertainable from the face of the instrument in which the warrant is granted. … ‘A judgment by confession must be for a fixed and definite sum, and not in confession of a fact that can only be established by testimony outside of the written documents, required by the statute to be filed in order to enter up a judgment by confession.” See also Ninow v. Loughnane, 103 Ill.App.3d 833, 836 (1st Dist. 1981); State National Bank v. Epsteen, 59 Ill.App.3d 233 (1st Dist. 1978). Numerous other courts have likewise held that a guaranty or underlying instrument purporting to grant power to confession judgment that is all-encompassing—for example, one that refers to “any and all debts, liabilities and obligations of every nature or form of the debtor,” including future debts, is so broad as to be void. Thus, if your confession of judgment clause is broad-sweeping or does not clearly describe the extent of the debtor’s liability, or if proving the amount owed requires reference to other documents extraneous to the instrument itself, the confession of judgment clause – and any judgment later obtained thereon – is void. While it is certainly advisable for clients finding themselves on the defensive end of this situation to act quickly, Illinois law permits a void judgment to be attacked at any time.
As to the second point, because the confession of judgment remedy is a creature of an Illinois statute, it must be strictly construed. See 735 ILCS 5/2-1301(c). Voidness issues aside, that section requires the creditor to file a confession judgment suit only in the county in which (1) the note or obligation containing the confession of judgment clause was executed, (2) one or more of the defendants reside, or (3) in which any real or personal property owned by any of the defendants is located.
Because Illinois courts view judgments by confession with some skepticism, the law affords various remedies and means of challenging them not covered by this article. For further information on how to defend a judgment by confession case or to use such a provision offensively, contact:
(312) 368-0100 or email@example.com.
¹ A “consumer transaction” is defined as the “sale, lease, assignment, loan, or other disposition of an item of goods, a consumer service, or an intangible to an individual for purposes that are primarily personal, family, or household.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1301(c). If the instrument authorizing the judgment by confession in a consumer transactions was executed prior to September 24, 1979, however, it is still enforceable. Id.