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Beware forcing arbitration agreements on minors

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Here’s a problem that may never have occurred to management when it decided to use arbitration as an alternative to costly court litigation: Arbitration agreements are contracts, and not all employees can enter into binding contracts—minors, for example.

Generally, people who sign contracts when they’re under the age of 18 can get out of those contracts for a reasonable period of time after they turn 18.

As a practical matter, arbitration agreements probably won’t be binding on minor employees in Ohio.

Recent case: Priscilla Howard was just 16 when she went to work for Food, Folks & Fun, a fast-food restaurant. As a condition of employment, she signed an agreement in which she agreed that any claims she had against her employer would be settled through binding arbitration.

Then she was sexually harassed. After turning 18, she sued.

Her former employer demanded the case be transferred to arbitration. The court refused, concluding that, under Ohio contract law, when minors reach age 18, they have a reasonable period of time to disavow contracts they signed earlier.

Howard did so within eight months of turning 18 by filing a federal sexual harassment lawsuit. She explained to the court that at age 16, she had no idea what arbitration even was or what rights she was agreeing to give up. (Howard v. Food, Folks & Fun, No. 1:10-CV-00597, SD OH, 2010)

Final note: Don’t forget that sexual harassment at fast-food restaurants is one of the areas that the EEOC is taking very seriously these days, especially when minors are the target. The commission is actively doing outreach to teen workers, running public-service advertising explaining what behavior is appropriate in the workplace and what is not.

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