Oppenheimer Analyst Fired After Parental Leave Must Arbitrate

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By Lawrence E. Dubé

A former analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. must arbitrate claims that the financial services company fired him for taking parental and medical leave, a federal district court in New York ruled.

The decision shows employers don’t have to follow any particular format for arbitration agreements if the provisions are worded plainly and employees clearly express their acceptance of the pacts.

Hoai Ngo admittedly signed Oppenheimer’s standard arbitration agreement for employees. However, the Wall Street firm placed the arbitration provision inside an employee handbook that purportedly contained only “guidelines,” not binding commitments. Ngo argued the arbitration agreement was unenforceable, but Judge Gregory H. Woods of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York disagreed in his Nov. 30 decision.

Oppenheimer required Ngo and other employees to acknowledge receipt of the employee handbook, but the financial analyst also signed off electronically on the arbitration agreement, and he was bound to arbitrate his claims against Oppenheimer, Woods said.

Arbitration Agreement Held Enforceable

When Ngo was hired in 2009, the court said, he received an employee handbook and signed a form at the end of the document acknowledging that the handbook wasn’t a contract and could be changed by the employer. One page of the handbook, appearing before the acknowledgment, was an arbitration agreement requiring the employee to submit employment-related disputes to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) for arbitration, rather than file them in court. Ngo signed and dated the arbitration agreement at the bottom of the page.

In 2014, after taking time off for the birth of his daughter and missing time from work when he had a brain aneurysm, Ngo returned to Oppenheimer and received a 2014 handbook that again contained an arbitration provision. NASD had been renamed the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the agreement was longer than the earlier version, but Woods said the commitment to arbitrate employment disputes was essentially unchanged.

By 2014, the court said, Oppenheimer employees were acknowledging receipt of the employee handbook by computer. Ngo submitted a computer form that stated: “I agree to the terms of the Arbitration Agreement.”

Ngo argued that Oppenheimer couldn’t enforce an arbitration provision in a handbook while disregarding the handbook’s warning that it wasn’t a contract, but Woods said the arbitration agreement was clear, distinct, and mandatory. Finding the agreement was “an agreement separate and distinct from the 2014 Handbook and one that was fully executed by both parties in this case,” the court said Ngo was required to submit his claims to arbitration.

The court stayed action on the lawsuit pending resolution of the arbitration.

Attorneys for the parties didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision.

Vladeck, Raskin & Clark P.C. represented Ngo. Satterlee Stephens LLP represented Oppenheimer & Co. Both law firms are located in New York.

The case is Ngo v. Oppenheimer & Co. , 2017 BL 428434, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:17-cv-1727-GHW, action stayed 11/30/17 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Lawrence E. Dubé in Washington, D.C. at ldube@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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