Texas courts strongly favor the resolution of disputes through arbitration. When parties to a dispute have signed an agreement to arbitrate covered disputes, Texas courts will rarely disregard that agreement. A recent per curiam opinion of the Supreme Court of Texas continues that trend by conditionally granting mandamus relief in a case alleging national origin discrimination and retaliation for reporting alleged sexual harassment. (Opinion available here).
In In re Polymerica, LLC, a plastics manufacturer hired Angelica Soltero in 1998. In 2002, Polymerica retained Dickason Staff Leasing Company to manage its human resources operations. Soltero signed a Dispute Resolution Plan with Dickason that required all disputes (including disputes over discrimination, wrongful termination and harassment) between Polymerica, Dickason and/or Soltero be submitted to a four-step dispute resolution process. The final stage in that process included mandatory, binding arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act.
Thereafter, Polymerica distributed an employee handbook that purported to take “precedence over, supersede, and revoke any previous memo, bulletin, policy or procedure issued prior to [the handbook effective date], by [the employer] on any subject discussed in the Handbook.” The handbook included a section on arbitration that discussed the existence of the Dickason Dispute Resolution Plan. At the end of 2005, Polymerica and Dickason terminated their relationship and Polymerica took the human resources functions in-house. Five days later Soltero’s employment was terminated.
Soltero challenged the arbitration agreement first by claiming that the 2003 handbook provisions nullified the Dispute Resolution Plan she signed with Dickason. The court rejected that argument stating that “the Handbook provision, however, does not cover contracts like the Plan’s arbitration agreement” and observing that if the handbook nullified the Plan, the Handbook’s discussion of the Plan’s arbitration procedures and other multiple references to the Plan would be rendered meaningless. The court also made quick work of Soltero’s second claim that the Plan was illusory because the Handbook reserved the right to be modified at any time. Because the Plan, according to its own termination procedures, could only be modified with notice to the employees, and even then, only modified prospectively, the Plan was not illusory.
And finally, the Court rejected Soltero’s argument that Polymerica could not avail itself of the arbitration procedures of the Plan because it was a nonsignatory to the Plan. The Court noted that it has never required that an employer be a signatory to an arbitration agreement before it may insist on arbitrating a dispute with its employee. Because the arbitration agreement was enforceable and the scope of Soltero’s claims fell within its scope, the Supreme Court conditionally granted the writ of mandamus and directed the trial court to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration of all of Soltero’s claims.