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General Mills can compel arbitration in age bias case

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General Mills Inc. can compel arbitration in the case of 33 laid-off employees who claim their waivers of Age Discrimination in Employment Act claims were not “knowing and voluntary’’ as required by law, says a federal appeals court in overturning a lower court ruling.

In June 2012, Minneapolis-based General Mills announced it was terminating about 850 employees and offered them severance packages in exchange for signing release agreements, according to the April 14 ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis in Elizbeth McLeod et al. v. General Mills Inc.

Under these agreements’ terms, the employees released General Mills from all claims relating to their termination, including ADEA claims, according to the ruling. 

The ADEA, as amended by the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, permits waivers of ADEA rights and claims only if they are “knowing and voluntary,” according to the ruling.

The 33 former General Mills employees who signed the agreements sued General Mills under the ADEA, claiming this was not the case. General Mills moved to dismiss the litigation and compel arbitration on an individual basis, but the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis denied the motion. General Mills appealed.

General Mills can compel arbitration, said a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel, in overruling the lower court. Plaintiffs assert “that the agreements do not cover their ADEA claims,” said the ruling. “They are wrong,” it states.

“The agreements explicitly state that a claim ‘relates to’ the release of claims if it asserts a claim covered by the agreements. ADEA claims are covered by the agreements. Absent a contrary congressional command, General Mills can compel employees who signed the agreements to arbitrate their ADEA claims,” said the ruling.

“No ‘contrary congressional command’ overrides the (Federal Arbitration Act’s) mandate to enforce the parties’ agreements to arbitrate substantive ADEA claims, the ruling also said, in remanding the case for further proceedings.

Amicus briefs we were filed in support of General Mills by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Equal Employment Advisory Council, an employer association, both of which are based in Washington. Amicus briefs supporting the employees were filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Washington-based advocacy group AARP.