Employer Loses Contractual Right to Arbitrate Due to Delay

A recent case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit makes clear that an employer will lose its contractual right to arbitration if it proceeds in litigation for eight months.  In Messing v. North Central Distributing Inc., the plaintiff, a former Vice President, brought a breach of contract and wrongful termination claim against his former employer.  The company actively engaged in defending the case in the litigation, including filing an answer with 24 affirmative defenses, removing the case to federal court, attending discovery conferences and setting discovery schedules, filing a venue transfer motion, and agreeing to a trial date.  Eight months into the litigation, the employer sought to compel arbitration under the Vice President’s employment contract.  The District Court denied the employer’s motion to compel arbitration, reasoning that the company had waived its right to arbitrate since 1) it knew of the existing right to arbitration, and 2) it had prejudiced the employee by acting inconsistently with that right.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, stating that the employer had failed to do “all it could reasonably have been expected to do” to assert its right to arbitration earlier.  Indeed, the employer’s answer did not plead the arbitration clause in its affirmative defenses, nor mention it at the pretrial scheduling conference, nor raise the issue in its motion to transfer venue.  Moreover, the Court credited the lower court’s finding that the employer’s actions had caused the employee prejudice, in that he had been forced to expend considerable time and money litigating the matter in federal court.
While there is a long line of cases which favor arbitration as an alternative way to resolve disputes between parties, employers and employees alike should be aware that a contractual right to arbitrate claims must be asserted in a timely way by the party seeking arbitration.  This “use it or lose it” principle is sometimes an effective way to defeat an otherwise unassailable arbitration provision.