The Northern District of Texas has compelled a lawsuit that was filed following a workplace-related death to arbitration. In Estate of Juan Benitez v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., et al., No. 3:13-CV-0468-D (N.D. Tex. August 14, 2013), the family of a deceased general maintenance worker, Benitez, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Sears, Roebuck and Co. (“Sears”). As a condition of the Spanish-speaking man’s employment, Benitez was required to view a presentation and watch a DVD related to the company’s Texas Injury Benefit Plan (the “Plan”). The Plan contained a mandatory arbitration clause. The DVD, which also discussed the mandatory arbitration provision, was available for viewing in Spanish and an interpreter was on hand to answer any questions. Benitez submitted an electronic signature stating he completed the training and he was provided with a written copy of the training materials.
Following Benitez’s tragic workplace death, his family filed a lawsuit against Sears in a Texas district court. Sears removed the case to the Northern District of Texas and filed a motion to compel arbitration.
First, the federal court rejected the estate’s argument that the Federal Arbitration Act was inapplicable because Benitez often assisted with unloading trucks in a company warehouse and was therefore a transportation worker. According to the court, the man’s estate offered no verifiable evidence to support the assertion that Benitez unloaded or transported goods for the company. The federal court held,
Considering only the job description and affidavit from Sears’s Human Resources Manager, each of which shows that Juan’s job did not involve loading and unloading goods that were shipped in interstate commerce, the court finds that he was not a transportation worker and, accordingly, that the FAA applies.
Next, the Northern District of Texas turned to the estate’s assertion that the agreement to arbitrate was not valid because Benitez was computer illiterate and spoke only Spanish. The court stated,
The court declines to reach this issue because plaintiffs’ challenge to validity attacks the entire agreement, not the arbitration agreement specifically, and therefore is a question for the arbitrator to decide.
The federal court continued,
Plaintiffs contend that, because Juan was illiterate in, and spoke little, English, and was computer illiterate, he could not have agreed to the arbitration agreement. But the arbitration agreement in this case is contained within the 51-page Plan; it is not a stand-alone agreement. Cf. Am. Heritage, 321 F.3d at 539 (deciding issue of validity where defendant “signed four identical arbitration agreements that were not contained in a clause of a larger contract, but instead existed as stand-alone agreements”). And when Juan electronically acknowledged that he had completed his Plan training, he was acknowledging that he had received training regarding the Plan and its requirements generally, which included the arbitration agreement. Plaintiffs provide no evidence that Juan’s illiteracy in English, limited English comprehension, or computer illiteracy invalidate the arbitration clause specifically rather than the Plan in its entirety.
Finally, the Northern District of Texas held the estate failed to demonstrate that the agreement to arbitrate was unconscionable.
The record evidence indicates that Juan, although illiterate in English, had access to Spanish versions of the Plan and accompanying training materials, including DVDs that did not require an ability to read English or Spanish, and had access to a Spanish interpreter. Accordingly, plaintiffs have not shown unconscionability.
Because the FAA applied to the arbitration clause at issue, there was no evidence that the agreement was unconscionable, and the estate attacked the validity of the agreement as a whole, the Northern District of Texas ordered that litigation be stayed pending completion of arbitration.