Court gives no broad guidance on arbitration of bias disputes


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court took up yesterday its first case on moves by employers to avoid court fights over employees' complaints of job discrimination, but decided it without giving business any broad guidance on the issue.

A test case involving a Charlotte, N.C., stock broker who felt he was fired because of his age -- 62 -- had been watched closely for the court's reaction to attempts by employers to require workers to go to arbitration, not to court, with their grievances about workplace bias.

The court noted that civil rights groups had urged it to rule that arbitration could not be required for any discrimination dispute growing out of an employment contract. But, the court said, the broad issue of forced arbitration of discrimination disputes had not been raised formally in the North Carolina case.

In the decision that did emerge, the court ruled 7-2 that a brokerage firm required by a stock exchange to arbitrate all disputes with its employees may enforce that requirement in an age bias situation. Federal age bias law, the court said, does not rule out arbitration as an alternative to workers' general rights to take age bias claims to federal court.

The compulsory arbitration clause in the case of Charlotte broker Robert D. Gilmer, the court said, did not exist in the employment agreement under which he was hired. It was only a New York Stock Exchange rule, the court said.

Its ruling came in Gilmer vs. Interstate/Johnson Lane (No. 90-18).

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