Among the many challenges employers face in enforcing employment arbitration agreements in California are employees arguing that they are not bound by the agreement because they do not recall signing it, even when the agreement contains their signature.  A California Court of Appeal decision recently shot down this argument, holding that an employee cannot evade an arbitration agreement with a handwritten signature by simply saying, “I don’t recall.”       

The Case

In Iyere v. Wise Auto Group, the plaintiffs were two sales consultants and a sales manager.  After the plaintiffs filed suit against their former employer, Wise Auto Group (Wise) filed a motion to compel arbitration that included copies of the arbitration agreement with handwritten signatures of each plaintiff.

To oppose the motion, the plaintiffs submitted declarations stating that they received a large stack of documents on their first day of work, they were told to sign the documents quickly, and they signed the documents as instructed without ever receiving a copy of the signed documents back.  The plaintiffs also specifically asserted in their declarations that they “do not recall ever reading or signing any document entitled Binding Arbitration Agreement or Employment Acknowledgment, [they] do not know how [their] signature was placed on [either document],” and they would not have signed either document had they understood that the documents waived their right to sue Wise in court.

The Court of Appeal did not let the plaintiffs off the hook.  The Court of Appeal found that the plaintiffs had not submitted admissible evidence creating a dispute as to the authenticity of their signatures on the arbitration agreements. The Court noted that while the plaintiffs declared they did not “recall” reading or signing the arbitration agreement, this was still consistent with the rest of their declarations where they acknowledged that they quickly signed a large stack of documents on their first day of work.  The Court concluded that absent evidence that their signatures were forged or otherwise inauthentic, the plaintiffs failed to show that the arbitration agreements were not authentic and unenforceable.

Notably, in reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the comparison of the instant case with two cases involving electronic signatures, stating that “[w]hile handwritten and electronic signatures once authenticated have the same legal effect, there is a considerable difference between the evidence needed to authenticate the two.”  The Court explained that a party that is not able to confirm their handwritten signature is inauthentic or forged in an arbitration agreement cannot create a factual dispute regarding the authenticity of the signature by simply stating that they cannot recall signing the agreement.

Further, the Court of Appeal held that even if an employee’s assertion that they do not recall signing the arbitration agreement can shift the burden back to the employer to authenticate the agreement, Wise satisfied its burden by producing a declaration from its custodian of records identifying the agreement. The Court of Appeal rejected a common objection made by plaintiffs’ attorneys to such evidence based on the argument that a custodian of records lacks personal knowledge of the agreement since they were not personally present when the agreement was signed.  The Court succinctly explained that a “custodian of a document need not have been present or employed when the document was created or signed to authenticate a document in a company’s files.”

Key Takeaway

The Court of Appeals decision may aid employers seeking to enforce arbitration agreements by thwarting employees who attempt to dodge their arbitration agreements by submitting a declaration that merely states, “I do not recall signing,” especially where the arbitration agreement contains the employee’s handwritten signature.   

If you have questions about employment arbitration agreements or related issues, please contact a Jackson Lewis attorney to discuss.