In a first-of-its-kind challenge to a growing national trend to force employees to waive their right to sue, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed lawsuits against two companies for firing an employee who refused to sign an agreement forcing him to accept binding arbitration to resolve any work-related disputes.

The lawsuits, Lagatree vs Keesal, Young & Logan [Case 185962] and Lagatree v Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps [Case 185963], were filed Friday in State Superior Court against two Southland legal firms who tried to force Donald Lagatree of Long Beach to sign a final and binding arbitration agreement waiving his right to go to court with any future disputes he might have with the companies.

The ACLU charges that the defendants have violated Mr. Lagatree's right to bring disputes to court and to trial by jury as guaranteed by the First and Seventh Amendments of the United States constitution and articles 1 and 16 of the California constitution, as well other state and federal statutes concerning the rights of employees.

"Most of us need to work, " said David Schwartz, Senior Staff Counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. "Employers are taking unfair advantage of that fact by bullying employees into giving up rights in exchange for getting or keeping their jobs. When an employee finds he or she has a claim, suddenly it hits them that they can't take their employer to court. It's grossly unfair for companies to force employees to check their constitutional rights at the office door."

Plaintiff Donald Lagatree is a professional legal secretary. In March of 1994, he was hired by the law firm of Keesal, Young & Logan after working there for six months in a full-time temporary capacity. Mr. Lagatree received satisfactory or better job performance reviews. In June 1997, the firm asked him to sign a pre-printed standard arbitration agreement requiring him to waive his right to go to court over claims against his employer such as fraud, breach of contract or even "whistle blower" claims.

After receiving the form, Mr. Lagatree told the management, including a firm partner, that he did not wish to agree to arbitration of any future disputes and would, therefore, not sign the agreement. On June 30, 1997, Mr, Lagatree was fired for refusing to sign the arbitration agreement.

On September 12, 1997, Mr. Lagatree was offered a position as legal secretary with the law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps and to report for work on September 16. On his first day of work, after beginning his job duties, Mr. Lagatree was given a memo entitled "Letter of Employment," which confirmed the offer of employment and contained the following paragraph:

In the event of any dispute or claim between you and the firm (including employees, partners, agents, successors and assigns), including but not limited to claims arising from or related to your employment or termination of your employment, we jointly agree to submit all such disputes or claims to confidential binding arbitration, under the Federal Arbitration Act.

On September 18, 1997, Mr. Lagatree informed the management of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps that he did not wish to give up his right to take disputes to court and that he would refuse to sign the Letter of Employment. At a meeting with management, Mr. Lagatree was told that the arbitration agreement was not negotiable and that his employment was contingent upon his signing the agreement. Mr. Lagatree declined to sign the letter and he was immediately let go.