Monday, November 5, 2018

Ramos v. Super. Ct.

Constance Ramos, an experienced litigator and patent practitioner with a doctorate in biophysics, was hired as an “Income Partner” at the law firm Winston & Strawn, LLP (Winston).  After allegedly being denied recognition for her work, excluded from opportunities for career advancement, evaluated based on the success of her male colleagues, and denied compensation and bonuses to which she was entitled, Ramos sued Winston, asserting various causes of action under state law for discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, and anti-fair-pay practices. 

Winston moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the partnership agreement Ramos signed shortly after joining the firm.  In opposing the motion, Ramos argued she was an “employee” of Winston, not a partner, and therefore Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83 (Armendariz) applied to the arbitration agreement.  Ramos further argued the arbitration provision in the partnership agreement failed to meet the minimum requirements set forth in Armendariz for arbitration of unwaivable statutory claims.  The trial court disagreed, finding Ramos was “in a partnership relationship” for purposes of the motion to compel.  The trial court severed provisions of the arbitration agreement related to venue and cost-sharing, and granted Winston’s motion.  Ramos sought a writ of mandate, and we granted review.            

We conclude the trial court erred in compelling Ramos to submit her claims to arbitration.  Under the framework set forth by our Supreme Court in Armendariz, we find the parties’ arbitration agreement is unconscionable.  Further, because we cannot remove the taint of illegality by severing the unlawful provisions without altering the nature of the parties’ agreement, we must void the entire agreement to arbitrate.  Accordingly, we reverse and remand for Ramos to proceed with her claims in superior court.

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