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Although courts across the country don’t always agree on whether arbitration agreements with employees should be enforced as a general rule, sometimes the fate of a particular arbitration agreement lies in a technicality. In the case of a recent proposed class action wage and hour lawsuit against Century Fast Foods Inc., a Taco Bell franchisee, that technicality revolves around the ambiguity of the term “related companies.”

Jesus M., a former employee who worked at a Taco Bell restaurant owned by Century, filed a wage and hour lawsuit on behalf of himself and all other similarly-situated current and former employees of the franchisee for allegedly denying them overtime, legally-mandated rest breaks under California labor law, and other claims. Century tried to invoke the arbitration agreement Jesus┬ásigned when he filled out an application to work for Taco Bell, but so far two courts have denied the company’s petition.

According to Century, Jesus signed a contract that included an agreement to use arbitration to settle all disputes with Taco Bell, as well as its related companies. The problem, according to the courts, is defining the term “related companies.” First the Los Angeles Superior Court said in 2015 that Century failed to prove it qualified as a “related company” of Taco Bell. Century appealed the decision and the case went before a California appellate court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.

According to the appellate court, Century failed to provide sufficient evidence that there was an agreement between itself and Taco Bell that Century was a related company of Taco Bell. In it’s published decision, the court also pointed out that it had not seen sufficient evidence that Jesus could reasonably be expected to understand that Century was a related company of Taco Bell, and therefore subject to the arbitration agreement he had signed with the fast food chain. Instead, the court suggested it would have been more convincing if the franchisee had provided a separate contract for employees to sign that included an arbitration agreement between Century and its employees. Continue reading