On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-606-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Yannotti and Espinosa.
Defendants Open Road Auto Group, Open Road Mazda of Morristown, and ORM Motor Co., LLC, appeal from an order entered by the Law Division on June 1, 2011, denying their motion to stay the litigation in this matter and compel arbitration. We reverse.
Plaintiff James Wagner was employed as a service manager for Open Road Mazda. He began his employment in February 2009. On March 10, 2009, plaintiff signed a one-page arbitration agreement, which stated that the "[e]mployer and [e]mployee have determined that they would prefer to arbitrate any dispute arising between them, instead of going to court before a judge or jury." The agreement stated that the parties agreed to submit any dispute between them to binding agreement, and "to waive any right to present any dispute between them to a court, to a judge, or to a jury."
The arbitration agreement additionally stated that the term "dispute" means: any claim, dispute, difference, or controversy, whether or not related to or arising ou[t] of the employment relationship, and including any claim, dispute, difference, or controversy (i) arising under federal, state or local statu[t]e or ordinance (including claims of discrimination and harassment); (ii) based on any common-law rule of practice, including breach of contract or fraud; (iii) involving the validity or interpretation of this [a]greement; or (iv) any other claim, dispute, difference, or controversy whatsoever.
The agreement further provided that the arbitrator's award would be final and binding. It also stated in bold face capital letters that the parties have read and understand the agreement constitutes a waiver of any right to a trial before a judge and jury.
On February 9, 2011, plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division, in which he alleged that the company's finance manager had sexually harassed female employees and engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with a customer. He alleged that he brought the finance manager's conduct to the attention of David Branch, the division vice-president, and Branch failed to take any action to remedy the situation. Plaintiff was terminated on August 20, 2010. He alleged that he was fired because of his "repeated attempts to expose and remedy the sexual harassment taking place" in the workplace.
Plaintiff claimed that the termination of his employment constituted unlawful retaliation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49 (LAD). He also claimed that his termination violated the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14 (CEPA). He sought compensatory, consequential and punitive damages, attorney's fees, costs of suit, interest and any other relief the court deemed just and equitable.
On April 22, 2011, defendants filed a motion to stay the litigation and compel arbitration. Defendants argued that plaintiff's LAD and CEPA claims were clearly encompassed by the arbitration agreement and, therefore, plaintiff should be compelled to submit his claims to binding arbitration. Plaintiff opposed the motion. He argued that the arbitration agreement did not apply to the claims asserted in this case because the agreement did not specifically mention claims arising out of a termination of employment or claims of retaliation.
The trial court filed a written opinion dated June 1, 2011, in which it concluded that plaintiff was not required to arbitrate his claims. The court noted that the arbitration agreement was broad and required binding arbitration of any dispute, which the agreement defined to include any claim "whether or not related to or arising ou[t] of the employment relationship[.]" The court determined, however, that because the agreement did not explicitly state that it applied to "termination or retaliation," it did not apply to the claims asserted here. The court entered an order dated June 1, 2011, denying defendants' motion.
On appeal, defendants argue that the trial court erred by refusing to stay the litigation and compel arbitration because the agreement between the parties is sufficiently broad to encompass the claims asserted by plaintiff based on wrongful termination or retaliation. We agree.
We note initially that it is undisputed that the trial court's order of June 1, 2011 is a final order that may be appealed as of right pursuant to Rule 2:2-3(a). In GMAC v. Pittella v. Pine Belt Enterprises, Inc., 205 N.J. 572 (2011), the Court held that the court rules should be amended to permit appeals as of right from "all orders ...