JOSEPH N. AMORE, Plaintiff-Respondent,
GROUP ONE AUTOMOTIVE, INC., RUBEN SANTIAGO, EARL HESTERBERG, BROOKS O'HARA, DARYL KENNINGHAM, and DARRYL L. BURMAN, Defendants-Appellants, and RICK ZIBILICH, Defendant.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 23, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Docket No. L-987-12.
Fisher & Phillips, LLP, attorneys for appellants (David E. Strand, of counsel; David J. Treibman, on the briefs).
DeNoia & Tambasco, attorneys for respondent (G. John Germann, on the brief).
Before Judges Lihotz and Ostrer.
Plaintiff Joseph N. Amore filed an eight-count complaint alleging wrongful termination against his former employer, defendant Mercedes Benz of Freehold (MBF), incorrectly denominated Group One Automotive, Inc.,  and several officers and employees, including Ruben Santiago, Earl Hesterberg, Brooks O'Hara, Daryl Kenningham, and Darryl L. Burman (collectively defendants). The trial court denied defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint and compel arbitration. Defendants appeal and we reverse.
Plaintiff was offered employment as a general sales manager with MBF on April 20, 2011. On that date, plaintiff executed a two-page "Pay Plan, " which detailed the terms of his compensation, and a two-page "Job Description/Performance-Based Competency Assessment Form, " which outlined his essential duties and responsibilities. Plaintiff commenced employment on April 22, 2011. That morning, MBF's human resources representative provided plaintiff with additional documents, including an employee handbook. Plaintiff acknowledged receipt of the handbook and documentation by signing a document entitled "EMPLOYEE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND AGREEMENT" (EAA). This two-page document included three boldfaced headings on the first page. The first two, entitled "1. Handbook Receipt" and "2. At-Will Employment[, ]" were on the upper half of the page. The third heading was placed in the middle of the page and was entitled "3. Arbitration Agreement." The following language was included in capital letters, immediately above the signature line on the second page: "MY SIGNATURE BELOW ATTESTS TO THE FACT THAT I HAVE READ, UNDERSTAND, AND AGREE TO BE LEGALLY BOUND TO ALL OF THE ABOVE TERMS. MY SIGNATURE FURTHER ACKNOWLEDGES THAT I HAVE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TERMS OF THIS AGREEMENT" (emphasis in original).
Plaintiff was terminated from his employment on August 5, 2011. He filed his wrongful termination complaint, alleging various statutory and tort-based claims against defendants. Relying on the arbitration agreement contained in the EAA executed by plaintiff, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration. Defendants supported the motion with a certification from Laura Hannen, Human Resources Manager for the NY/NJ/MD area, which merely attached the EAA and certified it was signed by plaintiff on April 22, 2011.
Plaintiff opposed the motion, contending the arbitration agreement was not a valid and enforceable contract. Specifically, plaintiff maintained he was not informed of the issue of arbitration during the hiring process. Further, with respect to when he was approached by the human resources personnel and asked to sign the EAA on his first day of work, plaintiff averred:
I was not given the opportunity to read the employee manual at the time, nor was it suggested that I review this matter carefully or have it reviewed by an attorney before signing it. In fact, the first paragraph of the document was labeled "Handbook Receipt." . . . . There was no representation that this acknowledgment contained an arbitration agreement or that I was waiving any rights. It was expressly represented that I was merely signing an acknowledgment of receipt of the employee handbook.
Although the handbook included an addendum specifically directed to New Jersey law, neither the main document nor the addendum contained provisions addressing ...