Through the Lenses of the Missouri Supreme Court: Dollar Tree Cannot Legally Bind Its Legally Blind Associate to Arbitration Agreement

In its 4-3 ruling issued January 14, 2020 (Theroff v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc., No. SC 97235, 2020 WL 203121 (Mo. 2020), reh’g denied (Jan. 30, 2020)), the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Dollar Tree’s Motion to Compel Arbitration. Plaintiff, Nina Theroff, is legally blind and was hired by Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. in 2015. At her time of hire, Plaintiff electronically signed various employment documents with the assistance of the store’s assistant manager. Amongst those documents was a Mutual Agreement to Arbitrate Claims (“Arbitration Agreement”).

After her employment ended, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”). Specifically, Plaintiff alleged she was constructively discharged by Defendants’ refusal to accommodate her request that her service dog accompany her. Defendants filed a motion to stay the lawsuit and compel arbitration pursuant to the Arbitration Agreement; Plaintiff argued the Arbitration Agreement was not enforceable.

The parties disputed whether Plaintiff had knowledge of the Agreement signed during the hiring process. Plaintiff contended that while electronically completing the hiring paperwork, the assistant store manager simply prompted her to enter certain information in the computer, but she was unable to see content on the computer screen. Plaintiff asserted the assistant store manager never mentioned arbitration, waiver of a jury trial, or the employment arbitration rules referenced in the Agreement. Therefore, Plaintiff claimed she did not see, read, know of, or assent to the Arbitration Agreement. The assistant store manager disputed that she helped Plaintiff navigate the electronic documents, that Plaintiff was legally blind, or that Plaintiff told her she had any vision issues requiring assistive devices.

Unlike most arbitration cases in which there is no dispute about whether an arbitration agreement existed or whether a party signed it, the Court in Theroff was presented with an issue of first impression – whether there was mutual assent to the Arbitration Agreement. As mutual assent or a “meeting of the minds” is a prerequisite to the existence of any contract or agreement, Plaintiff was, in effect, challenging the existence of the Arbitration Agreement.

Although the trial court made no express findings of fact or law, the Missouri Supreme Court determined the trial court impliedly found there was no Arbitration Agreement due to the lack of mutual assent and, therefore, arbitration could not be compelled. The Court then affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to compel arbitration, deferring to the lower court’s fact-finding role. Moreover, the Court noted that Plaintiff’s challenge to the existence of the Arbitration Agreement in its entirety due to lack of assent necessarily also challenged the existence of any delegation provision it contained. Thus, in the absence of the existence of an Arbitration Agreement, a provision delegating “questions of arbitrability” to an arbitrator was not effective.

Employers should ensure their arbitration agreements are properly drafted, supported by adequate consideration, and properly executed so as to avoid legal issues down the road. Simply “going through the motions” during the onboarding process can result in employees successfully challenging the enforceability of any agreements or documents signed at that time.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.