Court: Try arbitration first
The top court affirmed a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court ruling.
By MICHELE C. HLADIK
COLUMBUS -- A former employee of Clear Channel Broadcasting cannot sue the company for firing her without first going through their agreed-upon arbitration process, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court voted 6-1 to uphold the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas decision staying Diane Ignazio's lawsuit against the company pending arbitration.
At the center of the debate was Ignazio and Clear Channel's disagreement on her rights to judicial review of the case despite certain clauses in their arbitration agreement.
"Severing the offending provision and enforcing the remainder of the agreement is consistent with this state's strong public policy in favor of arbitration," wrote Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton in the majority's opinion.
"The law favors and encourages arbitration as a means of resolving disputes."
Ignazio was suing the company on the basis she was wrongfully fired for age and sex discrimination. She worked in the advertising area, a Clear Channel spokesman said. It's up to Ignazio whether the matter goes any further, according to Thomas Williams, the Columbus attorney representing the company.
She was reportedly hired by the company in 1999 when it acquired WKBN-TV and was fired in 2003.
She filed a lawsuit with the trial court, which granted a stay at Clear Channel's request. The 7th District Court of Appeals overturned the trial court's decision, and the matter was brought before the Ohio Supreme Court.
According to Lundberg Stratton, the agreement clearly allows that if any portion is found to be unenforceable, it would be removed from the agreement and the remaining portions would remain in effect.
"We presume the intent of the parties from the language employed in the contract," Lundberg Stratton wrote.
"We are not persuaded by Ignazio's argument that this one sentence transforms the entire agreement from binding arbitration into a nonbinding process."
Justice Paul Pfeifer disagreed with the majority's decision.
"The agreement Ignazio signed gave her complete access to judicial review of the arbitrator's decision," Pfeifer wrote in his dissenting opinion. "Under that agreement, if Ignazio were to want her day in court, she would get it. A judge would determine whether the arbitrator's legal analysis was correct and could even find, under the facts of the case, that the arbitrator had abused his or her discretion.
"Ignazio enjoys a constitutional right [under the Ohio Constitution] to access the courts and to 'have remedy by due course of law.' Under the original agreement, she did not give up that entitlement. The majority treats as insignificant the fact that it takes that right away from her."
Calls to Ignazio's attorney were not returned.