Elizabeth Castelo was employed by Xceed as its Controller and Vice President of Accounting. In November 2018, Xceed informed Castelo her employment would be terminated effective December 31, 2018. On November 19, 2018, the parties entered into an agreement entitled “Separation and General Release Agreement”, in which Xceed agreed to pay Castelo a severance payment in consideration for a full release of all claims, including “a release of age discrimination claims that she has or may have under federal and state law, as applicable.”
The release extended to all claims known and unknown “arising directly or indirectly from Employee’s employment with [Xceed] [and] the termination of that employment” including (among many other listed claims) “wrongful discharge[;] violation of public policy[;] . . . [and] violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.” The parties agreed to waive the protections of Civil Code section 1542.
Castelo and Xceed signed the Separation Agreement on November 19, 2018. Attached as Exhibit A to the Separation Agreement was a document entitled “Reaffirmation of Separation and General Release Agreement” which was to be signed on the date of her separation, which was December 31, 2018.
It was undisputed Xceed management intended that Castelo would sign the Reaffirmation on the date of her separation. However, Castelo signed it on the same date she signed the main Separation Agreement, on November 19, 2018, and Xceed did nothing to correct that error. She was paid $137,334 for her signing this agreement as of the date of her separation.
Nonetheless Castelo sued her former employer Xceed Financial Credit Union (Xceed) for wrongful termination and age discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
On October 3, 2019, the parties stipulated the action would be submitted to binding arbitration pursuant to an arbitration agreement executed in 2013. The court then dismissed the action without prejudice but retained jurisdiction to enter judgment on any arbitration award.
The matter was submitted to binding arbitration before Hon. Enrique Romero (ret.). Xceed filed a response to Castelo’s complaint alleging, among other things, Castelo’s action was barred by the release. Xceed also filed a cross-complaint and first amended cross-complaint, asserting claims for (1) breach of the Separation Agreement and Reaffirmation; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) reformation; (4) declaratory relief; and (5) promissory estoppel.
The arbitrator rejected Castelo’s assertion that since the release was signed on November 18, and that she was not wrongfully terminated until December 31, the release violated Civil Code section 1668, which prohibits pre-dispute releases of liability in some circumstances. The arbitrator granted summary judgment in favor of Xceed on the ground Castelo’s claims were barred by a release in her separation agreement.
Castelo moved to vacate the arbitration award, arguing the arbitrator exceeded his powers by enforcing an illegal release. The trial court denied the motion to vacate and entered judgment confirming the arbitration award. The Court of Appeal affirmed in the published case of Castelo v. Xceed Financial Credit Union – B311573 (May 2023).
The parties disagreed as to the proper scope of the court of appeal’s review. “Where, as here, an arbitrator has issued an award, the decision is ordinarily final and thus ‘is not ordinarily reviewable for error by either the trial or appellate courts.’ [Citation.] The exceptions to this rule of finality are specified by statute.
As relevant here, the [California Arbitration Act (CAA)] provides that a court may vacate an arbitration award when “[t]he arbitrators exceeded their powers and the award cannot be corrected without affecting the merits of the decision upon the controversy submitted.”
Castelo contends on appeal that the release, as interpreted and applied by the arbitrator, violates Civil Code section 1668 because it purported to release claims that accrued after Castelo signed the document. Castelo claims that the arbitrator exceeded his authority in giving effect to the illegal release and that this court must review the arbitrator’s and trial court’s decisions de novo.
The court of appeal noted that “Castelo does not claim the entire Separation Agreement and Reaffirmation is illegal. She does not seek to rescind the agreement and does not propose she return the $137,334.00 she received as consideration. Rather, she seeks to invalidate only the release, and only to the extent the arbitrator applied the release to claims that accrued on or after the date of its execution. Castelo’s argument that the arbitrator’s decision is subject to judicial review simply because the release is alleged to be illegal thus fails.”
The arbitrator explained the basis for this conclusion at length. Among other things, the arbitrator reasoned: “[T]he objectively-manifested intent of the Agreement was for Castelo to release all claims as of the date of signature (defined as the ‘Effective Date’ in the Agreement) in exchange for the payment of $5,000.00, and then extend that release through the Separation Date, December 31, 2018, for an additional $132,334.00.”
When the arbitrator then turned to whether the release, as interpreted, violated Civil Code section 1668 because Castelo executed the release before the claim for wrongful termination had fully accrued. “[¶] Even assuming arguendo that Castelo’s claim for wrongful termination did not accrue until her termination on December 31 and that the release affects the ‘public interest,’ this argument gains no traction.”
“The Agreement did not have, as its purpose, the immunization of Xceed from liability for a future violation of law. Rather, it clearly intended to, on December 31, 2018, effect the release of claims which had accrued on or before that date (i.e., an accrued claim for wrongful termination, and any other employment-related claim Castelo could bring). The Arbitrator declines to permit Castelo – who accepted the benefits under the Reaffirmation – to use her mistakenly-premature execution of the Reaffirmation to leverage this statute as a weapon against Xceed.”
Here the court of appeal noted “Castelo has not cited a single case in which section 1668 was invoked to invalidate a release of a claim that was known to the releasor at the time the release was executed and after a dispute had already arisen between the parties, and our review has revealed none.”
The court of appeal concluded “the arbitrator did not commit clear legal error in enforcing the release and the trial court did not err in denying the motion to vacate. The arbitrator’s enforcement of the release did not violate section 1668 because Castelo signed the release after the allegedly discriminatory decision was made and after Castelo had already concluded that she was being wrongfully terminated because of age discrimination.”
FEHA Arbitrator Decisions are Final and Not Ordinarily Reviewable on Appeal
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