Did the trial court commit clear legal error by concluding that there were genuine issues of fact regarding the authenticity of an arbitration agreement and, therefore, denying a motion to compel arbitration under that agreement?
This is a case involving an arbitration agreement that was allegedly signed in connection with employment. Petitioner is the employer, Troy Group. Respondent, Nikita Willis, was employed by Petitioner and worked at Petitioner’s facility in Wheeling. After a reassignment, Respondent filed a complaint alleging age and race discrimination, wrongful discharge, and other employment-related claims.
Eventually, Petitioner produced an arbitration agreement and filed a motion to compel arbitration. Respondent opposed the motion, noting that the agreement was not a “wet ink” original. Indeed, the original had been shredded by Petitioner. The agreement that was produced by Petitioner was alleged to be a printout of what had been scanned into Petitioner’s server when Respondent was hired 15 years before. The agreement was also incomplete.
Petitioner countered that all of its employees signed arbitration agreements at the time of their hiring. However, through discovery, the Petitioner could only produce four agreements for the year Respondent was hired, i.e., 2004. Some of these agreements were incomplete and/or had irregularities on their face. Aside from Respondent, at least one other employee from the 2004 time period denied signing the agreement.
Judge Sims denied the motion to compel, finding that there remained an issue of fact concerning the authenticity of Respondent’s arbitration agreement. Petitioner seeks relief via a writ of prohibition.
Petitioner (Troy Group): Petitioner argues that a “wet ink” original is not required to prove the existence of a valid, enforceable arbitration agreement. Furthermore, copies are fully admissible under the Rules of Evidence. The agreement produced by Petitioner bears Respondent’s signature. According to Petitioner, Respondent has taken inconsistent positions as to whether the signature is, in fact, hers. Thus, Respondent’s testimony disavowing the signature should be disregarded.
Respondent (Willis): Respondent acknowledges that an electronic copy can be admissible under Rule 1003 of the Rules of Evidence. However, this rule does not apply if “a genuine issue is raised about the original’s authenticity.” Here, Respondent produced multiple facts calling into question the authenticity of Respondent’s arbitration agreement. Furthermore, Respondent rejects the argument that a signature is presumed to be valid. It was Petitioner’s burden to prove that Respondent, in fact, signed the agreement – a burden it failed to carry.
This is an interesting variation of the arbitration issues that usually come before the Supreme Court. The case has been designated for the Rule 19 docket so that it is unlikely that we will see any new syllabus points. However, the Court should provide us with some helpful law on the subject of authentication.