Aurora woman sues Sprouts over ID theft, but will law let her?

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AURORA, Colo. -- Deb Price has filed a class-action lawsuit against Sprouts Farmer’s Market over identity theft.

But the 59-year-old Aurora woman might never see a courtroom because of what she and many Americans sign without realizing it.

Price signed an arbitration agreement when she was first hired that stipulates all work-related disputes be handled by an arbitrator that Sprouts helps select.

“You can't foresee what's going to happen in the future. You don't know.  It's like you sign this or you don`t get hired,” said Price, who added she doesn’t even remember signing the document when she was first hired by Sprouts.

“At the time I signed that agreement, I didn't know what I was signing and now that they've committed this horrible act against my Social Security number and my identity, I think I have a right to take action.”

In March 2015, Sprouts Farmer’s Market was the victim of a phishing scam.  An online scammer pretending to be a Sprouts executive convinced an employee in the payroll department to email W-2 forms for all 21,000 employees nationwide.

“Somebody  tried to get my tax refund  by using my Social Security number and now my tax refund is delayed,” said Price, who is still owed $4,000 by the IRS.

Now the former cashier has filed suit, seeking class action status on behalf of every employee in the company.

“This was an elementary school level scam. This was not a sophisticated level hacking job,” said David Miller, the attorney who represents Price.

Miller is attempting to get a federal court in Arizona, where Sprouts has its corporate headquarters, to toss out the arbitration agreement.

“They're claiming that (Sprouts) having screwed up,  having ruined her credit for life, now they're not going to make it right. They're going to make her go to private confidential arbitration to try to get some kind of a remedy from them,” Miller said.

Miller pointed out arbitration has no appeals process and no documents the public can access like in a civil lawsuit. He also said plaintiff attorneys like himself can’t afford to represent one person’s minor claim, say $4,000 for Price, so if she’s forced to go to arbitration, she would have to represent herself against the company's legal team.

“I think it feels like it's more favored to them than it is to me. That's how I see it,” Price said.

Her attorney agrees.

“It’s an example of corporate abuse quite frankly,” Miller said.

Sprouts Farmer’s Market refused to talk about the case, but its legal motion to compel arbitration states, “Plaintiff voluntarily entered into an agreement entitled MUTUAL BINDING ARBITRATION AGREEMENT.”

Price said it’s hardly fair to call such agreements voluntary.

“You want the job, you need the job so they are kind of holding it over your head. Either do this or you don't get a job," she said.

University of Denver law professor Rachel Arnow-Richman agreed.

“Any individual in that position is going to feel compelled to sign," she said.

Arnow-Richman is director of DU’s workplace law program and said employers have all the leverage in arbitration and getting employees to sign arbitration agreements.

“The employer can threaten to fire the employee if she or he doesn't agree to arbitration," she said.

But Arnow-Richman said Price still faces an uphill battle in getting the arbitration agreement tossed out.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has pretty clearly articulated it's position that these agreements are enforceable," she said.

Sprouts has offered its employees one year of free credit monitoring, but Price said that’s not nearly enough for a stolen Social Security number.

“It's a life-long battle basically when your number is out there," she said.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled against the national chain Hobby Lobby in May over its arbitration agreement.

The 7th U.S. District Appeals Court based in Illinois also recently ruled against an employer’s use of an arbitration agreement to prevent class-action arbitration.

Miller believes those recent decisions will compel a new U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue of arbitration clauses.