Judge says ex-Oppenheimer analyst's retaliation case must be arbitrated

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge in Manhattan said Oppenheimer & Co can force a gay former analyst to arbitrate his claim that he suffered retaliation and was fired because he took an extended leave for his daughter's birth and his subsequent brain aneurysm.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods ruled on Thursday that Hoai Ngo was bound by his 2014 acceptance of an agreement to arbitrate employment claims against the unit of Oppenheimer Holdings Inc. The judge said Ngo's lawsuit should be put on hold while the arbitration takes its course.

Many workers prefer to sue rather than arbitrate against their employers because of procedural and other protections that could boost the chance to win or obtain higher damages.

Lawyers for Ngo and Oppenheimer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Ngo, who joined Oppenheimer in 2009, missed more than four months of work in 2014, including 2-1/2 months for the life-threatening aneurysm that struck nine days before his planned return from parental leave, which he said his supervisors discouraged.

He returned to work in November 2014, but said his absence led Oppenheimer to strip him of some responsibilities and his role as co-head of his group, give him lower bonuses, and ultimately fire him in June 2016.

Woods rejected Ngo's claim that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because it had been given to him within an employee handbook containing disclaimers that it was "not a contract of employment" and was meant "as a general reference."

The judge noted that Ngo had electronically affirmed upon returning to work that he "agree[d] to the terms of the Arbitration Agreement," and understood and acknowledged the terms of the handbook.

While concluding that "2014 was a momentous year" for Ngo, Woods said "the most significant event" for purposes of the lawsuit was his agreement to arbitrate.

"Mr. Ngo's argument fails," the judge concluded.

Ngo had sought reinstatement and unspecified damages.

The case is Ngo v Oppenheimer & Co, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 17-01727.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Chris Reese)