Judge Denies Insurer's Motion to Compel Arbitration of Attorney's Claims

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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A lawyer who is suing Elevance Health Inc. -- formerly known as Anthem Inc. -- alleging he was wrongfully fired in 2021 can proceed to trial with his claims,  a judge ruled Thursday.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Holly J. Fujie denied a motion by attorneys for the insurer to compel arbitration of plaintiff Gregory Antoniono's lawsuit, which also alleges retaliation, both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and violations of the Labor and Business and Professions Codes. Anthem changed its name to Elevance Health last June.

In their court papers, Elevance lawyers argued that Antoniono "expressly agreed to arbitrate all disputes related to his prospective employment."

But the judge said she was not convinced by the defense arguments.

"The court agrees that ... (Elevance has) not demonstrated that plaintiff assented to submit his claims to binding arbitration as a condition of his employment," Fujie wrote.

In a sworn declaration, Antoniono maintained he knew nothing about an arbitration agreement being part of his employment contract.

"Throughout my entire employment by defendants ... I was never physically or electronically presented with an arbitration agreement nor do I remember ever being presented with an arbitration agreement," Antoniono says.

Antoniono, 60, was licensed to practice law in California in 1993, before he was hired by the insurer, the suit states. In his job as director of strategic sourcing and procurement, Antoniono did not do legal work, but he was entrusted with a $650 million annual budget, led a large team and oversaw negotiations with and management of all vendors in support of the insurer's marketing, according to the suit filed last Aug. 15.

Many of the plaintiff's colleagues, including members of upper management, knew he was an attorney and sought his legal advice on personal matters, the suit states. Although they sought such advice on a friendly basis, their communications with  Antoniono were nonetheless protected by the attorney- client privilege and Antoniono's ethical duty of confidentiality, the suit states.

A female colleague sought legal counseling from Antoniono in April 2021, the suit states. The suit does not state what the plaintiff and his co- worker talked about, but does say she later "apparently" made allegations of sexual harassment against a high-level executive to whom Antoniono, in 2008, had provided legal advice, along with the executive's friends and family.

"Thereafter, (the insurer) attempted to coerce Mr. Antoniono into divulging the substance of his prior communications with (the female colleague) despite knowing that, as an attorney, he was legally prohibited from doing so," the suit states.

Revealing the contents of the conversation would likely have subjected the plaintiff to disbarment and other civil and disciplinary penalties, according to the suit. After careful review of the relevant legal authorities, Antoniono concluded that, without the consent of the colleague, it would have been unlawful for him to reveal any of the privileged information she shared with him, the suit states.

"Nonetheless, the message was clear: either violate the law and your ethical obligations or lose your job," the suit states. "When Mr. Antoniono refused to break the law, he was fired in retaliation."

Management confirmed that when Antoniono was fired in September 2021 he was losing his job for his refusal to talk about his communications with the female colleague, according to the suit. The plaintiff maintains he was legally and ethically prohibited from disclosing the information.

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