2nd Update*: Class Waivers and Arbitration: The Battleground Focus Moves to Labor and Employment Law

*The area of class action waivers and employment law saw an absolutely whirlwind close to 2015, with the NLRB releasing yet another decision midday, on 12/31, following two weeks that saw 16 decisions restricting arbitration practices. Please see below for an up-to-date summary of these rapidly breaking developments.

By Russ Bleemer

The emphasis on the law and politics of consumer arbitrations, and their relationship to class waivers, has overshadowed developments in another closely related area of conflict resolution law.

But the time has come for finality on the legality of employment law class-action waivers.  Developments in 2015’s final quarter indicate that decisive events are coming in the area, which involves the intersection of U.S. labor law and the Federal Arbitration Act.

On the first day of December, the National Labor Relations Board issued two decisions finding labor law violations against companies for using mandatory pre-dispute class action waivers with their arbitration agreements requiring individual processes.  The waivers, the NLRB said, violate Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act, which allows employees, among other things, “to engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

That was only the beginning:  By Christmas, the NLRB had issued at least 16 more decisions striking down mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses that coupled class waivers as a condition of employment.

The decisions are crucial because the rights of collective action under the NLRA address far more than union workplaces. The law applies to most employees, and key cases that have arisen in this area focus on white-collar employees.

It’s a major statement by the Board. The NLRB decisions’ reasoning—that the NLRA and the FAA co-exist compatibly but the latter isn’t preferred over workers’ rights to act in concert—had already been rejected by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  Twice, in fact, including in a decision just five weeks before the December Board decisions, in Murphy Oil Inc. v. NLRB, No. 14-60800, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015).

The Fifth Circuit relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s high-profile consumer-contract arbitration decision–AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011), along with the business-to-business class waiver in American Express Co., et al. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304 (2013)—to justify rulings that mandatory individualized arbitrations are authorized by the FAA.

Consumer arbitration controversy has rolled over into politics in 2015, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau moved to regulate the process by barring waivers of all class processes. Congressional Republicans introduced legislation to hamper the regulation efforts directly, as well as defund the federal agency.

In November, the NLRB said it would request a rehearing in Murphy Oil, but it did not appeal the Fifth Circuit reversal of its first case on the subject, D.R. Horton Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012), enforcement denied in relevant part, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013) (Graves, J., dissenting), reh’g denied, No. 12-60031 (Apr. 16, 2014).

December’s stream of cases from Board decisions backing its Murphy Oil and D.R. Horton decisions mostly occurred mid-month, leading up to Christmas.  But for good measure, just hours before the close of business on Dec. 31, the Board added its final 2015 decision, again affirming its view in the cases already rejected by the Fifth Circuit.  The decision, GameStop Corp., 363 NLRB No. 89, 20-CA-080497 (Dec. 15, 2015), went even further, affirming a line in those cases barring class waivers in employment arbitration agreements that provide an “opt out” allowing employees to waive participation in the ADR scheme.

“Regardless of the procedures required, the fact that employees must take any steps to preserve their Section 7 rights burdens the exercise of those rights,” the decision states.

It’s clear that the NLRB, an independent federal agency that oversees workplace conduct by enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, is picking and choosing its battles, which experts on both sides of the argument agree will be finalized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.  The NLRB appears to be seeking a suitable case to ask the Supreme Court to hear, unloading years of litigation in December sourced from a variety of forums that reject the FAA’s predominance over the NLRA.

And while it awaited Murphy Oil’s Fifth Circuit fate, and while preparing the Board decisions it released in December maintaining its insistence on the NLRA’s vitality in the face of required arbitration clauses, the NLRB for the first time filed an amicus brief in a court case on the subject in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP, No. 13-16599.

The November filing, just a week after the Fifth Circuit decided Murphy Oil, noted that the Board would seek en banc review of that decision, and strongly defended its own D.R. Horton/Murphy Oil lineage.

At the oral argument on Nov. 18, Ninth Circuit Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz prodded the attorneys on both sides to come up with a formula for NLRA and FAA co-existence.  He suggested severing the waiver clause, but keeping arbitration decisions for a tribunal, rather than blowing up the entire ADR process in favor of litigation.

The Ninth Circuit argument also dissected the class rights being waived by the pre-dispute mandatory arbitration agreement in the context of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, which establishes the ground rules for court class actions.

The details on the December NLRB decisions; the Fifth Circuit’s Murphy Oil reversal; the NLRB Morris amicus filing, and highlights of the Morris oral argument are the subject of the January 2016 cover article in Alternatives, out this week.

Alternatives is available HERE for CPR Institute members after logging into the CPR website.  The newsletter, marking its 33rd year of publication with the January issue, is available to nonmembers at altnewsletter.com.

 

* * *

Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for the CPR Institute.

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