The Class Waiver-Arbitration Argument: The Supreme Court Transcript

By Russ Bleemer

There’s no indication, yet, that the newest U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Neil M. Gorsuch, will be the swing vote in the employment arbitration cases that kicked off the Court’s 2017-2018 term yesterday morning.

The justice—who had been active in oral arguments after he was seated in April to fill the Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016—didn’t say a word.

But the liberal and conservative wings of the Court had their say. The former posed tough questions to the employers’ representative and the government, who are fighting against employees joining together under the National Labor Relations Act to file class action suits for workplace disputes, despite the presence in their employment agreements of class waivers and a requirement of individual arbitration.

The Court conservatives who spoke at the hearing seemed skeptical that the NLRA could override the Court’s strong historical backing of the Federal Arbitration Act, and defeat the employers’ requirement that matters proceed one at a time, in arbitration.

Though Justice Clarence Thomas also maintained his customary silence during the arguments, observers saw a 5-4 split yesterday assuming he and Gorsuch joined the conservative block, with Justice Anthony Kennedy leaning toward the business side.

Washington, D.C. neutral and Georgetown University Law Center adjunct Mark Kantor gathered reports and added analysis on CPR Speaks yesterday, here. See also Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Divided on Arbitration for Workplace Cases,” N.Y. Times (Oct. 2)(available at http://nyti.ms/2fHZ8ya).

The dispute has been running since the National Labor Relations Board ruled that class waivers accompanied by mandatory arbitration provisions were illegal under the NLRA in 2012, and eliminated by the FAA’s Sec. 2 savings clause, which enforces arbitration agreements “save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.”

Last winter, the Court accepted three cases on the issue, including one in which the NLRB is a party.  It consolidated them, then announced the argument would be held until the term that began yesterday—presumably to await the new justice for the vacancy eventually taken by Gorsuch, rather than risking a 4-4 split on the issue, which has divided the federal circuit courts that have tackled the issue.

The unusual hour-long argument was notable for other reasons: The federal government was facing off against one of its own agencies. In a June amicus filing, the Justice Department’s acting solicitor general, Jeffrey Wall, told the Court the Trump administration had “reconsidered the issue and has reached the opposite conclusion” from the stance the department had taken under President Obama on the NLRB’s behalf.  [For more information on Justice’s position, see the October issue of Alternatives, which will be posted later soon at https://www.cpradr.org/news-publications/alternatives and http://bit.ly/2kh91YT.]

Wall presented an amicus argument yesterday, facing off against the NLRB’s general counsel, two of four advocates in the argument.

The discussion highlights below come from the Court’s transcript, posted late yesterday, available at http://bit.ly/2yFDsKA.

* * *

First, frequent Supreme Court argument participant and former U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, a Washington, D.C. partner at Kirkland & Ellis, faced tough questions and skepticism from the Court in his argument on behalf of the petitioner-employers in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 and Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, No. 16-300, as well as the respondent employer in NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. 16-307.

Clement opened by noting the employees’ claims that arbitration agreements providing for individual arbitration that are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Agreement are invalidated by another federal statute, the National Labor Relations Act.

But, he said, ‘this Court’s cases provide a well-trod path for resolving such claims.” Clement explained that “[b]ecause of the clarity with which the FAA speaks to enforcing arbitration agreements as written, the FAA will only yield in the face of a contrary congressional command[,] and the tie goes to arbitration.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer soon said that he didn’t accept the argument, or the premise. “You started out saying this is an arbitration case,” said Breyer.  “I don’t know that it is. I thought these contracts would forbid . . . joint action, which could be just two people joining a case in judicial, as well as arbitration forums.”

Breyer continued: “Regardless, I’m worried about what you are saying is overturning labor law that goes back to, for FDR at least, the entire heart of the New Deal.”

The justice explained that the NLRA “protects the worker when two workers join together to go into a judicial or administrative forum for the purpose of improving working conditions, and the employers here all said, we will employ you only if you promise not to do that.”

Breyer concluded, “I haven’t seen a way that you can . . . win the case, . . . without undermining and changing radically what has gone back to the New Deal.”

“For 77 years,” countered Paul Clement, “the NLRB did not find anything incompatible about Section 7 and bilateral arbitration agreements, and that includes in 2010 when the NLRB general counsel looked at this precise issue.”

NLRA Sec. 7 permits concerted action by employees “for the purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

Clement also explained, at length, that “from the very beginning, the most that has been protected is the resort to the forum, and then, when you get there, you are subject to the rules of the forum.”

He later added, “[T]he NLRA in no other context extends beyond the workplace to dictate the rules of the forum.”

Said Clement, “I think the way to think about the Section 7 right is it gets you to the courthouse, it gets you to the Board, it gets you to the arbitrator. But once you are there.  . . .”

* * *

Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall, who led the Justice Department’s reversal of position in the case, followed Clement with an amicus argument supporting the employers. “[I]f you understand Section 7 to protect you from retaliation when you seek class treatment but not to give you an entitlement to proceed as a class in the forum, then . . . everything fits together perfectly fine, and these arbitration agreements are enforced.”

Wall concluded, “[O]ur simple point is this case is at the heartland of the FAA. It is, at best, at the periphery of the NLRA, on the margins of its ambiguity, and you simply can’t get there under the court’s cases.”

* * *

Under questioning from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. at the beginning of his argument, NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin Jr., arguing in support of the employees, said that the employers needed to keep open access in the forum so that the employees can proceed jointly—in arbitration or litigation.

But Roberts pressed, and Griffin agreed, that judicial options can be waived because the Court has recognized the equivalence of arbitration.  “I don’t understand how that is consistent with your position that these rights can’t be waived,” said the Chief Justice.

Griffin countered that the NLRB’s position that the right to a class process can’t be waived “takes into account this Court’s view with respect to the ability to effectively vindicate these rights in an arbitral forum.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy said that Griffin’s argument meant that employers “are now constrained in the kind of arbitration agreements they can have.” Griffin responded that they are “constrained with respect to limiting employees’ ability to act concertedly in the same way that, from the beginning of the National Labor Relations Act, individual agreements could not be used to require employees to proceed individually in dealing with their employers.”

Under tough questioning by Roberts and Kennedy, Richard Griffin stuck to his positon that the rules of the forum—arbitral or court—must be followed, but an arbitration agreement that violates the NLRA by limiting the employees’ right to proceed must fall. He suggested that ADR provider rules could limit the procedures, but the employers couldn’t because if they did, it would be limiting employees’ access to justice.

* * *

The employees’ attorney, Daniel R. Ortiz, director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Va., began his argument by addressing an earlier question posed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor to Richard Griffin.  Ortiz said that about 55% of nonunion private employees have contracts with mandatory arbitration agreements, covering 60 million workers, with about 25 million people covered by the equivalent of class wavers.

The key part of Ortiz’s argument, which emerged in discussions with a skeptical Chief Justice Roberts, was that the employers’ conduct was clearly illegal under NLRA Sec. 7, and thereby removed the enforcement of the arbitration agreement under FAA Sec. 2’s savings clause, because the section makes illegality of a contract provision a basis for striking an obligation to arbitrate.

* * *

In his rebuttal, Paul Clement picked up on comments by Justice Kennedy earlier that, even if they have waived class litigation and arbitration, employees still have the right to concerted activity by choosing the same lawyer to represent them in an arbitral forum, even if they proceeded individually.  He also said that they can take their pay claims to the Labor Department, which would allow employees to proceed without arbitration.

In response to a question by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clement said that confidentiality agreements wouldn’t affect a lawyer’s ability to take multiple arbitration matters.

 

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

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