Court Backs Award for Class Arbitration, Refusing to Wait for Supreme Court’s Decision

By Shravanthi Suresh-Silver

A recent Wisconsin federal trial court decision backs confirmation of an arbitration award even though the defendant asked for it to be stayed until the class waivers-arbitration cases currently before the U.S. Supreme Court are decided.

The arbitrator in the case had backed a class arbitration process on behalf of employees, who said that the defendant, Waterstone Mortgage Corp., a Pewaukee, Wis.-based lender, failed to pay its loan officers overtime.

The three consolidated cases on waivers that ban class processes in favor of mandatory individual arbitration were argued together in the Supreme Court on Oct. 2. A decision on the relationship between the Federal Arbitration Act and the National Labor Relations Act is expected soon.

In Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp., No. 11-cv-779-bbc (U.S.W.D Dec. 4)(available at http://bit.ly/2BgULTT), U.S. District Court Senior Judge Barbara B. Crabb, based in Madison, Wis., concluded that plaintiff’s claims would have to be resolved through arbitration under the parties’ agreement, and that the NLRA gave the plaintiff the right to join other employees in her case.

Herrington also is notable because the court rejected an arbitrator bias argument and addressed claims that the arbitrator, former Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge George Pratt, slept through key proceedings.

Plaintiff Herrington commenced arbitration on March 23, 2012, under her employment contract. Arbitrator Pratt issued an order determining that the arbitration could proceed as a collective action. Ultimately, the Wisconsin federal court opinion by Senior Judge Crabb notes, 174 class members opted into the arbitration.

On July 5, 2017, Pratt issued a final decision, holding that Waterstone was liable under the Fair Labor Standards Act for unpaid minimum wages and overtime and attorney fees and costs, but not liable under Wisconsin statutory or contract law. He ordered Waterstone to pay nearly $7.3 million in damages; $3.3 million in attorney fees and costs and an incentive fee of $20,000 to be paid to Herrington.

The plaintiff moved for confirmation of the award under 9 U.S.C. § 9 in the Wisconsin federal court, while the mortgage company moved to vacate or modify the award, asking Senior Judge Bragg to stay any action relating to the award until the U.S. Supreme Court reaches a decision in the consolidated cases of Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris; Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, and NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc. (For more information on the cases, see CPR Speaks at http://bit.ly/2yWjWuf.). In the cases, the Court is considering whether class and collective action waivers in arbitration agreements violate the National Labor Relations Act.

The plaintiff countered by asking for sanctions against the defendant lender, arguing that the objections to the award’s confirmation were frivolous.

The court denied the defendant’s motions to stay and to vacate the arbitration award, as well as Herrington’s sanctions motion. The court confirmed the arbitration award, with one modification to correct the mathematical error identified by both parties.

In arguing to stay any action relating to the award until the Supreme Court reaches its decision in the consolidated cases, Waterstone suggested that if the Supreme Court concludes that class and collective action waivers do not violate the National Labor Relations Act, the defendant will be able to rely on that decision to file a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) challenging Bragg’s March 2012 decision in the case striking the class waiver in the company’s employment agreement.

In noting that the defendant’s assumption was flawed, the Wisconsin court reemphasized that “a change in law showing that a previous judgment may have been incorrect is not an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ justifying relief under Rule 60(b)(6).” (Quoting Nash v. Hepp, 740 F.3d 1075, 1078 (7th Cir. 2014)(“Rule 60(b) cannot be used to reopen the judgment in a civil case just because later authority shows that the judgment may have been incorrect.” (Internal citation omitted.)), Bragg noted in her opinion that the defendant “made no attempt to explain why a change in the law would justify reconsideration of a decision made in this case five years ago.”

The court also noted that the ultimate decision allowing the case to proceed on a collective basis was made by Arbitrator Pratt, not the court. Bragg noted that Pratt said he was bound by her finding that the class waiver provision was invalid under the National Labor Relations Act.

But the opinion also says that Pratt found the employment agreement’s arbitration clause was ambiguous. Despite the waiver, he noted, the clause also stated that arbitration should proceed “in accordance with the rules of the American Arbitration Association,” which permits class arbitration.

The arbitrator noted that the defendant “at the very least created an ambiguity, which must be construed against [Waterstone,] the party who drafted the Agreement.”

The opinion says that the arbitrator “also noted plaintiff’s argument that the language of the so-called ‘waiver’ clause should actually be read as permitting class or collective arbitration, rather than prohibiting it, though the arbitrator chose not to resolve that dispute.”

Wrote Senior Judge Bragg,

In other words, the arbitrator’s discussion suggests that he believed there were independent bases for permitting collective arbitration, aside from this court’s previous decision. Thus, it is far from clear that the Supreme Court’s decision . . . would cause the arbitrator to change his decision to permit collective arbitration.

The court also stated that the case had been pending since 2011 and that it was not at an early stage. It was noted that a further delay would prejudice the plaintiff, who had been waiting several years through numerous delays to recover unpaid wages.

Additionally, despite the defendant’s assertion that a stay would “greatly simplify the issues and reduce the burden of litigation,” Bragg wrote that she was not persuaded that the Supreme Court’s decision will necessarily simplify the issues in this case, however it rules.

There were other significant issues. The defendant argued that Arbitrator Pratt “demonstrated bias in favor of plaintiff when he sent a survey to potential class members as part of his decision whether to certify a class.” The defendant stated that when the survey was submitted, discovery on class certification was closed and the arbitrator had said that the plaintiff’s evidence supporting class certification was insufficient.

Additionally, Waterstone argued that the phrasing of the survey was biased in favor of plaintiff.

But Bragg dismissed the bias claims.  She held that “there is nothing about the arbitrator’s decision to send out the survey and consider the responses that suggests bias in favor of plaintiff or against defendant.” The inquiries, the opinion noted, were “simply ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions regarding the experiences of putative class members.”

Furthermore, the arbitrator permitted the parties to argue and brief their views regarding the survey, “and issued a written decision explaining his reasons for considering the results.” Pratt “later issued a well-reasoned 16-page written decision on class certification,” Bragg noted in her opinion, “explaining the survey results and his conclusion that the results supported class certification.”

Finally, the arbitrator was clear that he understood the evidentiary limitations of the survey results. Therefore, the court dismissed the defendant’s allegations of arbitrator bias.

The defendant also argued that the award should be vacated because Arbitrator Pratt “slept through portions of the evidentiary hearing,” the opinion says.

Waterstone argued that the arbitrator’s “alleged sleeping amounts to abdication of his duties and qualifies as misconduct sufficient to justify vacating the arbitration award,” the opinion says.

Senior Judge Bragg said she agreed with Plaintiff Herrington that if the defense believed Pratt slept during the hearing, it should have asked for a break. The court noted that there appeared to be a factual dispute regarding whether Pratt dozed. “To raise this issue now seems far too late,” the opinion says.

Bragg emphasized that even if the arbitrator dozed off, the defendant “had pointed to nothing suggesting that the arbitrator was prejudiced by the alleged napping.” While Waterstone claimed that Pratt slept during important testimony, it failed to identify any specific testimony that he missed.

In dismissing the defendant’s motion that the arbitration award should be vacated, the court noted that the defendant’s arguments about prejudice are based entirely on speculation.

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The author is a CPR intern.

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