Epic Systems vs. #MeToo: What Now?

By Anna M. Hershenberg & Sara Higgins

Panelists and audience members came together to discuss workplace dispute resolution in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems v. Lewis decision, analyzing the impact of mandatory arbitration and class actions waivers in light of the #MeToo movement as it continues to raise awareness of the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in the workplace, and society generally.

More than 100 in-house employment counsel from Fortune 500 companies, corporate defense attorneys, counsel from the plaintiff’s bar, as well as noted academics and neutrals attended a CPR Institute mini-symposium last month on the intersection of the Supreme Court’s decision in Epic Systems v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (May 21)(available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8) and the #MeToo movement.

The two-panel program discussed anticipated responses from state and federal legislatures and the plaintiff’s bar, the pros and cons of mandatory arbitration for employment disputes and what makes an employment disputes program successful in light of new, competing priorities from the perspective of all stakeholders.

The event started with a CPR members-only meeting of CPR’s Employment Disputes Committee members.  The meeting featured an exclusive interview with Anil K. Chaddha, Lead Counsel of Labor, Employment and Benefits at General Motors, about his experience with employment ADR throughout his career.

The program was then opened up to the public where CPR Institute Chief Executive Officer and President Noah Hanft led off by noting that CPR is working to bridge the gap between the two sides of these types of contentious discussions, and provides an avenue for discourse and cooperation between plaintiff’s counsel and corporate defense to tackle common issues.  [Follow CPR Events at www.cpradr.org/events-classes/upcoming, on Facebook and on Twitter].

The first panel, titled “Was Epic Systems Really Epic: Responses to Epic and the Next Battlegrounds for Mandatory Arbitration,” was moderated by Washington, D.C. based neutral Mark Kantor, who is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a member of CPR’s Panel of Distinguished Neutrals.

Kantor broke down the Epic Systems case and discussed both its immediate impact and far-reaching implications with panelists Christopher C. Murray, a shareholder in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., who co-chairs the firm’s Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution Practice Group, and Fran L. Rudich, a partner in Rye Brook, N.Y.’s Klafter Olsen & Lesser.

In Epic Systems, Kantor explained, the Supreme Court upheld the enforceability of class action waivers. He noted that, in writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch concluded:

The policy may be debatable but the law is clear: Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written. While Congress is of course always free to amend this judgment, we see nothing suggesting it did so in the NLRA—much less that it manifested a clear intention to displace the Arbitration Act. Because we can easily read Congress’s statutes to work in harmony, that is where our duty lies.

The panel largely agreed that, from the employer’s perspective, this holding decisively shifts the balance in favor of mandatory arbitration with class action waivers.

From the employees’ perspective, Rudich previewed the plaintiff’s bar’s anticipated response: plaintiffs’ attorneys will now make concerted efforts to bring multiple, individual cases against the same employer as a workaround to class action waivers.  Rudich warned, “be careful what you wish for,” because employers that seek to avoid class matters are going to get exactly that, numerous individual employment dispute arbitrations, potentially with repetitive evidentiary and discovery requests.

The panel also discussed the burgeoning federal and state laws taking aim at mandatory arbitration, including that more states are poised to adopt California-style private attorney general (“PAGA”) laws to supersede employment class actions.

After a brief intermission, a second panel, “Epic Systems v. #MeToo: What Now? Best Practices for Workplace Disputes Program Design,” which included Sarah E. Bouchard, a Philadelphia-based partner in Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP; Lisa J. Banks, a named partner in Washington, D.C.’s Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP; Peter J. Cahill, Executive Director and Associate General Counsel at Ernst & Young LLP in New York; Diane Dann, Senior Vice President of Employment Law at Mastercard Inc. in Purchase, N.Y., and Kathleen McKenna, a partner at event host Proskauer, took the stage to focus on practical guidance for designing workplace disputes programs in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

The panelists discussed the legal, business and public relations implications for implementing employment disputes programs with mandatory arbitration in today’s climate.  They debated whether carving sexual harassment claims out of mandatory arbitration – like Microsoft, Uber and Lyft have done — is workable solution.

The employer-side and employee-side counsel agreed that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017’s conditioned use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment suits may make it harder to settle these types of claims.  Because the law attempts to disincentive the use of NDAs without regard to the wishes of the victim, it forces the parties to find work-arounds to the law where (as often happens) victims do not wish to have these disputes resolved publicly.  The panelists explained that most victims don’t want to be Gretchen Carlson — the journalist and advocate who brought a 2016 sexual harassment complaint against the chairman of Fox News – but instead want to move on with their lives without calling attention to the situation.

Panelists seemed to agree generally that incorporating opt-in or opt-out clauses into workplace dispute resolution programs might be a useful tool for assault victims who aren’t interested in publicly calling out their attackers.

Some tips for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace that the panel discussed included thoroughly vetting new hires’ pasts; evaluating the corporate culture from the top down; training bystanders who witness harassment to report it, and serving less alcohol – and more water — at business functions.

The panelists concluded that the #MeToo movement is broader than just sexual harassment – it has challenged how women are treated in the workplace and how they are compensated.

The program was followed by a networking cocktail reception.

 

Hershenberg is Vice President of Programs and Public Policy at the CPR Institute. Higgins is a CPR Institute Summer 2018 intern.

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