U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert to Decide “Who Decides” “Independent Contractor” Employment Arbitration Case

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

On February 26, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, Case No. 17-340, a 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals decision in which the appeals court ruled on two questions: (1) Whether, under a contractual arrangement where the parties have delegated arbitrability questions to the arbitration, a court facing a motion to compel arbitration must first decide whether the US Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) covers or excludes the dispute or instead leave that question to be decided first by the arbitrators and (2) does the provision of Sec. 1 of the FAA excluding contracts of employment of transportation workers  from arbitration apply to an agreement that purports to establish an independent contractor relationship rather than an employer-employee relationship.

This case raises two questions of first impression in this circuit. First, when a federal district court is confronted with a motion to compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA or Act), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, in a case where the parties have delegated questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator, must the court first determine whether the FAA applies or must it grant the motion and let the arbitrator determine the applicability of the Act? We hold that the applicability of the FAA is a threshold question for the court to determine before compelling arbitration under the Act. Second, we must decide whether a provision of the FAA that exempts contracts of employment of transportation workers from the Act’s coverage, see id. § 1 (the § 1 exemption), applies to a transportation-worker agreement that establishes or purports to establish an independent-contractor relationship. We answer this question in the affirmative.

Oral argument in the matter will occur during the Fall term of the Supreme Court.

The underlying contractual agreements are easily summarized (footnotes omitted):

Among the documents Oliveira signed was an Independent Contractor Operating Agreement (the contract) between Prime and Hallmark.3 The contract specified that the relationship between the parties was that “of carrier and independent contractor and not an employer/employee relationship” and that “[Oliveira is] and shall be deemed for all purposes to be an independent contractor, not an employee of Prime.”4 Additionally, under the contract, Oliveira retained the rights to provide transportation services to companies besides Prime,5 refuse to haul any load offered by Prime, and determine his own driving times and delivery routes. The contract also obligated Oliveira to pay all operating and maintenance expenses, including taxes, incurred in connection with his use of the truck leased from Success. Finally, the contract contained an arbitration clause under which the parties agreed to arbitrate “any disputes arising under, arising out of or relating to [the contract], . . . including the arbitrability of disputes between the parties.”6

Ultimately, Oliveira filed a class action in US District Court against Prime notwithstanding the arbitration clause.  Oliveira alleged that Prime violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219, as well as the Missouri minimum-wage statute, by failing to pay its truck drivers minimum wage. Oliveira also asserted a class claim for breach of contract or unjust enrichment and an individual claim for violation of Maine labor statutes.  Prime moved to compel arbitration under the FAA.

The provision of the FAA at issue in this dispute is Section 1, which excludes from the coverage of the FAA “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

Section 1 of the FAA provides that the Act shall not apply “to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Id. § 1. The Supreme Court has interpreted this section to “exempt[] from the FAA . . . contracts of employment of transportation workers.”

On the “who decides” issue, the Court of Appeals held in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira that the courts, rather than the arbitrators, are the proper place to decide whether these disputes are covered by, or exempted from, the FAA.  Having decided the “who decides” question to place the resolution in the courts, the appellate judges then concluded that, on the particular facts of the case, “a transportation-worker agreement that establishes or purports to establish an independent-contractor relationship is a contract of employment under § 1,” and thus excluded from the FAA.

Given the dramatic increase in “independent contractor” agreements in the workplace over the last decades, this case may determine whether a large variety of labor disputes are heard in court or may instead be subjected to mandatory arbitration agreements.  The Scotusblog.com case page with the appellate decision and cert filings is here – http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/new-prime-inc-v-oliveira/.


Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

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.

* * *

The author is a CPR intern.

JAMS Disputes NJ’s Classification of its Operations as the Practice of Law

By Elena Gurevich

Earlier this month the New Jersey Supreme Court granted a cert petition request by JAMS, the nation’s largest private alternative dispute resolution provider, giving the organization a chance to argue that the retired lawyers and judges who serve on its neutrals’ panels are not practicing law, and therefore do not have to comply with all the state’s requirements for doing so.

In August 2016, JAMS filed a request for an advisory opinion from three New Jersey Supreme Court committees as to whether it could open an office to provide neutral services “without the requirements of a law office practice.”

Having reviewed the committee and Court opinions that guide New Jersey law practice, JAMS concluded that so long as its ADR office is “maintained as a business which does not offer or advertise traditional legal services where there is an attorney-client relationship, this business may be independently maintained, even though staffed by retired judges and lawyers who act as Neutrals in providing ADR services such as mediation, arbitration and the like and are held out to the public using the designation retired judge or ‘Esq.’ for lawyer neutrals.”

JAMS is a nearly 40-year-old Irvine, Calif.-based firm that focuses on mediating and arbitrating complex business and commercial cases via its panel of neutrals. See www.jamsadr.com. The ADR provider has offices in 14 states, the District of Columbia, and in London and Toronto.

JAMS agreed that its New Jersey lawyer-neutrals are subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers, but argued that the New Jersey requirements for a traditional law practice “are not necessary for the provision of neutral services in the state.”

On May 1, 2017, three New Jersey Supreme Court advisory committees—the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law and the Committee on Attorney Advertising—responded to JAMS’ request with a joint advisory letter decision that says that the state’s ethics rules apply to the provider.

The consequences of the determination are that JAMS would need to open a bona fide office in the state, and maintain a trust account.

Predominantly relying upon ACPE Opinion 676/CAA Opinion 18 (April 1994)(available at http://bit.ly/2hRLF7E), the joint committee decision advised that, because the lawyers and retired judges at JAMS work as third-party neutrals, they are engaged in the practice of law and as such must “comply with the rules governing lawyers in private practice.”

On June 30, JAMS filed a petition to New Jersey Supreme Court seeking review of the joint decision. JAMS asserted that as a provider of “non-traditional legal services” it does not establish any attorney-client relationship.

The state’s top Court granted the petition on Oct. 4.

In the petition, JAMS cited a University of Baltimore law review article asserting that mediation “is not the practice of law because it is not illegal for non-lawyers to be mediators.” Robert Rubinson, “The New Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct and Mediation: Perplexing Questions Answered and

Perplexing Questions That Remain,” University of Baltimore Law Forum Vol. 36: No. 1, Article 2 at 12 (available at http://bit.ly/2yEf8fk).

The article also emphasizes the definition of mediation that involves mediators “who, without providing legal advice, assist the parties in reaching their own voluntary agreement.” That, according to the article, signified the fact that under Maryland law mediators are not practicing law.

In its joint answer brief prepared by the state attorney general’s office and filed Aug. 30, the Supreme Court committees reject the argument. saying that the Maryland law “carries no weight in New Jersey” since the jurisdiction uses a different analysis when it tries to determine if someone has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. It explains that New Jersey “first decides whether an activity constitutes the practice of law; it then considers whether, if non-lawyers engage in that activity, it is in the public interest to permit them to continue.”

The joint answer also notes that the attorney-client relationship was “immaterial to the issue.” Instead, it focuses on the public interest and regulation of neutral services, saying it was “germane to the Committees ‘ analysis.”

According to the joint answer, the Court committees “sufficiently addressed” the public interest concerns in their decision, pointing out that JAMS’ “expressly markets its neutrals’ legal experience and skill through their roles as lawyers and retired judges.” The committees expressed their concern that JAMS’ prospective customers “are entitled to rely on that experience and those designations in their selection of a neutral, calling for proper regulation of “these individuals.”

JAMS filed a Sept. 18 reply brief arguing that “[p]ermission for N.J. admitted lawyers and retired judges to conduct a neutral practice under the JAMS umbrella does not diminish regulatory oversight or the public interest.”

JAMS asserted that it mentioned the Maryland law review article simply to “illustrate the shift by other courts throughout the nation towards acceptance of the provision of neutral services as not being tantamount to the practice of law.  . . .”

JAMS also underscored that it did not “seek to redefine how ADR practice in New Jersey fits into law,” asking the court to recognize that practice has evolved immensely over the past 20 years since Joint Opinion 676, discussed above, was issued.

The ADR provider drew the court’s attention to the dichotomy Joint Opinion 676 presented. According to the reply brief, “an ADR neutral’s practice is a part of law practice,” but the joint opinion simultaneously recognizes that non-admitted lawyers and other professionals also may practice in the field. JAMS opined, “It would be helpful and in the public interest for the court to address this dichotomy.”

JAMS expects to file a supplemental brief on or before Nov. 13, according to its attorney, Robert Margulies, of Jersey City, NJ’s Margulies & Wind. The joint committee’s response brief would be due on or before Dec.18.

The Court’s acceptance of the case was first reported in Michael Booth, “Justices Will Hear JAMS Challenge to NJ Ethics Rules,” N.J.L.J. (Oct. 10)(available at http://bit.ly/2hSuMdg).


The author, who has just completed her L.L.M. with a focus on IP law at Cardozo School of Law in New York, is a 2017 CPR Institute Fall Intern.

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. 

Supreme Court Oral Argument on NLRB Class Actions vs. Arbitration Policy

By Mark Kantor

The US Supreme Court heard oral argument this morning in the three consolidated cases involving the policy of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) prohibiting arbitration clauses in employment agreements that bar class actions (Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris and National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA).  The transcript of that oral argument will be available here later this afternoon – https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcript/2017

Many observers believe the Court’s decision in these cases will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote.  For what it is worth, Reuters characterized Justice Kennedy’s questions as “pro-employer” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-labor/u-s-supreme-court-divided-over-key-employment-dispute-idUSKCN1C71RP).

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote in major cases, asked questions that appeared to favor employers, as did two fellow conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Kennedy indicated that a loss for workers would not prevent them from acting in concert because they would still be able to join together to hire the same lawyer to bring claims, even though the claims would be arbitrated individually. That would provide “many of the advantages” of collective action, Kennedy said.

See also Bloomberg’s take, which picked up on the same Kennedy comment –  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-02/justices-suggest-they-will-divide-on-worker-class-action-rights.

Anne Howe, the respected Court-watcher writing on her own blog Howe on the Court and on Scotusblog, started her review of the proceedings with her bottom line; “In the first oral argument of the new term, a divided Supreme Court seemed likely to uphold employment agreements that require an an employee to resolve a dispute with an employer through individual arbitration, waiving the possibility of proceeding collectively.” (http://amylhowe.com/2017/10/02/argument-analysis-epic-day-employers-arbitration-case/, republished at www.scotusblog.com/2017/10/argument-analysis-epic-day-employers-arbitration-case/#more-262296 ).

Not often noted in the analyses of these cases, the NLRB regulatory policy at issue in Epic Systems et al may in any event become moot.  Effective just a few days ago, the Board of the NLRB now has a Republican majority (http://fortune.com/2017/09/26/nlrb-labor-workers-rights-william-emanuel/).  Moreover, the incumbent NLRB General Counsel (a separate position appointed directly by the President, not the NLRB Board, and subject to Senate confirmation), who actually argued the cases for the NLRB, is scheduled to leave his post in November, thereby opening up that position to a Republican nominee who has apparently already been identified (http://www.insidecounsel.com/2017/09/19/peter-robb-trumps-pick-for-nlrb-general-counsel-is).  It would not at all be surprising for Republican control of the NLRB to result in a reversal of this NLRB policy, just as Democratic control of the NLRB led to promulgation of the policy in the first place.  This dispute is a reminder that many aspects of arbitration in the US are now a partisan political issue, with regulatory measures addressing arbitration shifting back and forth as political party control shifts back and forth.

More broadly, for those of you who feel that these individual employment cases (and similar measures by Federal regulators, under general regulatory statutes, preferring class actions in court over mandatory arbitration of individual claims) are not relevant to your commercial or investment arbitration practice, the precedential impact of a Supreme Court ruling overturning the NLRB’s pro-class action policy may extend far beyond employment and consumer-related claims.  Illustratively, for many years, the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) has maintained an informal policy of refusing to register public offerings of stock by companies that include mandatory arbitration clauses in their charter documents for disputes between shareholders and the issuing company.  As a result, shareholder law suits (such as shareholder class actions) are brought in the US courts.

In July of this year, Republican SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar stated publicly that the SEC is now open to the idea of allowing companies contemplating initial public securities offerings to include mandatory shareholder arbitration provisions in their company charter documents.  That idea, if implemented, could arguably kill off shareholder securities class actions in the US courts.  One might think that a Republican majority of Commissioners on the SEC would be amenable to changing the SEC’s shareholder claims policy barring arbitration.  It is not, however, yet clear whether the SEC’s new Republican Chairman Jay Clayton is also receptive to the idea. See  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-otc-arbitration/shareholder-alert-sec-commissioner-floats-class-action-killing-proposal-idUSKBN1A326T .

The SEC’s unwritten policy barring mandatory arbitration of shareholder claims came under interest group pressure in 2006-2007.  It was also the subject of several corporate efforts to cause a change in the SEC’s policy, most notably in connection with a 2012 proposed share offering by the Carlyle Group.  But the SEC policy survived due to inter alia push-back from the Democratic-controlled Congress.  A broad pro-arbitration decision by the US Supreme Court, rejecting the NLRB’s regulatory effort to preserve employment class actions by prohibiting mandatory arbitration, could easily have a significant impact on the SEC’s unwritten policy to deny registration of securities offerings covered by a mandatory arbitration provision in the issuer’s charter documents.

The SEC question is sure to trigger aggressive lobbying by both sides as it arises again – indeed, it has already done so in the blogosphere.  Illustratively:

For shareholder arbitration and against class actions  – http://clsbluesky.law.columbia.edu/2017/08/21/shareholders-deserve-right-to-choose-mandatory-arbitration/

Against shareholder arbitration and for class actions – http://clsbluesky.law.columbia.edu/2017/08/28/mandatory-arbitration-does-not-give-stockholders-a-choice/


Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral and a regular contributor to CPR Speaks. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

California Appeals Panel Declines to Compel Arbitration in a Nursing Home Case

By Lyn Lawrence

The author is a CPR Institute Summer 2017 Intern.

California’s Third Appellate District has refused an appeal to compel arbitration in Hutcheson v. Eskaton FountainWood Lodge, No. C074846 (Cal. A.D.3d. June 14, 2017)(available at http://bit.ly/2rxIc1T), a nursing home dispute in which family members of a deceased former resident sought to sue the residential care facility for elder abuse, fraud and negligence.

The decedent, Barbara Lovenstein, granted a health care power of attorney to her niece, Robin Hutcheson, and a personal care power of attorney to her sister, Jean Charles. Charles transferred Lowenstein to Eskaton FountainWood Lodge, a residential care and assisted living facility in Orangevale, Calif., and entered into the admission agreement.

After the Lovenstein died, Hutcheson and Charles instituted legal proceedings against FountainWood, which submitted a motion to compel arbitration. A trial court denied the motion.  The court found that Charles acted beyond the powers of her personal care power of attorney when entering into the admission agreement, making the arbitration clause invalid.

FountainWood approached the Third Appellate District to overturn the trial court’s decision. But a unanimous three-judge panel affirmed, based on its interpretation of California’s Power of Attorney Law and Health Care Decisions Law, holding that the decision to admit the deceased was a health care decision, not within Charles’ personal care POA.

The court concluded that the trial court was correct in denying the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration.

It can be inferred from the judgment that the court would have compelled arbitration had Hutcheson, who held the health care power of attorney, entered into the admission agreement. The court stated that, “There is no evidence in the record that Hutcheson, Lovenstein’s attorney-in-fact for health care under the health care POA, was involved in any of the decisions and actions regarding Lovenstein’s admission, stay at, or discharge from FountainWood.”

The California case denying the care facility’s motion to compel arbitration runs counter to two recent events with national implications that backed arbitration for conflicts related to nursing home patients.

Hutcheson follows just a month after the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Kentucky Supreme Court’s interpretation of the state’s power-of-attorney law discriminated against arbitration.

See Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark, No. 16-32 (May 15)(available at http://bit.ly/2pCk94L) (for analysis, “SCOTUS Says States Can’t Discriminate Against Arbitration, Directly or Indirectly,” CPR Speaks blog (May 16)(available at http://bit.ly/2rxGFeB).

In addition, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rescinded its 2016 ban on including mandatory arbitration provisions in nursing home agreements early this month (see CMS fact sheet at http://go.cms.gov/2sA2Wae).

SCOTUS Says States Can’t Discriminate Against Arbitration, Directly or Indirectly

Adding to its line of pro-arbitration decisions led by AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333 (2011)(available at http://bit.ly/1Sf42Bm), the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reaffirmed in a 7-1 ruling written by Justice Elena Kagan that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) both “preempts any state rule discriminating on its face against arbitration” and “displaces any rule that covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that (oh so coincidentally) have the defining features of arbitration agreements.” Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark, No. 16-32 (May 15)(available at http://bit.ly/2pCk94L ).

Kindred came to the Supreme Court after the Kentucky Supreme Court refused to enforce arbitration agreements signed on behalf of two residents of the Kindred Nursing Center, by relatives to whom the residents had given power of attorney. The two residents died, their families alleged, from substandard care provided by the nursing home.

The nursing home moved to dismiss the complaints on the grounds that the parties had agreed to arbitrate their claims. The trial court initially sent the cases to arbitration, but reconsidered later in light of a Kentucky Supreme Court opinion, and denied these motions. The Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed that the suits could proceed. The Kentucky Supreme Court consolidated the cases and affirmed, holding that a power of attorney must explicitly authorize the attorney in fact to waive jury trials in order to include arbitration agreements under the power.

As the Justices’ questioning during oral arguments earlier this year acknowledged, the facts of this case involved something more important and sensitive than a mere dispute over the arbitrability of a telephone or cable bill. But, with Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court seemed to be implying that, no matter how emotional the backdrop, the states cannot attack federal law that applies to that contract, even indirectly.

The Kentucky Supreme Court, wrote Kagan in the Kindred opinion, “did exactly what Concepcion barred: adopt a legal rule hinging on the primary characteristic of an arbitration agreement—namely, a waiver of the right to go to court and receive a jury trial.”

With this recent line of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the presence of unequal treatment of arbitration will control the results in these cases.

“There is no doubt that mandatory arbitration procedures, when abused, can be used to stack the deck in favor of companies against individuals, and the original case’s underlying facts are upsetting,” said CPR President & CEO, Noah J. Hanft. “But in ruling that the FAA precludes states from imposing rules that negatively single out arbitration agreements, the Supreme Court in Kindred has correctly protected a process that is fundamentally no less fair or favorable to individuals than a trial might be–and which arguably has the potential to offer many additional benefits. One can, and must, advocate simultaneously both for a robust arbitration option, and for its fair application.”

Justice Kagan’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito and Sotomayor. Justice Gorsuch, who had not yet been confirmed when the case was argued, did not participate.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented–the seventh time he has issued a solo dissent noting that the FAA doesn’t apply to state court proceedings.  He would have backed the Kentucky Supreme Court, writing that in state courts, “the FAA does not displace a rule that requires express authorization from a principal before an agent may waive the principal’s right to a jury trial.”

Gorsuch on Mediation

By Russ Bleemer

U.S. Circuit Court cases referencing mediation aren’t unusual. Since most cases settle before they get to a courthouse, and long before they reach the appellate levels, the intervention of a third-party neutral is commonplace part of the recounting of the case histories that ultimately appear before appeals courts.

But it’s comparatively rare for a U.S. Circuit Court to write and rule on mediation mechanics.

Last night’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Tenth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, of Denver, has written about the mechanics and effects of mediation in his decade on the bench at the circuit’s home in Denver.

In Hand v. Walnut Valley Sailing Club, Case No. 11-3228 (10th Cir. April 4, 2012)(available at http://bit.ly/2jVWsO7), a unanimous Tenth Circuit panel strongly backed mediation confidentiality in an order and judgment written by Gorsuch—a rare pronouncement on mediation and how it works by a federal circuit court.

For fans of mediation, it’s an instructive and fun read for its support of the ADR process, even though the appeals court’s support of a district court dismissal because a litigant abused mediation confidentiality rules was focused on a pleading technicality.

In the unanimous, three-judge panel order, Gorsuch details a move by the plaintiff, a member of the defendant sailing club, to tell “at least” 44 club members and others why a mediation of the plaintiff’s suit against the club failed.

The email sent by the plaintiff “disparage[ed] the club’s positions and relat[ed] all the details of the mediation, including what the mediator said and the amount of the club’s settlement offer,” the order states.

The plaintiff, according to the Gorsuch judgment, had complained to Kansas’s governor “that a storage shed owned by [the] sailing club didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” The club revoked the plaintiff’s membership, and the plaintiff filed suit.

The plaintiff had claimed ignorance of the mediation confidentiality law, but in dismissing the case, Gorsuch pointed out that the issue hadn’t been briefed in the district court.  The Tenth Circuit order says that the plaintiff’s contention that his lack of knowledge of the law was in an accompanying affidavit wasn’t sufficient where “both sides’ briefing, all prepared by retained counsel, proceeded on the premise that he knew the mediation was supposed to remain confidential. [The plaintiff] argued merely that the club’s request for dismissal was a disproportionate sanction.”

That was the sole issue, Gorsuch wrote, that the appeals panel saw as “worthy of mention,” noting that without the briefing, the issue couldn’t be considered.

But that conclusion followed the Tenth Circuit panel’s strong endorsement of mediation confidentiality. “Our review confirms that the district court did not abuse its discretion,” wrote Gorsuch, adding that the plaintiff

committed a serious violation of the confidentiality rule. He didn’t just share a few tidbits about the mediation with a friend, he revealed extensive and prejudicial details about the mediation to over forty people, many likely witnesses in the case. And he did so not accidentally but intentionally. In his deposition, [he] explained that he “absolutely” disclosed mediation information because he believed club members “had a right to know.”

Earlier in the order, Gorsuch reiterated the U.S. District Court holding that his panel was affirming, boosting the ADR process and noting that the plaintiff’s disclosures

“demonstrated complete disrespect for the confidential mediation process.” [Citation omitted.] In discussing the importance confidentiality plays under the congressional scheme created by the Alternative Dispute Resolution Act of 1998, see 28 U.S.C. § 652(d) (requiring district courts to “provide for the confidentiality of the alternative dispute resolution processes and to prohibit disclosure of confidential dispute resolution communications”), the court recognized that an assurance of confidentiality encourages parties to participate in mediation with candor and is essential to the success of mediation programs. The need for confidentiality, the court said, is particularly strong where a mediation program is, as here, mandatory, “because participants are often assured that all discussions and documents related to the proceeding will be protected from forced disclosure.” [Citation omitted.]

Still, the Gorsuch-written Hand order isn’t a published opinion and comes with a caveat:  “This order and judgment is not binding precedent, except under the doctrines of law of the case, res judicata, and collateral estoppel. It may be cited, however, for its persuasive value consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 and 10th Cir. R. 32.1.”


Gorsuch also had to address the effect of a mediation settlement agreement in A.F. v. Espanola Public Schools, No. 14-2139 (Sept. 15, 2015)(available at http://bit.ly/2ki2QAa).

The case was mediated as per the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and settled.  But the IDEA’s procedures contemplate moves for further relief under other statutes, but only after the act’s procedures have been exhausted.

Both parties took advantage of the mediation step in the act, according to the 2-1 Gorsuch opinion.  The case settled.

Then, the plaintiff filed suit on behalf of her daughter under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, making the same allegations in federal court that she had made in her original administrative complaint, and which were successfully resolved in mediation.

The Gorsuch opinion affirmed a district court decision that said the plaintiff hadn’t exhausted her remedies under the IDEA scheme for the second suit.

The plaintiff claimed that because she had mediated her claim under the IDEA procedure scheme, the procedures’ application to her new claim had been exhausted, or were inapplicable.

Gorsuch’s opinion didn’t take issue with the mediation results itself, and even agreed that the plaintiff’s court case could proceed under the other statutes, so long as it followed the IDEA procedures required for the other laws.

But the opinion said that the IDEA procedure enabling the subsequent suit also required exhaustion of the claims, under the statute’s plain terms.  The mediation wasn’t enough. For those claims using the statute to launch the plaintiff’s subsequent lawsuit, the opinion said, more is required for exhaustion of the IDEA resolution procedures than the mediation for the first IDEA claim.

A dissent stated that a more reasonable interpretation of the IDEA is that a mediated resolution constitutes exhaustion for the pursuit of other permitted claims.

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

See also: “Gorsuch on Arbitration”

Gorsuch on Arbitration

By Russ Bleemer

A review of the arbitration opinions involving Tenth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, who last night was nominated to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, doesn’t provide a definitive indication on how his arbitration votes might fall if the U.S. Senate approves of his nomination.

The 49-year-old Gorsuch, who has been on the Tenth Circuit bench since President George W. Bush nominated him and he was confirmed by the Senate in 2006, has participated in appellate panels that have backed awards, compelled arbitration and reversed a failure to compel arbitration.

But the narrow scope of arbitration cases in which the circuit judge has participated, and the issues on which the cases were decided, don’t show a pronounced tilt toward business or consumers.

Adherence to Contract Law Principles, Combined with Customary View of FAA

In his most arbitration-centric decision, Gorsuch’s preferred path is adherence to contract law principles, combined with a customary view of the Federal Arbitration Act among federal judges.

“Everyone knows the Federal Arbitration Act favors arbitration,” Gorsuch wrote in the opening to Howard v. Ferrellgas Partners, No. 13-3061 (10th Cir. April 8, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTm6Wi), but, he emphasized, “before the Act’s heavy hand in favor of arbitration swings into play, the parties themselves must agree to have their disputes arbitrated.”

He continued, “While Congress has chosen to preempt state laws that aim to channel disputes into litigation rather than arbitration, even under the FAA it remains a ‘fundamental principle’ that ‘arbitration is a matter of contract,’ not something to be foisted on the parties at all costs.”

Possible Role in Employment Contract Class Action Waiver Cases

There is little in the 38 arbitration opinions that the Tenth Circuit website produces in a search of Gorsuch’s work—mostly incidental mentions–that rises to the level of significance of the preemption of state law and class waiver issues that have steadily appeared at the U.S. Supreme Court in its recent history.

But if confirmed quickly, Gorsuch could find himself participating in the decisions on three cases taken by the Court on Jan. 13 that will be argued together this term, and will settle whether employees can be required as a condition of employment to arbitrate their workplace disputes individually, while waiving their rights to a class process.

The long-simmering group of cases is a clash between the National Labor Relations Act and the Federal Arbitration Act, and an extension to the employment arena of the leading class waiver/mandatory arbitration case in consumer contracts, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), which Gorsuch was quoting directly in the passage above.

Arbitration watchers who want to try to handicap the Court’s path likely will need to become acquainted with Gorsuch’s by now well-publicized animosity toward the so-called Chevron Doctrine, in which the U.S. Supreme Court has backed deference to administrative agency determinations.  See Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984)(available at http://bit.ly/1EirXXt).

In an immigration law decision last year, Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, No. 14-9585  (Aug. 23, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2kPDvh5), Gorsuch blasted Chevron in a concurrence, writing that its deference to the executive branch agencies in derogation of legislative power runs counter to the Constitution’s separation of powers checks-and-balance system.

The issue could control the arbitration outcome in the three employment arbitration cases at the Court, which currently are being briefed and not yet scheduled for oral argument. They emanate from a January 2012 opinion by the National Labor Relations Board.

In one of the three cases, the Board itself is a party, appealing a Fifth Circuit decision which overturned its earlier administrative decision. See NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. No. 16-307 (U.S. Supreme Court case page is available here: http://bit.ly/2kOPxal. Scotusblog’s page including briefs and a link to the Fifth Circuit opinion is available here: http://bit.ly/2kPvTyi).

If the Chevron Doctrine doesn’t figure in a Gorsuch view of the current arbitration cases, the NLRB’s moves to preserve class actions by forbidding mandatory arbitration may be another hot button for the former U.S. Supreme Court clerk.

Gorsuch on Class Actions

Gorsuch has problems with class actions in securities cases.  When he was in private practice, he wrote that “economic incentives unique to securities litigation encourage class action lawyers to bring meritless claims and prompt corporate defendants to pay dearly to settle such claims.” Neil M. Gorsuch and Paul B. Matey, “Settlements in Securities Fraud Class Actions: Improving Investor Protection,” Critical Legal Issues–Working Paper Series No. 128 (Washington Legal Foundation April 2005)(available at http://bit.ly/2kTBDCZ).

Two Opinions, One Dissent

Despite involvement as a panel member in cases producing about a dozen opinions or orders, the Howard case discussed above is one of only three arbitration writings exclusively by Gorsuch in his decade-long tenure on the court.  One of the three is a dissent.

The Tenth Circuit website revealed Gorsuch’s opinions, and orders with judgments, but didn’t produce unpublished opinions in which Gorsuch may have participated.

In Howard, Gorsuch wrote that the customarily swift determination by a lower court of whether the parties in the suit agreed to arbitration didn’t take place—fast or slow.

The plaintiff had filed a class action for overcharges against the propane supplier defendant.  The defense asked for arbitration, and Gorsuch described how the lower court botched its inquiry.  He first noted that the district court, “[u]nsure whether [defendant] Ferrellgas had shown an agreement to arbitrate in its initial motion, . . . entertained discovery and further motions practice.”

The trial court, Gorsuch reported, found “too many unresolved factual questions remained and proceeded to invite yet more discovery followed by yet more motions practice.”

Nearly a year and half after the defendant filed its motion to compel arbitration, the district court, Gorsuch wrote, “issued an order in which it found that material disputes of fact still prevented it from saying for certain whether or not the parties had agreed to arbitrate. But rather than proceeding to resolve the conflicting factual accounts through trial as the Act requires, the court entered an order denying arbitration outright.” [Emphasis is Circuit Judge Gorsuch’s.]

“That was error,” continued Gorsuch, exhibiting his breezy writing style in an area dry even by circuit law standards, explaining, “In these circumstances, the [Federal Arbitration] Act’s summary trial can look a lot like summary judgment. But when, as in this case, a quick look at the case suggests material disputes of fact do exist on the question whether the parties agreed to arbitrate, round after round of discovery and motions practice isn’t the answer. Parties should not have to endure years of waiting and exhaust legions of photocopiers in discovery and motions practice merely to learn where their dispute will be heard. The Act requires courts process the venue question quickly so the parties can get on with the merits of their dispute in the right forum. It calls for a summary trial—not death by discovery.”

Then, Gorsuch spread the blame around for arbitration disaster.  “Of course, the parties here didn’t exactly help themselves,” he wrote, adding, “They were anything but quick to seek the trial promised by the Act. In fact, they seemed content enough to haggle along together in the usual way of contemporary civil litigation, all about discovery disputes and motions practice and with only the most glancing consideration given to the possibility of trial.”

The case is a war over a contract, and whether and when it took effect.  Gorsuch explained that it was unclear from the record whether an oral contract for the propane tank and initial delivery was followed by a written contract for future deliveries containing the arbitration clause—and restricting it to the subsequent deliveries.

Regardless, Gorsuch–joined by his two fellow appeals panel members–ruled that with material facts in dispute, the district court should have proceeded to a trial on whether an arbitration agreement existed, and should not have denied the request to arbitration.

He wrote that the Federal Arbitration Act should have shown the path to the case’s resolution.  “We appreciate both sides’ evident frustration at how long this case has lingered at the transom without having entered either the door into arbitration or litigation,” Gorsuch concluded, adding, “It’s understandable that everyone might want us to give the case a firm nudge (one way or the other) so the parties’ dispute can finally progress past preliminary venue questions to the merits. But unresolved material disputes of fact block our way—disputes that could and should have been resolved years ago according to the procedures the FAA provides.”

Taking a Broader FAA View

Gorsuch took a broader FAA view in a dissent in a 2-1 Tenth Circuit arbitration case, Ragab v. Howard, No. 15-1444 (Nov. 21, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2gCL3pn).  The dissent—in a case where his panel affirmed a lower court’s ruling that conflicting arbitration agreements in six contracts between two parties should not be arbitrated because there was no meeting of the minds as to conducting the arbitration—appears to be is his most demonstrative view of the FAA’s effect on state laws.

Gorsuch strongly rejects the majority’s use of a New Jersey case that struck arbitration where multiple contracts conflicted on the terms of arbitration.  He notes that the New Jersey ruling had little application to Colorado laws, but also explains that it may not pass muster with the Supreme Court for its disregard of the FAA.

The New Jersey ruling, he explains, was a deep dive into the state’s consumer protection laws, in a case where the Tenth Circuit Colorado plaintiff more closely resembled a merchant.  But he noted that federal preemption is a big issue:  “Whether or not the FAA would preempt New Jersey’s special ‘extra clarity’ rule for certain kinds of arbitration agreements, that possibility undoubtedly exists and seems to me to counsel against endorsing it without a good deal more careful investigation than the parties offer us in this case.”

He wrote that with six of the parties’ interrelated commercial agreements containing arbitration clauses, and other circumstances, “In my view, parties to a commercial deal could have hardly demonstrated with greater clarity an intention to arbitrate their disputes and I see no way we might lawfully rescue them from their choice.”

Procedural holes are frequently filled by the parties, he explained, in providing “two easy workarounds that I believe would be more consistent with the parties’ expressed purposes than the course my colleagues chart.”

Additional Arbitration Work

Gorsuch was the author of one additional unanimous panel order and judgment on the Tenth Circuit’s website that backed a lower court’s refusal to compel arbitration for a former top executive who was fired by a pharmaceutical company. Genberg v. Porter, No. 13-1140 (May 12, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kpuRs7).

The bulk of Gorsuch’s arbitration work appearing on the Tenth Circuit website, at www.ca10.uscourts.gov, was as part of a panel where others wrote the opinion or order. Among the opinions, Gorsuch joined his fellow circuit judges in backing a lower court ruling that a suit by a union under the Railway Labor Act  belonged in mandatory arbitration (BMWE v. BNSF Railway, No. 12-3061 (March 2, 2010)(available at http://bit.ly/2kpIwif).

In addition, he participated in panels in the following cases but didn’t write the unanimous opinion or order and judgment:

  • An order noting that an arbitration acts as a res judicata bar against a subsequent suit related to the wrongful discharge suit by an ex-Department of Veterans Affairs employee, backing a Merits Systems Protection Board order. Johnson v. DOVA, No. 14-9619 (May 22, 2015)(available at http://bit.ly/2kOYaBK).
  • An order strongly backing a major defense contractor’s mandatory arbitration clause contained in its employment dispute resolution program. Pennington v. Northrop Grumman Space & Mission Systems Corp., No. 07-2250 (March 14, 2008)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTh49F).
  • An affirmance of a Colorado court that overturned an arbitration award against a company which claimed that an arbitration notice presented by its Chinese business partner didn’t put the company on notice of a deadline it missed to participate in the ADR process. CEEG (Shanghai) Solar Science v. Lumos, No. 15-1256 (July 19, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2kOUorT).
  • An nonprecedential order and judgment as to arbitration backing a lower court that refused to compel arbitration, noting that the defendants seeking ADR didn’t establish that an arbitration agreement existed. Bellman v. i3Carbon, No. 12-1275 (May 2, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kp3FJT).
  • An order, also nonprecedential as to the FAA, sending a case to arbitration and entitling the party to attorneys’ fees and costs “incurred in enforcing its right to arbitrate.” The order reversed a federal district court denial of arbitration. The winning defendant in the Tenth Circuit was a builder that sold the plaintiffs two condominiums with a mediation and arbitration clause in the sales agreement. Lamkin v. Morinda Properties Weight Parc, No. 11-4022 (Sept. 19, 2011)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTdKeS).
  • A case affirming dismissal of an employee’s wrongful termination suit after it had been arbitrated, citing claims preclusion under the arbitration award. Lewis v. Circuit City Stores, 05-3383 (Aug. 31, 2007)(available at http://bit.ly/2keVY6J).
  • A decision reversing two federal district court denials of arbitration against an employer charged by workers with violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and an Oklahoma labor law, focusing on the scope of an arbitration clause, but in the remand order asking the lower court to consider whether the arbitration agreement preserves FLSA rights. Sanchez v. Nitro Lift Technologies, 12-7046 (Aug. 8, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kT2Ple).
  • A determination that one of “two factually distinct injuries” related to a commercial contract fell under an arbitration clause, reversing in part a magistrate judge and a federal district court which had found that the case couldn’t be arbitrated. Chelsea Family Pharmacy PLLC v. Medco Health Solutions Inc., No. 08-5103 (June 2, 2009)(available at http://bit.ly/2jtiefT).

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

*Updated at 12 p.m.

Ninth Circuit Backs NLRB’s View Barring Mandatory Pre-dispute Class Waivers, Deepening a Circuit Split

By Ksenia Koriukalova

The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals Monday joined the Seventh Circuit in supporting the position of the National Labor Relations Board against “concerted action waivers” in employment agreements

Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP, No. 13-16599 (9th Cir. August 22, 2016) (available at http://bit.ly/2bqiU0k) contributes to deepening the circuit split regarding the enforceability of class waivers that compel employees to take their employment disputes to individual arbitration.

Morris v. Ernst & Young was the first case in which the NLRB intervened as amicus curiae to urge the court to support its view on the issue, which has been rejected by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits, but backed by the Seventh Circuit in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., No. 15-2997 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016) (available at http://bit.ly/1U8lhTW).

Lewis, the first in which the NLRB argued, caused the split.  The Lewis parties requested and received an extension to decide upon and prepare a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Arbitration experts and analysts expect that employer Epic Systems will file for an appeal sometime next month.

On Monday, in the 2-1 Morris opinion written by Chief Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas, the Ninth Circuit vacated a federal district court order compelling individual arbitration in a class and collective action brought by Ernst & Young employees.

The action was originally brought in New York for the alleged misclassification of employees and violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. After the case was transferred to California’s Northern District, Ernst & Young filed a motion to compel arbitration in accordance with the agreements executed by the plaintiffs as a condition of their employment.

The agreements contained provisions requiring the employees to pursue their legal claims against the accounting and consulting giant exclusively through arbitration, and to arbitrate only in their individual capacity and in “separate proceedings.”

The plaintiffs argued that the “separate proceedings” clause of their agreements violated federal law, in particular the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA. The district court granted the employer’s motion to compel individual arbitration. The appellate court disagreed with that decision.

For full details on the November 2015 Morris argument in the Ninth Circuit, as well as information on the background of the case and resources on the class waivers-NLRA issue, see “Cutting Arbitration Classes: Facing Court Defeats on Workplace Waivers, the NLRB Refuses To Back Down,” 34 Alternatives 1 (January 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2c3hewf).

This week, the Ninth Circuit overturned the district court decision and joined the Seventh Circuit view that class waivers mandating arbitration violate federal labor law.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit panel held that by requiring employees to sign agreements containing “concerted action waivers,” the employer interfered with the employees’ “essential, substantive right” to “engage in concerted activity” granted by the NLRA § 7.

The panel relied on the NLRB’s decision D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012)(PDF download link at http://1.usa.gov/1IMkHn8), enforcement denied in relevant part, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013) (Graves, J., dissenting)(PDF download link at http://bit.ly/1XRvjrM), reh’g denied, No. 12-60031 (Apr. 16, 2014).

In its original D.R. Horton decision, the NLRB concluded that an employer’s requirement that an employee sign a waiver as a condition of employment violated the NLRA. The Ninth Circuit analyzed NLRA § 7, which establishes an employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities, and NLRA § 8, which enforces collective action rights.  The circuit appeals court agreed with the NLRB’s D.R. Horton interpretation of these statutory provisions.

“This case turns on a well-established principle,” wrote Chief Circuit Judge Thomas, “employees have the right to pursue work-related legal claims together.  . . . Concerted activity—the right of employees to act together—is the essential, substantive right established by the NLRA. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Ernst & Young interfered with that right by requiring its employees to resolve all of their legal claims in ‘separate proceedings.’” [Citations omitted.]

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit also held that the application of the Federal Arbitration Act did not change its conclusion. The panel found that the requirement to pursue legal claims against an employer in “separate proceedings” violated the NLRA, irrespective of whether employees were required to bring their complaints in arbitration or in court.

Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta dissented, concluding that that the arbitration agreements signed by Ernst & Young employees were enforceable, because the NLRA did not contain a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA.

Morris v. Ernst & Young deepens the circuit split on enforceability of class action waivers in employment agreements. In addition to D.R. Horton, the Fifth Circuit also has reversed the NLRB’s decision repeatedly, most notably in Murphy Oil USA Inc., Case 10–CA–038804, 361 NLRB No. 72, 2014 WL 5465454 (Oct. 28, 2014) (PDF download link at http://bit.ly/1LVnR8d), enforcement denied in relevant part, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015)(PDF download link at http://bit.ly/1TMfDFO).

The Eighth Circuit followed the Fifth Circuit’s view in Cellular Sales of Missouri LLC v. NLRB, 824 F.3d 772 (8th Cir. 2016).  Earlier the Second Circuit also found class action waiver provisions in employment-related arbitration agreements to be enforceable. (see Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290 (2d Cir. 2013)) But the viability of Sutherland decision is in question following the oral argument in Patterson v. Raymours Furniture Co. heard by the Second Circuit this past Friday.

The Seventh Circuit supported the NRLB’s interpretation in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., where the appeals court reaffirmed the NLRB’s position that class action waivers contained in arbitration agreements employees were required to sign as a condition of their employment violated the NLRA.

Monday’s Ninth Circuit Morris decision is powerful support for Lewis. As a result, while the concerted action waivers in employment-related agreements are considered incompatible with the federal labor law in the Seventh and the Ninth Circuit, the Fifth, the Eighth and the Second Circuits render them enforceable–that is, until the Supreme Court of the United States addresses the issue of the compatibility of the NLRA and the FAA nationwide.

The author is a Fall 2016 CPR Legal Intern. And please stay tuned: there will be more on the Patterson case posted here before the weekend!