Arbitration Practice After Epic Systems

By Russ Bleemer

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision backs the use of employer-imposed bars on class-action processes. See Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (opinion in the consolidated cases is available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8).  The case is summarized on this CPR Speaks blog here: https://bit.ly/2KEuXFN,   with Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence summarized the blog at https://bit.ly/2wYEKEB, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent examined on CPR Speaks here: https://bit.ly/2rXQFgT.

So what’s next?

Mandatory individual employment arbitration, with a waiver of class/collective processes, means simply that business can require employees to go it alone in addressing problems about the workplace.

A recent study found that mandatory arbitration use already had been soaring on its own over the long-term—see Alexander J.S. Colvin, “The growing use of mandatory arbitration,” Economic Policy Institute (April 6, 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2HxgQUL–even as earlier studies found that employers prefer more conciliatory processes (see the Alternatives article cited below).

Employers surely will continue to restrict class processes.  For many, the ADR process was a sideshow to the ability to limit class actions. New employment arbitration programs will be faced with the same legitimacy questions that adopters over the past 20 years have had to address, and now, with the higher-profile, perhaps more worker skepticism.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers will be forced to assess new approaches for dealing with clients’ work problems without the prospects of bigger matters.

The bottom line, of course, is that leading lawyers on both sides have been ready for today’s decision in the consolidated cases. Both already have begun maneuvering while now facing the decision they are still analyzing.

* * *

The cases involve arbitration provisions that kick in due to class waivers which prohibit employees from joining class processes—litigation or arbitration—in favor of mandatory, predispute, individualized arbitration to resolve disputes with their employers.

The decision is actually on three cases—NLRB v. Murphy Oil (No. 16-307), from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Ernst & Young v. Morris (No. 16-300), from the Ninth Circuit, and the Seventh Circuit’s Epic Systems—that had been consolidated into the Court’s 2017-2018 term’s kickoff argument on Oct. 2, with four attorneys arguing the case on behalf of the parties in all three cases.

The long-contested issue began with the release in 2012 of an opinion by the National Labor Relations Board. The administrative decision, which found that class waivers illegally violated the National Labor Relations Act’s Sec. 7 allowing employees to take concerted action to confront their employer, was overturned repeatedly by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in numerous cases.  See below.

The NLRB ruled that the class waivers 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.” The Fifth Circuit rejected that view on the ground it infringed on arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act, a position strongly echoed today by the U.S. Supreme Court in the majority opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The class waivers in question require workers, from collectively bargained rank-and file to executive suites, to address disputes with their employers in individual arbitration. While unions can agree to mandatory predispute arbitration on behalf of their members, the cases involved white-collar employees and nonunion workers with little bargaining power.

The Court had definitively permitted mandatory arbitration contract clauses accompanied by class waivers for products and services contracts where consumers have little or no bargaining power. See AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333 (2011)(available at https://bit.ly/2KJc8RE).

The Federal Arbitration Act-focused decision today now settles how arbitration is used in workplace matters.

Cases challenging the class waivers that provided for mandatory arbitration flooded the federal courts, starting in the Fifth Circuit, which reversed the NLRB’s 2012 decision, In re D.R. Horton, 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).

The Fifth Circuit became the venue of choice for employers seeking to reverse the NLRB’s finding that they had violated labor law by requiring class waivers and arbitration as a condition of employment. The New Orleans-based federal appeals court issued dozens of opinions countering in their reasoning, and then officially reversing in their holdings, the many NLRB decisions in which the board, an independent Washington agency, followed its D.R. Horton decision.  The reversal, however, only applied to law in the circuit in which the decision was made.

A circuit split emerged, from the Seventh and Ninth Circuits–first the Seventh Circuit’s Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (No. 16-285), which became today’s lead Supreme Court case won by the employer, then with the case of Ernst & Young v. Morris (No. 16-300), from the Ninth Circuit.

The Court accepted the cases, along with NLRB v. Murphy Oil (No. 16-307), one of those Fifth Circuit decisions reversing the NLRB–which itself is a party in the case–and then consolidated the three cases with Epic Systems as the lead more than a year ago.  The argument in the cases kicked off the Court’s current term on Oct. 2.

For details on the arguments, see the blog by Alternatives’ publisher, the CPR Institute, CPR Speaks, at Mark Kantor, “Supreme Court Oral Argument on NLRB Class Actions vs. Arbitration Policy,” CPR Speaks (Oct. 2)(available at http://bit.ly/2fLwU9C), and Russ Bleemer, “The Class Waiver-Arbitration Argument: The Supreme Court Transcript,” CPR Speaks (Oct. 3) (available at http://bit.ly/2yWjWuf).

Kantor noted that the NLRB’s ruling that mandatory arbitration teamed with class waivers were illegal might have disappeared on its own with Trump administration appointees now installed as commissioners ready to reverse the Obama-era D. R. Horton administrative decision.

Regardless, Kantor noted, “This dispute is a reminder that many aspects of arbitration in the U.S. are now a partisan political issue, with regulatory measures addressing arbitration shifting back and forth as political party control shifts back and forth.”

In his majority opinion, Gorsuch used almost the same language.  See the end of CPR Speaks post on the dissent and the majority reaction here: https://bit.ly/2rXQFgT

* * *

For now, today’s Supreme Court has cleared up history’s questions by resolving the overarching issue, with the details to be worked out in employment policies, ADR sessions and, eventually, courtrooms nationwide.

Still, how that plays out in practice is far more in question than it was even a few months ago.

Arbitration has been under attack recently for its frequent use of confidentiality provisions by the #MeToo movement.  The ADR process has been a target in high-profile matters such as Gretchen Carlson’s settlement with her former employer, Fox News.

Microsoft CEO Brad Smith announced that the company would stop using mandatory employment arbitration with respect to sexual harassment claims (which was shortly followed by Uber and Lyft) and legislation barring the process has been proposed. Elena Gurevich, “Predispute Arbitration Would be Barred for Sex Harassment Claims under Legislative Proposal,” CPR Speaks blog (Jan. 25)(available at http://bit.ly/2FUyv4V).

And yet, the license to use arbitration has produced unintended consequences for employers.  A class of employees decertified by a California federal court bombarded national health club 24-Hour Fitness with hundreds of individual arbitrations earlier in the decade, forcing the company to settle all at once.  The decertification–over the claims’ content and unrelated to the class waiver issue—pushed the company to be more aggressive about defending its arbitration clauses, though the Supreme Court didn’t accept its case as part of the consolidated cases decided today. Jessica Goodheart, “Why 24 Hour Fitness Is Going to the Mat against Its Own Employees,” Fast Company (March 13)(available at http://bit.ly/2pkDPIm)

That hardline stance may be an anachronism, despite apparent backing from the Supreme Court today. Employers five years ago were exhibiting a much stronger preference for “mediation and other interest-based processes over mandatory arbitration and other rights-based processes.” David B. Lipsky, J. Ryan Lamare and Michael D. Maffie, “Mandatory Employment Arbitration:  Dispelling the Myths,” 32 Alternatives 133 (October 2014)(available at https://bit.ly/2s11Aqd).

That article also questioned whether employees were increasingly being subject to mandatory arbitration.  And new data from the same source, the Cornell University ILR School—see Colvin article linked above–indicates that the number has soared, more than tripling since the 1990s.  According to Colvin, more than half of employers now have mandatory arbitration, both with and without class waivers, with more than half the nation’s nonunion workers covered by the agreements.  That’s up from only two percent in 1992. Alexander J.S. Colvin, “The growing use of mandatory arbitration,” Economic Policy Institute (April 6, 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2HxgQUL).

Whether more workplace conflict is diverted to resolution methods via human-resource departments’ open-door policies or mediation remains to be seen.  But the growing presence of mandatory arbitration at least guarantees more court cases that will drill down into finer points involving arbitration use—the limits and parameters will be under scrutiny more than the extent of the practice.

Next up for the Supreme Court’s arbitration scrutiny is Oliveira v. New Prime Inc., No. 17-340, which will investigate whether courts or arbitrators decide the arbitrability of a case where Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 1 exemption removing a case from arbitration applies. The case, which will be heard in the fall, could authorize further expansion of the reach of class waivers and mandatory arbitration to independent contractors from today’s employees’ decision. Early speculation is that Epic Systems makes Oliveira an easy call for the employers.

And three weeks ago, the Court took a second arbitration case for next year, Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, No. 17-988, which will examine the issue of whether the Federal Arbitration Act “forecloses a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements.”

Today’s Epic Systems decision will overshadow whatever happens in those cases for human resources executives and in employment lawyers’ offices for longer.  The battleground may move to legislatures.

* * *

Meantime, players on both sides have begun to assess it. They are elated—or searching for words, depending on their side of the employment fence.

Referring to the FAA, Cliff Palefsky, of San Francisco’s McGuinn Hillsman & Palefsky, who has represented employees in the 24- Hour Fitness litigation above, says that the Court “took a statute that Congress expressly said doesn’t apply to employment and used it to preempt the nation’s most significant labor and civil rights laws.”

Palefsky, who worked on an amicus brief filed in the consolidated cases on behalf of 10 labor unions and the National Employment Lawyers Association, and who is has been active on the employees’ side in the cases for years, says he’s still reviewing the decision, but adds, “It was an intellectually and legally indefensible political assault on worker’s rights.”

On the other side, Evan M. Tager, a Washington, D.C., Mayer Brown partner who has argued many arbitration cases on employers’ behalf, says, “The Court reaffirmed in the strongest possible terms that conditioning the enforcement of arbitration provisions on the availability of class-like procedures frustrates the purposes of arbitration and is not permissible absent a clear congressional command.”

Tager worked on Mayer Brown’s amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the consolidated cases.  He also represented the petitioner in AT&T Mobility, and says he was glad that the Court decision today reasserted that case’s view that FAA Sec. 2 doesn’t save the NLRB’s view that class waivers violated public policy, which he notes was “indistinguishable” from the rule invalidated 2011 case.

Christopher Murray, an Indianapolis shareholder in Ogletree Deakins–the firm that brought D.R. Horton to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where it was overturned, leading to today’s decision (the firm also submitted an amicus brief on behalf of trade associations in the consolidated cases)—says, “Today’s decision affirms what almost everyone already knew before the NLRB’s 2012 D.R  Horton decision: The NLRA has nothing to do with class-action procedures used by other decision makers to adjudicate claims under other statutes. Rather, the FAA gives parties the right to determine the procedures they’ll use in arbitration, including the right to arbitrate individually.”

Murray–who authored this month’s Alternatives cover story, “No Longer Silent: How Accurate Are Recent Criticisms of Employment Arbitration?” 38 Alternatives 65 (May 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2rYmned), and who co-chairs his firm’s Arbitration and ADR Practice Group—adds, “This is a good decision for parties interested in any form of alternative dispute resolution because it confirms those parties are best situated to agree on the procedures to be used to resolve their disputes quickly, effectively, and fairly, and courts are generally not permitted under the FAA to second-guess those procedures.”

.

 

Russ Bleemer is the editor of CPR’s award-winning publication, Alternatives.

The Dissent, and the Majority’s Push Back

By Russ Bleemer

The divisive battle over class waivers associated with mandatory arbitration, settled today in the Supreme Court with strong backing for Federal Arbitration Act supremacy over the National Labor Relations Act, was almost destined for a closely divided Court.

It’s unlikely any Court watchers were surprised by the majority’s 5-4 opinion in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (opinion in the consolidated cases is available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8), written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Court’s newest member, especially in light of the arguments, which kicked off the term last Oct. 2.  [For details on the arguments, see the CPR Speaks: Mark Kantor, “Supreme Court Oral Argument on NLRB Class Actions vs. Arbitration Policy,” (Oct. 2)(available at http://bit.ly/2fLwU9C), and Russ Bleemer, “The Class Waiver-Arbitration Argument: The Supreme Court Transcript,” (Oct. 3) (available at http://bit.ly/2yWjWuf).]

The Court delayed the case from the previous term apparently with an eye to a full Court that would avoid a 4-4 split that would have allowed different laws depending on the circuit decisions.  In the interim, Gorsuch was confirmed.

His opinion today for the majority strongly backs the waivers and employers’ ability to require workplace disputes to be resolved in individual arbitration.  It is summarized on this CPR Speaks blog here: bit.ly/2KEuXFN 

Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence is summarized on CPR Speaks here: https://bit.ly/2wYEKEB.

And the generally expected lengthy dissent emerged too, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

“The Court today subordinates employee protective labor legislation to the [Federal] Arbitration Act,” notes Ginsburg at the dissent’s outset. “In so doing, the Court forgets the labor market imbalance that gave rise to the [Norris-LaGuardia Act] and the [National Labor Relations Act], and ignores the destructive consequences of diminishing the right of employees ‘to band together in confronting an employer.’ NLRB v. City Disposal Systems Inc., 465 U. S. 822, 835 (1984).”

The dissenters immediately asked for an intervention: “Congressional correction of the Court’s elevation of the FAA over workers’ rights to act in concert is urgently in order,” Ginsburg writes.

Ginsburg outlined her attack on the majority’s view in two intertwined points:  an analysis of “the extreme imbalance once prevalent in our Nation’s workplaces, and Congress’ aim in the NLGA and the NLRA to place employers and employees on a more equal footing,” as well as a counter-analysis of the FAA’s reach, which “does not shrink the NLRA’s protective sphere.”

Tracing the history of the nation’s labor movement, Ginsburg notes that actions enforcing “workplace rights collectively fit comfortably under the umbrella ‘concerted activities for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection.’ 29 U.S.C. § 157”—the NLRA’s Sec. 7, at the heart of the consolidated cases decided by the Court.

She notes that the Court’s view that the NLRA doesn’t protect class litigation is counter to the statute’s “text, history, purposes, and longstanding construction.”

The core dissent argument over Sec. 7 is the activity it enumerates.  Gorsuch, writing for the majority, describes a “regulatory regime” for the law that offers “specific guidance” for protective activities.  Ginsburg attacks the majority’s view that the NLRA doesn’t discuss employees’ collective litigation, about which Gorsuch noted that “it is hard to fathom why Congress would take such care to regulate all the other matters mentioned in [§7] yet remain mute about this matter alone—unless, of course, [§7] doesn’t speak to class and collective action procedures in the first place.”

But the dissent counters that NLRA Sec. 7 only discussed collective bargaining representatives’ selection with specificity. Ginsburg notes that the section didn’t offer “specific guidance” about forming labor organizations, the right to strike, or “other concerted activities” as provided in the law.

Later specific guidance on “some of the activities protected” under the law doesn’t “shed[] any light on Congress’s initial conception” of Sec. 7’s scope, which protects “numerous activities for which the [NLRA provides no ‘specific’ regulatory guidance.”

The dissent blasts the Court’s view that the employees should realize that with class action rules they use also provide inherent limits—that they can be contracted away in favor of individualized arbitration.

“The freedom to depart asserted by the Court,” writes Ginsburg, “is entirely one sided.” She concludes the section noting that NLRA Sec. 7 rights include the right to pursue collective litigation, and therefore “employer-dictated collective-litigation stoppers, i.e., ‘waivers,’ are unlawful.”

* * *

Similarly, Ginsburg analyzes the FAA’s history to conclude that it should not override NLRA protections she and her colleagues say are present in the labor statute. “In recent decades,” the dissent says, “this Court has veered away from Congress’ intent simply to afford merchants a speedy and economical means of resolving commercial disputes.”

Specifically, the dissent cites Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U. S. 20, 23 (1991)—which provided that the FAA authorized arbitration of Age Discrimination in Employment Act claims as long as the remedies available in courts were also available in arbitration—and Circuit City Stores Inc. v. Adams, 532 U. S. 105, 109 (2001), which opened FAA application up to a wide range of employment contracts containing arbitration clauses.

“Few employers imposed arbitration agreements on their employees in the early 1990’s,” Ginsburg writes. “After Gilmer and Circuit City, however, employers’ exaction of arbitration clauses in employment contracts grew steadily. “

The dissent calls that application “exorbitant,” and said it pushed the National Labor Relations Board to confront the issue in In re Horton, 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012)(PDF download link at http://1.usa.gov/1IMkHn8).

“As I see it,” Ginsburg writes, “in relatively recent years, the Court’s [FAA] decisions have taken many wrong turns. Yet, even accepting the Court’s decisions as they are, nothing compels the destructive result the Court reaches today.”

She continues her FAA analysis by noting that the NLRA prohibition doesn’t discriminate against arbitration in violation of the arbitration law. “That statute neither discriminates against arbitration on its face, nor by covert operation,” notes the dissent, adding, “It requires invalidation of all employer-imposed contractual provisions prospectively waiving employees’ §7 rights.” [Emphasis in the opinion.]

The dissent concluded with a plea on behalf of U.S. workers, who Ginsburg writes will be subject to under-enforcement of federal and state statutes. “In stark contrast to today’s decision,” she writes, “the Court has repeatedly recognized the centrality of group action to the effective enforcement of antidiscrimination statutes.” The dissent passage cites a 2015 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau study that pre-dispute agreements cut off consumers’ claims; the study was used to outlaw mandatory consumer arbitration in financial services contracts, but was overturned by the Senate under the Congressional Review Act when Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote to kill the regulation last October.

* * *

Justice Gorsuch countered the dissent arguments as vehemently as Ginsburg’s dissent took on the majority decision.

“In its view,” writes Gorsuch at the beginning of a section addressing the minority dissent, “today’s decision ushers us back to the Lochner era when this Court regularly overrode legislative policy judgments. The dissent even suggests we have resurrected the long-dead “yellow dog” contract. [Such contracts prohibited unionization; citation to Ginsburg’s opinion omitted.] But like most apocalyptic warnings, this one proves a false alarm.”

First, Gorsuch says that the decision doesn’t override Congressional policy. Workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively “stand every bit as strong today as they did yesterday,” the majority opinion states.

“[T]oday’s decision merely declines to read into the NLRA a novel right to class action procedures that the [NLRB’s] own general counsel disclaimed as recently as 2010,” the opinion says.

The minority’s problem, according to Gorsuch, is that it doesn’t like the Court’s FAA jurisprudence:

Shortly after invoking the specter of Lochner, it turns around and criticizes the Court for trying too hard to abide the Arbitration Act’s “‘liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements,’” Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., 537 U. S. 79, 83 (2002), saying we “‘ski’” too far down the “‘slippery slope’” of this Court’s arbitration precedent.  . . . [Internal citation omitted.] But the dissent’s real complaint lies with the mountain of precedent itself. The dissent spends page after page relitigating our [FAA] precedents, rehashing arguments this Court has heard and rejected many times in many cases that no party has asked us to revisit.

Similarly, Gorsuch and the majority also hammer the Ginsburg-minority NLRA view. “The dissent imposes a vast construction on Section 7’s language,” the opinion notes, “But a statute’s meaning does not always ‘turn solely’ on the broadest imaginable “definitions of its component words.” Yates v. United States, 574 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (plurality opinion) (slip op., at 7). Linguistic and statutory context also matter. We have offered an extensive explanation why those clues support our reading today. By contrast, the dissent rests its interpretation on legislative history.  . . . But legislative history is not the law.” [Internal citations omitted.]

Gorsuch writes that the Court’s decision wasn’t between the laws the justices preferred but on the precise issue:

[T]he question before us is whether courts must enforce particular arbitration agreements according to their terms. And it’s the [FAA] that speaks directly to the enforceability of arbitration agreements, while the NLRA doesn’t mention arbitration at all. So if forced to choose between the two, we might well say the Arbitration Act offers the more on-point instruction. Of course, there is no need to make that call because, as our precedents demand, we have sought and found a persuasive interpretation that gives effect to all of Congress’s work.  . . .

Finally, the majority rejects the dissent policy arguments, noting that that the “respective merits of class actions and private arbitration as means of enforcing the law are questions constitutionally entrusted not to the courts to decide but to the policymakers in the political branches where those questions remain hotly contested.”

Gorsuch then, immediately, notes that the Senate’s repeal of the CFPB’s move to ban mandatory arbitration.

 

Russ Bleemer is the editor of CPR’s award-winning publication, Alternatives

Future Challenges Nixed? Thomas Writes That Public Policy is Not FAA Illegality

By Russ Bleemer

There were two opinions in addition to the five-justice majority opinion this morning in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285, covering three consolidated cases that declared that employers may require their employees to use mandatory individual arbitration to resolve workplace disputes, and waive their rights to class processes in either traditional litigation class actions, or in class arbitration processes.

[Our first blog post on the majority opinion here: https://bit.ly/2KEuXFN  Opinion here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-285_q8l1.pdf.%5D

Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the majority, wrote separately to explain why he believes that the Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 2 savings clause relied upon by the employees didn’t apply.

Thomas’s concurrence explains that the Sec. 2 ground for revocation of an arbitration agreement—“valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract” (9 U. S. C. §2)—concern the contract’s formation.

But the employees, Thomas writes, said the National Labor Relations Act makes the class waivers illegal, which is a public policy defense.

Because “‘[r]efusal to enforce a contract for public-policy reasons does not concern whether the contract was properly made,’ the saving clause does not apply here,” according to Thomas, quoting his concurrence in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, 353, 357 (2011).

The position is a significant distinction and expands the majority opinion’s view that there was no Sec. 2 violation because the National Labor Relations Board interfered with a fundamental attribute of arbitration, also from AT&T Mobility.  Thomas’s position could be used by the Court to reject future challenges to arbitration contracts.

AT&T Mobility was the case in which the Court permitted mandatory individual arbitration with class waivers in consumer contracts.  Today’s Epic Systems decision mirrors AT&T Mobility in the workplace.

More on the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg-authored dissent soon.

 

Russ Bleemer is editor of CPR’s award-winning publication, Alternatives.

Supreme Court Backs Federal Arbitration Act’s Power to Require Mandatory Individual Arbitration

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning has affirmed the ability of companies to use mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements that are accompanied by waivers of class processes in litigation and arbitration.

In 5-4 decision by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act requires enforcement of employees’ agreements to mandatory individual arbitration. Gorsuch, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, held that the employees’ arguments that the FAA’s Sec. 2 Savings Clause, which would exempt arbitration agreement provisions from enforcement when they run afoul of “generally applicable contract defenses,” and the National Labor Relations Act, do not counter the FAA’s mandate.

The case is available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-285_q8l1.pdf

The long-running controversy involves arbitration provisions that kick in due to class waivers which prohibit employees from joining class processes—litigation or arbitration—in favor of mandatory, predispute, individualized arbitration to resolve disputes with their employers.

The cases—NLRB v. Murphy Oil (No. 16-307), from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Ernst & Young v. Morris (No. 16-300), from the Ninth Circuit, and the Seventh Circuit’s Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (No. 16-285)—had been consolidated into the Court’s 2017-2018 term’s kickoff argument on Oct. 2, with Epic Systems as the lead case, and four attorneys arguing the case on behalf of the parties in all three cases.

The class waivers in question require workers, from collectively bargained rank-and file to executive suites, to address disputes with their employers in individual arbitration. While unions can agree to mandatory predispute arbitration on behalf of their members, the cases involve white-collar employees and nonunion workers with little bargaining power.

The Court previously definitively permitted mandatory arbitration contract clauses accompanied by class waivers for products and services contracts where consumers have little or no bargaining power. The Federal Arbitration Act-focused decision today now settles how arbitration is used in workplace matters.

Gorsuch’s opinion rejects a 2012 National Labor Relations Board administrative that held that FAA Sec. 2 removed mandatory individual arbitration from FAA application for employee agreements.  The Court’s opinion notes that the reasoning interfered with a fundamental attribute of arbitration.

After rejecting the Sec. 2 argument, Gorsuch dismantled the employees’ other arguments.  He develops the Supreme Court precedent concerning two clashing federal statutes, finding that the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, didn’t override 1925’s FAA to require class or collective actions.

“Section 7 focuses on the right to organize unions and bargain collectively,” Gorsuch writes. “It may permit unions to bargain to prohibit arbitration. Cf. 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett, 556 U. S. 247, 256–260 (2009). But it does not express approval or disapproval of arbitration. It does not mention class or collective action procedures. It does not even hint at a wish to displace the Arbitration Act—let alone accomplish that much clearly and manifestly, as our precedents demand.”

Moreover, Gorsuch notes that NLRA Sec. 7’s definition of protected employees’ “concerted activities” didn’t include, nor was it amended to include, class-action litigation. “[W]e’ve stressed that the absence of any specific statutory discussion of arbitration or class actions is an important and telling clue that Congress has not displaced the Arbitration Act,” the majority opinion states.

Similar arguments regarding claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Norris-LaGuardia Act also were rejected.

Finally, Gorsuch, a longtime critic of Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., 467 U. S. 837, which provides Court deference to agency determinations made in the areas of the agency’s expertise, writes that the NLRB’s decision that launched the case, In re Horton, 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012)(PDF download link at http://1.usa.gov/1IMkHn8), didn’t meet the Chevron deference standards.

The NLRB, the opinion notes “has sought to interpret this statute in a way that limits the work of a second statute, the Arbitration Act. And on no account might we agree that Congress implicitly delegated to an agency authority to address the meaning of a second statute it does not administer. One of Chevron’s essential premises is simply missing here.”

Gorsuch, after countering the lengthy dissent—we will return to the dissent and majority’s counterpoints in a subsequent CPR Speaks post later today–concludes:

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.

 

Russ Bleemer is editor of CPR’s award-winning publication, Alternatives

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).