House Passes ‘PRO’ Act, Which Includes Arbitration Restrictions

By Mark Kantor

Yesterday, the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 225-206 vote, with five Republicans voting Yay and one Democrat voting Nay.  The bill was sent to the U.S. Senate for consideration. 

While much arbitration-related attention in the new Congress has focused on the arbitration-only FAIR Act (for details and links, see Mark Kantor, “House Reintroduces a Proposal to Restrict Arbitration at a ‘Justice Restored’ Hearing,” CPR Speaks (Feb. 12) (available at http://bit.ly/3rze7y1)), the PRO Act contains significant provisions that, if finally enacted, would limit employment arbitration.

Most important, the PRO Act would make it an unfair labor practice for an employer to prevent employees requiring arbitration agreements that obligate an employee “not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee in any forum that, but for such agreement, is of competent jurisdiction.” 

Note that the coverage of the proposed PRO Act encompasses both employment contracts of adhesion and individually negotiated employment contracts, as well as covering individual independent contractors.  See Section 101(b) of the legislation at the act’s link above.

Section 104 of the PRO Act would override Epic Systems v. Lewis,138 S. Ct. 1612 (May 21)(available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8), with respect to employment arbitration and class proceedings. 

According to the accompanying section-by-section analysis released by the House, “ . . .  on May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court held in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis that … employers may force workers into signing arbitration agreements that waive the right to pursue work-related litigation jointly, collectively or in a class action. This section overturns that decision by explicitly stating that employers may not require employees to waive their right to collective and class action litigation, without regard to union status.”  (The analysis is available at https://bit.ly/2OGrKNj).

The ultimate Senate fate of the PRO Act is linked to the fate of the filibuster.  As Politico states:

But the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which advanced mostly along party lines, is unlikely to win the 60 votes needed for passage in the narrowly controlled Senate. And already, some union leaders — who hold outsize sway in the Biden administration — are amping up pressure on Democrats to eliminate the filibuster so they can see one of their top priorities enacted.

Eleanor Mueller and Sarah Ferris, “House passes labor overhaul, pitting unions against the filibuster,” Politico (March 9) (available at http://politi.co/3vbgFEu). For the latest on the limited prospects for overturning the filibuster in the Senate, see Burgess Everett, “Anti-filibuster liberals face a Senate math problem,” Politico (March 9) (available at http://politi.co/2ObVou0). 

The filibuster affects large swaths of proposed legislation coming out of the House of Representatives and the Biden Administration agenda. We can anticipate daily media attention to every word any member of Congress or the administration speaks about the topic for some time to come.

The operative PRO Act text in Sec. 104 overriding Epic Systems reads as follows:

(e) Notwithstanding chapter 1 of title 9, United States Code (commonly known as the ‘Federal Arbitration Act’), or any other provision of law, it shall be an unfair labor practice under subsection (a)(1) for any employer—

“(1) to enter into or attempt to enforce any agreement, express or implied, whereby prior to a dispute to which the agreement applies, an employee undertakes or promises not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee in any forum that, but for such agreement, is of competent jurisdiction;

“(2) to coerce an employee into undertaking or promising not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee; or

“(3) to retaliate or threaten to retaliate against an employee for refusing to undertake or promise not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee: Provided, That any agreement that violates this subsection or results from a violation of this subsection shall be to such extent unenforceable and void: Provided further, That this subsection shall not apply to any agreement embodied in or expressly permitted by a contract between an employer and a labor organization.”;

Also, according to the proposal’s section-by-section analysis, PRO Act Section 109(c) would create a private right of action in U.S. federal court if the NLRB fails to pursue a retaliation claim.

(c) Private right to civil action.  If the NLRB does not seek an injunction to protect an employee within 60 days of filing a charge for retaliation against the employee’s right to join a union or engage in protected activity, that employee may bring a  civil  action  in  federal  district  court. The  district  court  may  award  relief  available  to employees who file a charge before the NLRB.

Yesterday’s hearings have gone viral via fiery words backing the act’s passage by Tim Ryan, D., Ohio, who chided Republicans for failing to support workers.  “Heaven forbid we pass something that’s going to help the damn workers in the United States of America!” shouted Ryan in the House chambers, adding, “Heaven forbid we tilt the balance that has been going in the wrong direction for 50 years!”

Republican opponents immediately fired back, saying that the bill would hurt workers by hurting business and the economy. For details, see Katie Shepherd, “Tim Ryan berates GOP over labor bill: ‘Stop talking about Dr. Seuss and start working with us,’” Washington Post (March 10) (available at http://wapo.st/3bz2YaF).

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Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups. 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). He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management. He is a frequent contributor to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission. Alternatives editor Russ Bleemer contributed to the research.

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