Making the Mandatory Argument: Arbitration, Class Waivers and the Practitioners’ Role

By Russ Bleemer

Legislative and court arguments over whether ADR processes can be used to defray class litigation are moving toward a decisive 2017 conclusion.

New regulations barring the use of class waivers associated with mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer financial contracts, like credit card agreements or wireless telephone service agreements, are due for release soon by the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The CFPB had issued a proposal in May and accepted public comments until August.

In the December Alternatives, Sanford Jaffe and Linda Stamato, longtime conflict resolution process theorists, designers, and practitioners at the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., backed the move.  They argue that the mandatory arbitration processes that prohibit class litigation that the CFPB targets indeed should go.

But with the intervention of last month’s election, the prospects for the vitality and longevity of the coming regulation has dimmed.

So the authors also argue that the responsibility for preserving the integrity of alternative dispute resolution processes by breaking the link between mandatory processes and class waivers lies with practitioners themselves.

“Rarely seen are misgivings about mandatory arbitration expressed by dispute resolution professionals,” the authors write. “But we ought to be heard in the hearings and rule-making processes, and in social and print media, to support the proper use of the processes we have worked to design, develop, apply and evaluate.  We need . . . to defend the principles upon which this field is grounded, not the least of which is choice. We need to return to the attitudes and beliefs with which the field started decades ago, to fulfill the promises of the architects of the field.”

In addition to discussing mandatory arbitration in contracts over which the CFPB regulates, Jaffe and Stamato discuss mandatory arbitration in the employment context, noting the line of cases involving the clash between the Federal Arbitration Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

Three federal circuit courts have held that the FAA permits employers to use class waivers in requiring arbitration to resolve workplace disputes, while two circuits have gone the other way, saying that the NLRA preserves a right to class processes, including litigation, under the law which says that employees may “engage in . . . concerted activities.” See CPR Blog post from Aug. 23 HERE.

Since the December issue of Alternatives was released (HERE free on CPR’s website for members logged in; HERE with archives on publisher John Wiley’s site) , the U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled five FAA-NLRA cases for discussion at its Jan. 6 case conference.

Experts believe the Court will accept one or more of the cases—perhaps one favoring the defense view upholding mandatory arbitration with a class waiver, and one backing the National Labor Relation Board’s ruling that class processes must be preserved—to finally decide the matter, which has been brewing since the NLRB struck the mandatory arbitration/class waiver provision it found in 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).

Meantime, the viability of the CFPB’s yet-to-be-released regulations is in doubt in light of President-elect Trump’s anti-regulation views, including his loathing of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which authorized the CFPB.  While the agency is committed to a forthcoming final regulation, it’s unlikely it will stand without attack.

In the forthcoming January issue of Alternatives, available at the links above on or around Jan. 4, Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr partner Alan Kaplinsky will counter the December Alternatives commentary discussed above with an outline of the options to challenge to the CFPB’s regulation, which some analysts say may emerge before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

As Kaplinsky points out, a Congressional repeal may not even be necessary.  A new Trump appointee replacing current CFPB Director Richard Cordray could roll back the roll-out, restore (or reassert) mandatory arbitration and class waivers, and delay or change the regulations via the Administrative Procedure Act.

The December Alternatives commentary, “Private Justice: Losing Our Day in Court,” by Sanford M. Jaffe and Linda Stamato, is available now for all readers HERE.

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

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! 

Class Act: Looking at How the CFPB Wants to Restrict Arbitration Agreements

By Russ Bleemer

If you want to make your voice heard on federal arbitration regulation, now’s the time.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in May released its proposal to ban arbitration agreement provisions that bar class processes and require individual ADR for disputes in consumer financial services contracts under the agency’s jurisdiction.

The formal public announcement early last month was followed by the publication May 24 of the official proposal. “If finalized in its current form,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray last month, “the proposal would ban consumer financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny their customers the right to band together to seek justice and meaningful relief from wrongdoing. This practice has evolved to the point where it effectively functions as a kind of legal lockout.”

Public comments, due by Aug. 22, are piling up. There are 599 at this writing. (You can view them HERE, along with the full proposal and the link to provide a comment.) A day after the comment period opened, the deluge was kicked off with a letter signed by more than 200 law professors strongly supporting the agency’s proposals.

But Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee, continuing a long-running push to eliminate the CFPB and overturn the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 that created the agency, introduced on June 8 a new proposal that specifically bars the CFPB from regulating arbitration.

The June Alternatives, available now HERE, covers in detail Cordray’s remarks and those of a pro-and-con panel at the May 5 CFPB Albuquerque, N.M., field hearing that introduced the proposed regulation. (An enhanced, annotated version of the article can be accessed directly by subscribers and individuals at CPR Institute members who are logged into CPR’s website at this link.)

The June Alternatives article discusses how the agency’s research into arbitration’s effects on consumers—a voluminous 728-page report conducted over a three-year period that was released in March 2015–led to last month’s proposal.

Agency representatives, including Cordray, emphasized that the CFPB is not proposing to ban pre-dispute arbitration agreements. The key agency goal is to allow consumer class actions that the waivers have cut off.

The Albuquerque panel discussion of arbitration practice experts included three consumer advocates who congratulated the agency, and three business representatives who criticized it and suggested alternative paths–assuming what has become, for some of the panel, traditional public roles in a short period of regulatory time.

The debate continues in Alternatives in the special combined summer July/August issue, which will be available by July 14 HERE. In “Between the Lines: How the CFPB Will Police Financial Services Arbitration,” we examine the specifics of the proposal, including the mandatory language that the CFPB wants included in consumer financial services arbitration agreements.

Following the June report linked above, the new article wades through the 377-page proposal and accompanying report to highlight how the class action moves will affect arbitration parties, providers, contract drafters, neutrals and tribunals.

It will focus on the details in the CFPB’s proposal and report absent from generalized coverage of the CFPB’s move—minutiae to most, but parts of the proposal that are essential to arbitration practitioners and providers’ businesses, and which are drawing comments this summer.

Russ Bleemer edits the CPR Institute-published Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation.

2nd Update*: Class Waivers and Arbitration: The Battleground Focus Moves to Labor and Employment Law

*The area of class action waivers and employment law saw an absolutely whirlwind close to 2015, with the NLRB releasing yet another decision midday, on 12/31, following two weeks that saw 16 decisions restricting arbitration practices. Please see below for an up-to-date summary of these rapidly breaking developments.

By Russ Bleemer

The emphasis on the law and politics of consumer arbitrations, and their relationship to class waivers, has overshadowed developments in another closely related area of conflict resolution law.

But the time has come for finality on the legality of employment law class-action waivers.  Developments in 2015’s final quarter indicate that decisive events are coming in the area, which involves the intersection of U.S. labor law and the Federal Arbitration Act.

On the first day of December, the National Labor Relations Board issued two decisions finding labor law violations against companies for using mandatory pre-dispute class action waivers with their arbitration agreements requiring individual processes.  The waivers, the NLRB said, violate Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act, which allows employees, among other things, “to engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

That was only the beginning:  By Christmas, the NLRB had issued at least 16 more decisions striking down mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses that coupled class waivers as a condition of employment.

The decisions are crucial because the rights of collective action under the NLRA address far more than union workplaces. The law applies to most employees, and key cases that have arisen in this area focus on white-collar employees.

It’s a major statement by the Board. The NLRB decisions’ reasoning—that the NLRA and the FAA co-exist compatibly but the latter isn’t preferred over workers’ rights to act in concert—had already been rejected by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  Twice, in fact, including in a decision just five weeks before the December Board decisions, in Murphy Oil Inc. v. NLRB, No. 14-60800, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015).

The Fifth Circuit relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s high-profile consumer-contract arbitration decision–AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011), along with the business-to-business class waiver in American Express Co., et al. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304 (2013)—to justify rulings that mandatory individualized arbitrations are authorized by the FAA.

Consumer arbitration controversy has rolled over into politics in 2015, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau moved to regulate the process by barring waivers of all class processes. Congressional Republicans introduced legislation to hamper the regulation efforts directly, as well as defund the federal agency.

In November, the NLRB said it would request a rehearing in Murphy Oil, but it did not appeal the Fifth Circuit reversal of its first case on the subject, D.R. Horton Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012), enforcement denied in relevant part, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013) (Graves, J., dissenting), reh’g denied, No. 12-60031 (Apr. 16, 2014).

December’s stream of cases from Board decisions backing its Murphy Oil and D.R. Horton decisions mostly occurred mid-month, leading up to Christmas.  But for good measure, just hours before the close of business on Dec. 31, the Board added its final 2015 decision, again affirming its view in the cases already rejected by the Fifth Circuit.  The decision, GameStop Corp., 363 NLRB No. 89, 20-CA-080497 (Dec. 15, 2015), went even further, affirming a line in those cases barring class waivers in employment arbitration agreements that provide an “opt out” allowing employees to waive participation in the ADR scheme.

“Regardless of the procedures required, the fact that employees must take any steps to preserve their Section 7 rights burdens the exercise of those rights,” the decision states.

It’s clear that the NLRB, an independent federal agency that oversees workplace conduct by enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, is picking and choosing its battles, which experts on both sides of the argument agree will be finalized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.  The NLRB appears to be seeking a suitable case to ask the Supreme Court to hear, unloading years of litigation in December sourced from a variety of forums that reject the FAA’s predominance over the NLRA.

And while it awaited Murphy Oil’s Fifth Circuit fate, and while preparing the Board decisions it released in December maintaining its insistence on the NLRA’s vitality in the face of required arbitration clauses, the NLRB for the first time filed an amicus brief in a court case on the subject in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP, No. 13-16599.

The November filing, just a week after the Fifth Circuit decided Murphy Oil, noted that the Board would seek en banc review of that decision, and strongly defended its own D.R. Horton/Murphy Oil lineage.

At the oral argument on Nov. 18, Ninth Circuit Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz prodded the attorneys on both sides to come up with a formula for NLRA and FAA co-existence.  He suggested severing the waiver clause, but keeping arbitration decisions for a tribunal, rather than blowing up the entire ADR process in favor of litigation.

The Ninth Circuit argument also dissected the class rights being waived by the pre-dispute mandatory arbitration agreement in the context of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, which establishes the ground rules for court class actions.

The details on the December NLRB decisions; the Fifth Circuit’s Murphy Oil reversal; the NLRB Morris amicus filing, and highlights of the Morris oral argument are the subject of the January 2016 cover article in Alternatives, out this week.

Alternatives is available HERE for CPR Institute members after logging into the CPR website.  The newsletter, marking its 33rd year of publication with the January issue, is available to nonmembers at altnewsletter.com.

 

* * *

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

CFPB Decision Implicitly Recognizes Arbitration as Legitimate Alternative to Litigation

CFPB’s Decision Not to Bar Mandatory Arbitration Clauses Implicitly Recognizes Arbitration as Legitimate Alternative to Litigation

There has been much focus over the past years on mandatory arbitration clauses combined with class action waiver provisions that preclude parties from bringing claims on anything other than an individual basis. Earlier this month, in a move to protect consumers, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Arbitration Field Hearing announced the Bureau’s decision, following a study and report the CFPB published and issued to Congress earlier this year, to launch a rulemaking process to bar class action waivers in combination with consumer financial arbitration agreements,

Here’s what CFPB Director, Richard Cordray, had to say regarding the decision:

After carefully considering the findings of our landmark study, the Bureau has decided to launch a rulemaking process to protect consumers. The proposal under consideration would prohibit companies from blocking group lawsuits through the use of arbitration clauses in their contracts. This would apply generally to the consumer financial products and services that the Bureau oversees, including credit cards, checking and deposit accounts, certain auto loans, small-dollar or payday loans, private student loans, and some other products and services as well. …

 So what does this rulemaking process mean?

To start, the rules wouldn’t ban arbitration clauses altogether. Rather, they would require clauses to state that they don’t apply to cases filed as potential class-action lawsuits unless a judge denies class certification or a court dismisses the claims. Furthermore, the proposals would mandate that companies using arbitration clauses divulge records to the CFPB showing the claims filed by consumers and the awards issued — which may be made available to the public in an effort to ensure fairness and transparency of the arbitration process on behalf of the consumer. Should the proposal be adopted by the CFPB, new rules would apply to financial products overseen by the CFPB, including those cited by CFPB director, Cordray.

Many consumer groups are hailing the CFPB’s efforts as a victory for consumers. Still, the CFPB’s move is expected to face stiff opposition from the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the Minneapolis-based Association of Credit and Collection Professionals (ACA International), a membership group of credit and collection industry firms as well as asset buyers, attorneys, creditors and vendor affiliates; and other business groups which, according to a recent New York Times article, maintain that “arbitration offers a more efficient but equally fair means for consumers to resolve complaints. These private proceedings, held outside court, provide the same opportunity for relief without the staggering legal bills, the groups say.”

According to CPR’s SVP of Product Development and Public Policy, Beth Trent, “While it’s difficult to tell the precise impact of the CFPB’s proposed rule, the CFPB’s decision not to bar mandatory arbitration clauses is quite telling. It implicitly recognizes that arbitration is a legitimate alternative to litigation, which is supported by the CFPB’s own data which shows that arbitration is a speedier process than class action litigation, that claim rates in class actions are low, and that average recovery per class member is low.”

“People generally prefer speedy resolution of their claims, and it’s not clear that individuals would necessarily choose to bring a class action,” Ms. Trent added. “That said, lawyers most often initiate class actions with only one, or a few named class representatives, and the vast majority of individuals have no choice regarding whether they are included in a proposed class. In fact, they may be entirely unaware that they are included in a class action at all. Ultimately, the impact of the proposed rule will be shaped, at least in part, by the business response to that rule. Most notably, whether businesses offer arbitration programs that meet standards of due process and consumer needs in a cost-effective manner.”

The next CFPB step is convening meetings of a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act panel, which will review the impact of the proposed regulation on small businesses.  The first such meeting is scheduled for Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, according to the CFPB Monitor, a blog published by the Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr.

Arbitration Fairness Act of 2015 (AFA): An Overly Simplistic Approach?

The Arbitration Fairness Act of 2015 (AFA), recently introduced by Senator Al Franken and Representative Hank Johnson, would amend the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 et seq. (FAA), to eliminate mandatory, pre-dispute arbitration clauses in employment, antitrust or civil rights matters—as well as all nearly all consumer contracts, for such things as cars, credit cards and cell phones. Allowing parties to agree to arbitration only after a dispute has arisen, the AFA would apply to “any dispute or claim that arises on or after” the date of AFA’s passing. The legislation would also give federal courts—instead of arbitrators—the authority to rule on an agreement’s validity and enforceability.

This is not the first legislative effort to narrow the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements; somewhat similar bills were introduced in 2011 and then again in 2013, but neither made it out of committee. While some are applauding this step towards banning what they refer to as “forced” arbitration, others have expressed concerns that requiring parties to agree to arbitration only after a dispute has already arisen might take away the parties’ critical ability to utilize arbitration preventatively, planning for it in order to avoid disputes in the first place. Others question the wisdom of transferring these responsibilities away from arbitrators and to an already beleaguered court system. Finally, while the AFA does not expressly prohibit businesses from entering into pre-dispute arbitration agreements with other businesses, some question the effect this might have on the enforceability of arbitration in business contexts where there is potential consumer application.

Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR) President & CEO Noah Hanft observed that, “Just as with litigation, there are circumstances where arbitration may be abused. But, if practiced properly and thoughtfully, as it should be, arbitration remains a  more effective, efficient and less costly way to resolve certain disputes—a result from which consumers can clearly benefit as well.”

Hanft concluded, “Care must be taken that any legislation aimed at protecting abuses in the use of arbitration not be overly simplistic or condemn a practice that has brought real benefits in a multitude of circumstances around the world. Even advocates of tort reform that decry litigation abuses don’t propose sweeping bans on certain types of litigation.”