DOJ to NLRB: You’re On Your Own in the Supreme Court

CLASS WAIVER/MANDATORY ARBITRATION CASES

By Nicholas Denny

In the clearest illustration so far of the Trump Administration’s evolving hands-off policy toward mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers, the U.S. Solicitor General authorized the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week to represent itself in one of three consolidated arbitration cases to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice, which had been representing the board in NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. 16-307 (U.S. Supreme Court docket page at http://bit.ly/2kOPxal) until last week, switched sides in the case, filing an amicus brief backing the employer in the matter.

Justice, via the friend-of-the-court briefs, is now advocating against the NLRB, and against its previous position.

The case—along with its companions, Ernst & Young v. Morris, No. 16-300 (Docket page at http://bit.ly/2kLxCEg) and Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (Docket page at http://bit.ly/2kFVxm6)—asks whether mandatory arbitration clauses as a condition of employment bar individual employees from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Mandatory arbitration clauses are used throughout employment settings and apply to employees regardless of titles or union affiliation; two of the three cases involve white-collar office workers.

The Supreme Court will hear the consolidated cases in the term beginning in October.

The issue in the consolidated cases is whether employers can continue to unilaterally require that employees agree to a mandatory arbitration clause in employment contracts. Often, these clauses are non-negotiable: either employees accept the employer’s terms or the employer finds someone else to hire.

The Supreme Court must decide which of two laws controls: the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151, et seq., or the Federal Arbitration Act, at 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. Under the NLRA, an employee’s rights to collective bargaining and action are protected. Under the FAA, however, an employment contract that includes a mandatory arbitration clause binds the worker to arbitrate with the employer instead of litigating in court, and is accompanied by a waiver barring the employee from bringing a class-action suit in favor of an individualized process.

As a result, arbitration clauses can deliver a one-two punch: (1) workers arbitrating individually may have less power, because they are not operating as part of a collective whole as contemplated by the NLRA, and (2) a worker may be less likely to find counsel because arbitration awards are perceived to be much smaller than court and class-action outcomes—meaning a lawyer working for a portion of the settlement would be less likely to take the case.

On the other hand, employers contend that mandatory arbitration clauses protect the company and benefit the employee. They argue that arbitration clauses ensure a speedier and more cost-effective conclusion to conflicts: class actions are harder and more costly to fight than arbitrations.

The disagreement over the use of mandatory arbitration clauses has arisen in the political arena, too. While the Obama Administration focused on pro-employee, anti-mandatory arbitration policies that prohibited employers from unilaterally waiving workers’ rights to concerted action under the NLRA, the Trump Administration is leaning toward an employer-centric policy by permitting mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts and as a condition of hiring.

This drastic shift in policy culminated with Friday’s news that the NLRB will represent itself, and that the Department of Justice would switch sides. The NLRB, as an autonomous government entity, is tasked with protecting “the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activities—group action to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions and to engage in union activities and support a union,” according to its website, as well as protecting the right of workers to refrain from engaging in protected concerted or union activities.

While the Justice Department prosecutes on behalf of the nation as well as defends government agencies, it is exceedingly rare for it to withdraw its representation of an agency it had been representing and subsequently file a brief in opposition to the position had it previously taken.

The Justice Department amicus brief switching sides in Murphy Oil is available at http://bit.ly/2sUnFbL.  The NLRB’s June 16 announcement that it would represent itself without Justice Department support can be found on the board’s website at http://bit.ly/2traH2s.

The move, however, is consistent with another recent Trump Administration policy shift on arbitration. In early June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, withdrew a 2016 Obama Administration position prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses in long-term care nursing home contracts.

CMS’s new position allows arbitration agreements provided that the provisions are written in plain language, and explained to and accepted by the applying resident.  Among other conditions, the CMS requires that the nursing home retain a copy of the signed agreement and post a notice that details the nursing home’s arbitration policy.

In addition, House Republicans introduced the “Financial CHOICE Act” earlier this month, a proposed law that aims to dismantle the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Dodd-Frank is an extensive law that was passed to ensure higher accountability in the U.S. financial sector after the economic recession of 2008 and it was endorsed by former President Obama.

Among its many goals, Dodd-Frank pointed its then-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer finance contracts. A lengthy study concluded last year by the CFPB resulted in a promise to finalize regulations that would ban the use of predispute mandatory arbitration in consumer financial contracts, such as cellphone agreements.

But should the “Financial CHOICE Act” become law, it likely would allow financial institutions to include mandatory arbitration clauses in their consumer contracts and agreements, and negate the CFPB efforts.

President Trump’s stance on mandatory arbitration clauses is becoming clear. Whether the clauses are legal in the employment context, and whether they will withstand Supreme Court scrutiny, are developing issues that are expected to be answered within the year. Watch CPR Speaks for updates.


The author is a CPR Institute Summer 2017 intern.

New Suit Demands Faster Work on Veterans Benefits Appeals

By Russ Bleemer

In the latest phase of an issue CPR has been following closely for almost a decade, the American College of Trial Lawyers filed suit last month against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in a renewed move to improve an agency appeals process long beset by delays that prevent military personnel from getting timely benefits determinations.

Last week, President Obama trumpeted improvements in access to benefits, and cutting veterans’ incidents of homelessness.

But on the appeals issues, the President’s report conceded that the process is “broken,” a “state of affairs [that] is unacceptable and is failing veterans.”

The Backlog Bludgeons

The appeals backlog is a persistent problem. It is a different concern than the delays in medical care, which was the principal subject of a post-White House report analysis in the New York Times Saturday. Nor does the appeals backlog at the VA address the department’s responsibility for addressing veterans’ homelessness, an editorial also appearing over the weekend.

In fact, the new case, which is filed in the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and requests mandamus relief, relies in part on a panel decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals matter that confronted the problem directly in 2011.  The California suit resulted in an order that the VA submit to a federal court a new process that would alleviate the backlog in the stalled claims and appeals matters.

But the panel decision was reheard en banc by the full Ninth Circuit, which overturned it. The opinion acknowledged the problems but did not dispute the constitutional findings. It cited jurisdictional issues—some weighted in separation-of-powers arguments, and most because of appropriateness of the claims for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims–in overturning the original decision. Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, 678 F.3d 1013 (9th Cir. 2012)(en banc)(available for download at http://bit.ly/2b64YKo). The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari.

The July 21 U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims filing–in which the American College of Trial Lawyers represents a class of veterans whose benefits requests have been denied by the VA and whose appeals have not been processed in a timely manner–relies in part on the finding in the original Ninth Circuit decision that the delays violate the veterans’ constitutional due process rights.

Fellows in the Washington, D.C.-based trial lawyers’ group prepared the petition with two partners in the Atlanta office of King & Spalding LLP, and a partner in Washington, D.C.’s Williams & Connolly LLP, according to a press release.

“Thousands of veterans die before their appeals are decided,” states the petition.  It says that benefits appeals now take nearly four years to reach a decision, a situation the filing calls “disgraceful.”

CPR on the Backlogs

The CPR Institute addressed the appeals issue, which had been a subject of controversy for two decades, in a “Why Not ADR? Burdened by Backlogs, the System That Deals with Veterans’ Disability Claims Needs Help,” 25 Alternatives 131.  That September 2007 Alternatives article by Richard M. Rosenbleeth, a retired partner in Philadelphia’s Blank Rome LLP, who works as an arbitrator, was the first to suggest that conflict resolution processes should be deployed to alleviate the strain on the benefit appeals process.

Rosenbleeth proposed that a claims facility be established to swiftly address the languishing appeals claims.

Rosenbleeth followed the issue and returned to it in Alternatives pages repeatedly over the years. The CPR Institute on its website, as well as Alternatives and the national media, covered the Ninth Circuit case filings in 2009 through the 2012 en banc decision.

Key articles, available at the links and in full text on Lexis and Westlaw, included:

  • A piece in the July/August 2011 Alternatives (second page of the issue)—“‘This Is Their Wake-Up Call’: Ninth Circuit Trashes the Veterans’ Administration Claim Processes,’” 25 Alternatives 130 (July/August 2011)—discussing the case at length and analyzing the initial victory that became a basis of the new July Veterans Claims Circuit Court of Appeals filing.

Rosenbleeth explains that the current suit follows years of approaches to various legislators, the VA’s Board of Veterans Appeals, and a veterans’ organization requesting pursuit of a post-Shinseki solution, including ADR processes. The outreach efforts, Rosenbleeth says, were conducted by Fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers, including himself; John A. Chandler, a partner in the Atlanta office of King  & Spalding, and J. Denny Shupe, a partner in Philadelphia’s Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

“Finally,” says Rosenbleeth, “the College decided a suit was necessary.”

Given the broad nature of the mandamus request in the new suit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims’ ability to order innovative relief—as well as the renewed political focus on the broader VA issues in an election—the new American College of Trial Lawyers suit may provide an opportunity for improving the benefit appeals process.

“What is needed is broad reform, and the problem is only going to get worse until Congress acts,” noted the White House’s report last week, “reiterating [President Obama’s] call for comprehensive legislative modernization of the appeals process.”  The report concluded, “Congress should act on this legislation without delay–our veterans cannot afford to wait any longer.”

The Veterans Claims appeals court has not yet scheduled further proceedings on the new suit.

The author edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.

The Nominee’s Record on Dispute Resolution

BY PETER FEHER & RUSS BLEEMER

President Obama’s nomination of District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court Chief Judge Merrick Garland didn’t bring with it a substantial judicial record on alternative dispute resolution cases.

But a new U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Garland won’t be a stranger to litigation over arbitration either.

Garland, 63, is in a tough confirmation fight.  At this writing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R., Ky., vowed not to allow a vote on a successor to the late Antonin Scalia before the November presidential election.

But Garland had bipartisan support when he was nominated to the D.C. Circuit in 1999 by President Clinton. He was confirmed 76-23, with a majority of Senators in both parties supporting him. Garland is well-respected on both sides of the aisle and in the legal community and reportedly was on the president’s list for SCOTUS nominees previously, when Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was nominated and confirmed in 2009, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan joined the Court a year later.

Research provided a limited number of arbitration cases before the D.C. Circuit in which Garland participated.  They show he backed arbitration.

It’s unclear whether and how the subject of ADR processes arose in his non-judicial career, which also is discussed below.  Garland’s extensive prosecutorial work at the U.S. Department of Justice as well as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia was on the criminal side; he also was a litigation partner at Washington, D.C.’s Arnold & Porter.

Garland is probably best known for his U.S. Justice Department service from 1993 to his 1999 appointment as U.S. Circuit Judge.  During the period, when he was DOJ’s Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, his responsibilities included supervising the Oklahoma City bombing and Unabomber prosecutions.

* * *

In the D.C. Circuit, Garland wrote the unanimous affirmance in Kurke v. Oscar Gruss and Son Inc., 454 F.3d 350 (D.C. Cir. 2006)(available at bit.ly/1MjsCPT). The opinion backs arbitrators who awarded a brokerage customer damages after his account was churned, and the defendants charged that the award was made in manifest disregard of the law.
The case concerned a customer who brought an action seeking confirmation of an arbitration award brought by plaintiff David Kurke against securities firm Oscar Gruss, and a firm executive, after the customer’s account was subjected to what the plaintiff charged was unauthorized trading, churning and a breach of fiduciary duty.

An arbitration panel agreed, awarding Kurke compensatory damages from both Oscar Gruss and the executive, in the amounts of $648,000 and $58,000, respectively. According to the Garland opinion, Oscar Gruss trading had turned Kurke’s $520,000 investment into $39,000, just four months after the account had been valued at more than $1 million.
The federal district court granted Kurke’s enforcement petition, and Oscar Gruss appealed the arbitration award.

The appellants urged that the awards can be vacated on the ground that the arbitrators made them in “manifest disregard” of the law.

The opinion indicated that manifest disregard “is an extremely narrow standard of review.” Under the standard, the reviewing court must find that arbitrators knew of governing legal principle yet refused to apply it or ignored it altogether, and the law ignored by the arbitrators was well-defined, explicit and clearly applicable to the case. Kurke, at 354 (quoting LaPrade v. Kidder, Peabody & Co. Inc., 246 F.3d 702, 706 (D.C.Cir. 2001)).

The firm argued that the arbitration panel’s award to Kurke was made in manifest disregard of the law because under the terms of his margin agreement, Kurke’s failure to object to the unauthorized trades in writing within the stipulated time frame effectively ratified those trades.  The defendants argued that Kurke’s failure to mitigate his damages after he became aware of them relieved the company for liability for Kurke’s losses. Kurke, at 355.

Circuit Judge Garland noted three exceptions to the rule that ratification agreements will be enforced.  The opinion notes that the arbitrators could have refused to enforce the ratification agreement if they credited Kurke’s testimony that he did not comprehend the highly complicated options trades contained on his monthly statements; that assurances or deceptive acts forestalled his filing of the written complaint; or that Kurke was not advised of his right to reject the unauthorized trades.  Kurke, at 356.

Focusing on statements by an Oscar Gruss employee that forestalled the plaintiff from acting, Judge Garland wrote, “we can readily ‘discern [a] colorable justification for the arbitrator[s’] judgment,’ . . .  and cannot say their award was made in manifest disregard of the law regarding ratification.’” Id.

Garland rejected the appellants’ other arguments to establish manifest disregard and affirmed the District Court’s arbitration award in full.

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In Aliron Int’l Inc., v. Cherokee Nation Indus. Inc., 531 F.3d 863 (D.C. Cir. 2008)(available at bit.ly/22BaC7J), Circuit Judge Garland, who became the D.C. Circuit’s chief judge in February 2013,  affirmed a district court’s decision to compel arbitration.

In the case, the U.S. Army entered into a “Prime Contract” with Cherokee Nation, or CNI, which in turn entered into a subcontract with Aliron to provide the service and staffing resources that CNI needed to fulfill its duties under the Prime Contract.

The parties agreed that the subcontract “shall be construed and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the State of Oklahoma” and that “any dispute between the parties will be submitted to binding arbitration in the State of Oklahoma. The parties further agreed Oklahoma law “shall govern the arbitration proceedings.” Aliron International Inc., at 864.

About two weeks into the contract performance, the parties had to enter into an additional support agreement in order to comply with the Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Germany.  The SOFA precluded CNI from hiring a subcontractor under the Prime Contract. But unlike the subcontract, the Support Agreement did not include an express provision requiring arbitration of all disputes. Id. at 864.

Aliron filed an action against CNI for breach of obligations under the Support Agreement. CNI moved to compel arbitration of the dispute. CNI argued that although only the subcontract contained an express arbitration clause, the two documents should be read together.

The District of Columbia federal district court agreed with CNI, holding that “because the Subcontract and the Support Agreement involve the same subject matter, and because the plain language on the fact of the Support Agreement indicated that it was entered into to preserve the intent of the Subcontract, they must be construed together as one contract.” Id. at 865.

Garland noted in an opinion on behalf of the unanimous three-judge federal appellate panel that courts generally should apply ordinary state law principles that govern contract formation. He wrote, “The Oklahoma Supreme Court has long instructed that ‘[w]here two contracts, not executed at the same time, refer to the same subject matter and show on their face that one was executed to carry out the intent of the other, it is proper to construe them together as if they were one contract.’” [Citations omitted.]

Two criteria must be satisfied before the subcontract’s arbitration provision can be deemed to govern disputes under the Support Agreement, according to the Garland opinion:  “(1) the Subcontract and Support Agreement must each refer to the same subject matter, and (2) the Support Agreement must show on its face that it was executed to carry out” the subcontract’s intent. Id. at 866.

Judge Garland found both elements were satisfied and required the two contracts to be read together as one under Oklahoma law because they referred to the same subject matter, and because the Support Agreement plainly showed that it was executed to preserve the subcontract’s intent. Id. at 868.

In affirming the lower court, Garland rejected two additional arguments by Aliron, one which required extrinsic evidence about the contract, and another contesting the formation of an arbitration agreement.

* * *

Judge Garland handed down another decision that mentioned alternative dispute resolution in labor law. In the case, Davenport v. Int’l Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL-CIO, members of a flight attendants union brought an action against the union and the employer challenging the union’s failure to submit a temporary side agreement on work hours to the collective bargaining accord to a rank-and-file ratification vote. 166 F.3d 356 (D.C. Cir. 1999)(available at bit.ly/1Vyplyw).

The flight attendants sought a temporary injunction against the side agreement—which had been sparked by a change in federal law—that was denied in the district court.  Again writing for a unanimous D.C. Circuit panel, Garland’s opinion affirmed the lower court.
The employer-airline in the case—Northwest Airlines Inc., now part of Delta Air Lines Inc.–was subject to the Railway Labor Act.  Under the act, an adjustment board established by the employer and the unions had exclusive jurisdiction over “minor disputes”–those arising “out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application” of existing collective bargaining agreements.

Circuit Judge Garland noted that in “’major disputes,’ however, the district courts have jurisdiction to enjoin violations of the status quo pending the completion of required bargaining and mediation procedures.” Id. at 367. Major disputes go to the formation of the collective agreements, the opinion says.

But Garland wrote that the plaintiffs’ contention that the dispute was a “major dispute” requiring an injunction couldn’t be sustained.  The opinion held that there wasn’t enough grounds to vacate the district order for major-dispute ADR treatment or any of the other grounds on which the plaintiffs sought the court’s intervention.

It did allow re-argument of the “major dispute” controversy, since it was bought by the union itself late in the litigation.  But it’s not clear that the case got beyond the argument stages, because the collective bargaining agreement was due to be renegotiated to account for the side agreement. Press reports indicate that the relationship between Northwest and its union became strained later in 1999 over several issues, and headed to mediation. See, e.g., Associated Press, “Protesters disrupt Northwest Airline meeting,” Deseret News (April 24, 1999)(available at bit.ly/1RhBNQ9).

* * *

Some business lobbyists are wary of Garland’s nomination given his deference to government agencies.

According to a Corporate Counsel article, while Garland has significant experience deciding challenges to government regulations, given the focus of the D.C. Circuit on administrative appeals, he has less experience on corporate law and governance questions. Rebekah Mintzer, “Justice Merrick Garland: Bad for Business?” Corporate Counsel (March 21)(available at bit.ly/1UCwHkS).

The article points out that, like Justice Scalia, who he would replace, Garland adheres to the Chevron doctrine, under which the judiciary defers to agency interpretations on ambiguous statutes under the agency’s jurisdictions.

This tendency, Corporate Counsel notes, has business groups worried because they are not sure how Garland would come out on corporate law decisions.  The nation’s largest small-business lobbying group, the National Federation of Independent Business, opposes Garland’s confirmation.

One key area that may implicate conflict resolution practices is labor and employment. Garland has firmly backed the National Labor Relations Board, affirming the view of the agency—which oversees workplace issues as embodied in the National Labor Relations Act—in 18 out of 22 cases that have come before him.

It’s likely that the Supreme Court will get that exact task in the arbitration context soon.  Cases are bubbling up in which federal courts have firmly backed the Court’s view that the Federal Arbitration Act allows for mandatory individual arbitration processes in employment disputes where the employee is required to waive class action litigation or arbitration.

But the principal case from which federal courts are adopting that view is a consumer credit case, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011)(available at bit.ly/1MWMHVN).

The NLRB in 2012 decided that the NLRA trumps the FAA, and has produced dozens of decisions banning class action waivers.  It is continuing to issue those decisions even though it has been struck down in federal courts around the country, most notably in the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  Both the NLRB and management-side labor lawyers expect the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the conflict. For full details, see “Cutting Arbitration Classes: Facing Court Defeats on Workplace Waivers, the NLRB Refuses to Back Down,” 34 Alternatives 1 (January 2016)(available at bit.ly/1LEnG8o).

* * *

While Merrick Garland apparently hasn’t dealt with arbitration during his professional career as a corporate litigator and prosecutor, upon his confirmation he would be dealing with a slate of cases involving business issues.  But at this writing, no arbitration cases are on the Court’s docket.

Although unrelated to ADR practice, several partners at Garland’s former firm, Washington, D.C.’s Arnold & Porter said that the D.C. Circuit chief judge focused on the arcane area of antitrust, which he reportedly taught at his alma mater, Harvard Law School.  “Garland worked on antitrust cases, a specialty of the firm, several former partners said, yet few remembered specific cases he worked on.” Katelyn Polantz, “Lightning Strikes Twice at Arnold & Porter with Merrick Garland Nomination,” National Law Journal (March 17)(available at  bit.ly/1Re0Jcs). The article also notes that in one year during his practice, Garland also published articles in both Harvard Law Review and Yale Law Journal.

Garland, unlike some of his fellow appellate judges, does not speak publicly much. The National Law Journal collected some highlights of his notable decisions and public statements at Zoe Tillman, “The Quotable Merrick Garland: A Collection of Writings and Remarks,” National Law Journal (March 16)(available at  bit.ly/1pxgKPY).

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Feher is a Spring 2016 CPR Institute intern, and currently is a student at Brooklyn Law School, Class of 2016. Bleemer edits the CPR Institute-published Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation.