In Moon et al v. Breathless, Inc., the Third Circuit reviewed the dismissal of a class and collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law and the New Jersey Wage Payment Law. The District Court for the District of New Jersey had dismissed the named plaintiff’s claims based on an arbitration clause in the written agreement between the her and Breathless, the club where she worked as a dancer.
In her lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that she and other dancers were misclassified as independent contractors, and that Breathless unlawfully failed to pay them minimum wages and overtime pay.
In response, Breathless pointed to an agreement signed by the plaintiff stating that she was an independent contractor and not an employee. Breathless moved for summary judgment based on language in the agreement stating: “In a dispute between [the plaintiff and Breathless] under this Agreement, either may request to resolve the dispute by binding arbitration.”
The Third Circuit noted that, under New Jersey law, there is a presumption that a court will decide any issues concerning arbitrability. Finding no evidence to overcome that presumption, the Circuit Court proceeded to decide whether the plaintiff was required to submit her class and collective action claims to arbitration.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decisions in Garfinkel v. Morristown Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs. and Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp. were determinative of the scope of the arbitration agreement in this case, concluded the Third Circuit.
In Garfinkel, the arbitration provision in a contract stated it applied to “any controversy or claim arising out of, or relating to, this Agreement or the breach thereof.” That language that suggested that the parties intended to arbitrate only those disputes “involving a contract term, a condition of employment, or some other element of the contract itself.” Accordingly, the plaintiff in Garfinkel was not compelled to arbitrate his statutory claims.
In Atalese, the arbitration provision in a service agreement covered “any claim or dispute … related to this Agreement or related to any performance of any services related to this Agreement.” That language “did not clearly and unambiguously signal to plaintiff that she was surrendering her right to pursue her statutory claims in court,” and therefore the plaintiff was not required to arbitrate those claims.
By contrast, the New Jersey Supreme Court required the arbitration of statutory claims in Martindale v. Sandvik, Inc., where the arbitration clause in an employment agreement stated that plaintiff agreed to waive her “right to a jury trial in any action or proceeding related to [her] employment…”
Because the arbitration agreement in the plaintiff’s agreement with Breathless applied to disputes “under this Agreement,” without reference to statutory wage claims, the Third Circuit applied Garfinkel and Atalese to conclude that Moon was not required to arbitrate her statutory claims under the FLSA and New Jersey law.
The award of summary judgment in favor of Breathless was therefore reversed, and the case was remanded to the District Court.
While the laws of other states may vary, the Third Circuit’s decision suggests that, at the very least, employers in New Jersey should expressly reference statutory wage claims in arbitration provisions if they intend to have statutory wage claims arbitrated.