Litigators who defend cases brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), particularly ‘collective actions” alleging wage-and-hour violations, often have been able to counter, or even sometimes support, allegations that arbitration agreements have been waived where the conduct of a party has caused prejudice to the other side. In the case of Morgan v. Sundance, Inc., a unanimous Supreme Court has now held that the determinant of waiver is solely dependent upon the nature and magnitude of the actions of the party that might be inconsistent with arbitration, without respect to alleged prejudice.
Morgan thus is an important case for any civil litigator, but it is especially significant for those who deal with employment disputes potentially governed by arbitration agreements, and for those who draw up such agreements in the first place. As is well known, the Court has, in recent years, frequently upheld the primacy of arbitration agreements pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). In the Morgan case, a unanimous Court does it again. Ms. Morgan was an hourly employee at a Taco Bell franchise who had signed an arbitration agreement intended to govern employment disputes. Notwithstanding the arbitration agreement, Morgan went to federal court to bring a nationwide “collective action” arguing that her employer had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Sundance, a franchisee of Taco Bell, initially defended against the lawsuit as if the arbitration agreement didn’t exist—filing a motion to dismiss (which the District Court denied) and engaging in mediation (which was unsuccessful). Next, Sundance moved to stay the litigation and compel arbitration under the FAA—almost eight months after Morgan filed the suit. Morgan then expectedly opposed on grounds of waiver of the right to arbitrate.
The governing precedent in the Eighth Circuit, where the case was litigated below, conditioned a finding of waiver of an arbitration agreement on whether the party knew of the right, “acted inconsistently with that right,” and—critical here– “prejudiced the other party by its inconsistent actions.” In deciding that issue, the Court below, as had eight other circuits, invoked “the strong federal policy favoring arbitration” to decide the matter of waiver. Two circuits rejected that rule, and the Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve that split. Justice Kagan, writing for all of the Justices, agreed with those two circuits.
Holding that “the FAA’s ‘policy favoring arbitration’ does not authorize federal courts to invent special, arbitration-preferring procedural rules,” and deciding no other issue with respect to the merits, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings that focus on the whether the employer relinquished its right to arbitrate by its actions that were inconsistent with it. Whatever an employer might otherwise have preferred (given the prior law in most courts of appeals), given the Supreme Court’s holding that any presumption of arbitration and the fact of prejudice are irrelevant, the Morgan case gives clear guidance in several regards, particularly demanding arbitration, if applicable, at the outset of a formal dispute, and resisting any discovery, to the extent possible, until the issue of arbitrability is decided. A defense against waiver simply based on prejudice is not going to fly.