More than 7 months after hearing oral argument on an issue that will affect countless employers across the country – whether employers may implement arbitration agreements with class action waivers -- the United States Supreme Court has issued what is bound to be considered a landmark decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (a companion case to National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA and Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris), approving the use of such agreements.
The decision will certainly have a tremendous impact upon pending wage-hour class and collective actions, many of which had been stayed while the courts and parties awaited the Supreme Court’s decision. And it is likely to lead many more employers to implement arbitration agreements with class action waivers going forward, if only to avoid the in terrorem effect of those types actions.
In a 5-4 vote along the very lines that many commentators had predicted, with newest Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch penning the majority opinion, the Supreme Court determined that the law is “clear” that class action waivers are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) – and that they are not prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), as several Circuit Courts had concluded following the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) DL Horton decision.
In reaching this decision, the Court took great pains to address – and reject – the various arguments presented by the former NLRB General Counsel, the related labor union and various amicus briefs submitted by the plaintiffs’ bar. In so doing, the Court noted that for the first 77 years of the NLRA, the NLRB had never argued that class action waivers violated the Act; instead, the FAA and the NLRA had coexisted peacefully. In fact, as the Court pointed out, as recently as 2010 the NLRB’s General Counsel had asserted that class action waivers did not violate the NLRA.
The decision is an unqualified victory for employers, particularly those who already have such arbitration agreements in place. Given the prevalence of wage-hour class and collective actions, and the potential exposure in even the most baseless of suits, other employers would be wise to consider whether they, too, wish to implement such agreements.
Not unimportantly, the decision might give employers new grounds to argue that employees who sign such agreements are prohibited from pursuing representative claims under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”). Even if those new arguments prove to be unavailing – to date, the California state courts have held that such claims cannot be compelled to arbitration because they belong to the state, not the employee –the Supreme Court’s decision could be used to require that an individual arbitrate his or her individual claims first such that he or she would not have standing to pursue the PAGA claims if the employer prevailed in arbitration.
And employers should be mindful that in some states (California again), an employer must pay virtually all of the costs of the arbitration process, a reality that has led more than a few plaintiffs’ lawyers to file multiple individual arbitrations in order to drive up employers’ costs to try to force them to the settlement table.