Class and Collective Action

Three months ago, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, holding that the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) does not prevent the use of arbitration agreements with class and collective action waivers covered by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). (See our discussion of Epic here.) The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has now similarly concluded in Gaffers v. Kelly Services, Inc.that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) does not bar such arbitration arrangements. While this is not a surprising outcome in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the decision underscores the influence that Epic has had and will continue to have as courts evaluate efforts to evade promises to arbitrate.

Case Background

A former employee of a business that provides outsourcing and consulting services sued the company in an FLSA collective action in the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging failure to pay virtual call center support workers for time spent logging into and out of the network and addressing technical problems. More than 1,600 workers opted into the lawsuit. Although the named plaintiff did not agree to arbitrate disputes with the company, approximately half of the opt-in plaintiffs did, and their agreements specified that arbitration would be on an individual basis.

The company moved to compel individual arbitration for those opt-in plaintiffs who signed arbitration agreements. The plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that the NLRA and the FLSA render the arbitration agreements unenforceable. The district court denied the motion to compel arbitration, and the company appealed.

The Sixth Circuit’s Decision

1. Under Epic, the NLRA does not render the agreements unenforceable.

The Sixth Circuit noted at the outset that Epic “answers half of this case.” (Slip Op. at 1-2.) In light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, the plaintiffs’ NLRA-based challenge to the arbitration agreements with class action waivers was unavailing. “[A]s it relates to the NLRA, the Supreme Court heard and rejected these arguments last term in Epic.” (Id. at 3.)

2. The FLSA’s collective action provision does not conflict with the FAA.

The Court then turned to the plaintiffs’ FLSA-based contentions. Their first argument was that “the FLSA’s collective-action provision and the Arbitration Act are irreconcilable and that the former therefore displaces the latter.” (Slip Op. at 3.) Relying on Epic, the Court explained that “a federal statute does not displace the Arbitration Act unless it includes a ‘clear and manifest’ congressional intent to make individual arbitration agreements unenforceable.” (Id.) That standard, as the court saw it, requires that Congress “do more than merely provide a right to engage in collective action. Instead, Congress must expressly state that an arbitration agreement posed no obstacle to pursuing a collective action.” (Id. (citation omitted).)

The FLSA “provides that an employee can sue on behalf of himself and other employees similarly situated.” (Slip Op. at 3.) Thus, “it gives employees the option to bring their claims together” but “does not require employees to vindicate their rights in a collective action, and it does not say that agreements requiring one-on-one arbitration become a nullity if an employee decides that he wants to sue collectively after signing one.” (Id.) The Court, therefore, was able to “give effect to both statutes: employees who do not sign individual arbitration agreements are free to sue collectively, and those who do not sign individual arbitration agreements are not.” (Id.)

3. These arbitration agreements are outside the FAA’s savings clause.

The Sixth Circuit then focused on the plaintiffs’ second FLSA-based argument: that the arbitration agreements fall within the FAA’s savings clause. That portion of the law “allows courts to refuse to enforce arbitration agreements ‘upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.’” (Slip Op. at 4 (quoting 9 U.S.C. § 2).) Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that “because the FLSA gives the employees a right to pursue a collective action, the agreements that the employees signed . . . requiring them to pursue individual arbitration are illegal and therefore unenforceable.” (Id.)

The Court explained that the savings clause “includes an ‘equal-treatment’ rule: individuals can attack an arbitration agreement like they would any other contract, but they cannot attack the agreement simply because it is one involving arbitration.” (Slip Op. at 5.) The court pointed out that under Epic, defenses that “interfere with the ‘fundamental attributes of arbitration’ are . . . insufficient.” (Id. at 5 (quotation omitted).) As shown in Epic, “one of arbitration’s fundamental attributes is its historically individualized nature.” (Id.) Thus, objecting to an agreement because it requires individualized arbitration “does not bring a plaintiff within the territory of the savings clause[,]” or else litigants “could use this contract defense to attack arbitration itself.” (Id.) As the court observed, “[t]hat selective treatment is exactly what Epic says is not allowed.” (Id.)

What the Decision Means for Employers

The Sixth Circuit’s holding confirms that the Supreme Court set a high bar in Epic for parties to argue that statutes other than the FAA provide a basis for courts not to enforce arbitration agreements. A number of significant issues remain for the courts to decide, however, including the applicability of the FAA to independent contractor agreements in the transportation industry (set for oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court on October 3, 2018), as well as whether claims under California’s Private Attorneys General Act must now be arbitrated. In addition, employers must remain mindful that courts continue to scrutinize arbitration agreements for elements of substantive and procedural unconscionability. Whether and to what extent Epic may affect how courts evaluate unconscionability remains to be seen.

Because of concerns about employee theft, many employers have implemented practices whereby employees are screened before leaving work to ensure they are not taking merchandise with them.  While these practices are often implemented in retail stores, other employers use them as well when employees have access to items that could be slipped into a bag or a purse.

Over the last several years, the plaintiffs’ bar has brought a great many class actions and collective actions against employers across the country, alleging that hourly employees are entitled to be paid for the time they spend waiting to have their bags inspected when leaving work.  These lawsuits are often referred to as “bag check” cases.

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk largely put an end to these cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), it did not do so under California law.  That is because of a critical difference between the FLSA and California law.  Unlike the FLSA, California law requires that employees be paid for all time when they are “subject to the control of the employer” or for all time that they are “suffered or permitted to work.”  And, not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers in California have argued that employees are “subject to the control of the employer” and “suffered” to work while they wait for and participate in security screenings.

In defending against these claims, not only do employers often argue that each employee’s experience differs such that class certification would be inappropriate, but they frequently argue that the time spent in “bag checks” is so small as to be de minimis – and, therefore, not compensable.

Courts throughout the country have recognized the principle that small increments of time are not compensable, including the United States Supreme Court.

In a class action in the Northern District of California where a class had been certified, Nike argued that the time its employees spent in “bag check” was de minimis.  And the Court agreed, awarding it summary judgment.

In Rodriguez v. Nike Retail Services, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147762 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 12, 2017), the district court certified a class of all Nike non-exempt retail store employees since February 2010.  But in certifying the class, the Court specifically held that, “whether time spent undergoing exit inspections is de minimis is a common issue.  ‘That is, if the time is compensable at all, an across-the-board rule, such as sixty seconds, might wind up being the de minimis threshold.’”

Seizing on that holding, Nike commissioned a time and motion study.  That study revealed that an average inspection takes no more than 18.5 seconds.  Nike argued that such time was de minimis.  The Court agreed.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court found that the average inspection time was minimal, employees did not regularly engage in compensable activities during inspections, and it would have been administratively difficult for Nike to record the exit inspections.

The plaintiffs have already filed an appeal from the order granting summary judgment against them.

As noted in earlier postings, in March of this year, a federal judge in New York handed Chipotle Mexican Grill a significant victory, denying a request by salaried management apprentices alleging misclassification as exempt from overtime to certify claims for class action treatment under the laws of six states, as well as granting Chipotle’s motion to decertify an opt-in class of 516 apprentices under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  The plaintiffs then sought—and in July 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted—a discretionary interlocutory appeal of the ruling concerning the six state-law putative classes, allowing the plaintiffs to obtain immediate review of that decision under Rule 23(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure rather than waiting until after final judgment in the case to pursue an appeal as of right.

The plaintiffs also asked the district court for permission to appeal the order decertifying the FLSA collective action.  Under the pertinent statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), a district court may certify a non-final ruling for immediate appeal if the “order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and … an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation[.]”  The plaintiffs argued that “a conflict exists in this Circuit between Rule 23 standards for class certification and FLSA Section [16(b)] standards for certification of a collective action” and that the court’s rulings regarding the FLSA and the state-law classes reflect uncertainty regarding the differences, if any, between the class certification standard and the FLSA decertification standard.

On September 25, 2017, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for an interlocutory appeal.  Although the court “disagrees with Plaintiffs’ argument that there is a ‘rift’ between” those standards, the court nevertheless concluded that the “Plaintiffs’ assertions do point to controlling questions of law which may have substantial grounds for a difference of opinion.”  (Order at 2.)  The court emphasized that “[t]he Second Circuit will review this Court’s Rule 23 class certification decision pursuant to Rule 23(f)” but that this review “would not likely encompass the portion of this Court’s decision decertifying the . . . collective action.”  (Id.)  Because “Plaintiffs are adamant that the two standards need elucidation and that this Court erred in applying the standards, it seems proper to grant Section 1292(b) relief in order for the Circuit to review the entire” ruling—i.e., both the FLSA and the state-law class aspects of the decision—and thereby “avoid the possibility of conflicting decisions on Plaintiffs’ class motions, promote judicial efficiency, and avoid piecemeal appellate litigation.”  (Id.)  The court also remarked that “the Second Circuit has recognized that class certification decisions have the potential to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation which the Second Circuit has held may warrant Section 1292(b) relief.”  (Id. at 3.)

Stepping back from the specific wording of the court’s decision, the ruling reflects a pragmatic approach to the matter: because the Second Circuit has already decided to take up the Rule 23 class certification issue in the case, there is no real harm in allowing the appellate court the opportunity to decide whether it also wants to address the FLSA decertification issue at the same time.  The district court’s decision certifying the matter for interlocutory appeal does not require the Second Circuit to hear the full case at this time; instead, it authorizes the plaintiffs to proceed with a petition for permission to that court to appeal the decertification order.

It remains to be seen to what extent this court and other courts will apply the actual verbiage of this decision even-handedly when employers seek review of orders granting class certification or conditionally certifying FLSA collective actions.  Will being “adamant” that the law needs “elucidation” and that the court “erred” features of nearly every employer-side request for interlocutory review—or the “potential” for class certification decisions “to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation” similarly lead to interlocutory review when employers make comparable requests?  Stay tuned for further developments.

Our colleague Adriana S. Kosovych, associate at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Hospitality Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Chipotle Exploits Wide Variation Among Plaintiffs to Defeat Class and Collective Certification.

Following is an excerpt:

A New York federal court recently declined to certify under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 23”) six classes of salaried “apprentices” at Chipotle restaurants asserting claims for overtime pay under New York Labor Law (“NYLL”) and parallel state laws in Missouri, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina, on the theory that they were misclassified as exempt executives in Scott et al. v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. et al., Case No. 12-CV-8333 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2017).  The Court also granted Chipotle’s motion to decertify the plaintiffs’ conditionally certified collective action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), resulting in the dismissal without prejudice of the claims of 516 plaintiffs who had opted in since June 2013.

The putative class and collective action of apprentices working in certain of Chipotle’s 2,000-plus restaurants nationwide were provisionally employed while being trained to become general managers of new Chipotle locations. The Scott action challenged Chipotle’s blanket exempt classification of the apprentice position, claiming that the duties plaintiffs actually performed during the majority of their working time were not managerial, and therefore, as non-exempt employees they were entitled to receive overtime pay. …

Read the full post here.