Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis

Joining several other federal appellate courts including the Fourth and Ninth Circuits , on October 22, 2018 the Seventh Circuit concluded in Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corporation, No. 17-3609 (7th Cir. Oct. 22, 2018) that the arbitrability of a class claim is one for the court to decide, not the arbitrator. In so doing, the court placed in jeopardy a $10 million arbitration award in a wage-hour case.

Herrington originally filed suit against Waterstone, alleging that Waterstone failed to pay her and other employees minimum wages and overtime pay in violation of  the FLSA. Waterstone moved to enforce an agreement to arbitrate that stated the “arbitration may not be joined with . . . any claims by any person not party to this Agreement.” Despite that language, the district court sent the parties to arbitration, instructing the arbitrator to allow other employees to join the case.

In a collective arbitration , the arbitrator awarded more than $10 million in damages.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Epic Sys. Corp. v. Lewis, ___ U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018), the Seventh Circuit concluded that the waiver of class claims was enforceable. One question not addressed by Epic, however, was whether the court or the arbitrator should make this determination.

Because the availability of a class or collective action is a “gateway matter,” the Seventh Circuit concluded it is a question of arbitrability for the court to decide, not the arbitrator. The fundamental question was whether the employees had agreed to arbitrate — and whether Waterstone also agreed. The Court noted  that in agreeing to arbitration, an employer essentially waives appellate review—which could result in a large arbitration award with little or no opportunity for review.

In view of Herrington, two issues now seem settled in the Seventh and several other circuits. First, agreements mandating individual arbitration of wage-hour claims are enforceable. Second, it is for the court to interpret the arbitration agreement to determine whether it permits class claims, not the arbitrator .

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.