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.

On April 3, 2017, a federal district court in New Jersey rejected the National Labor Relation Board’s (“NLRB”) D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil holdings and upheld employee waivers of class and collective arbitration. In dismissing wage and overtime claims brought by an employee of Chili’s Grill & Bar, District Judge Noel Hillman ruled that such mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act. Cicero v. Quality Dining, Inc., et al, 1:16-cv-05806 (April 3, 2017).

Judge Hillman noted the issue was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and that the Third Circuit had yet to rule on the issue. However, he also noted a related action, Joseph v. Quality Dining, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and a similar case decided by another federal district judge in New Jersey in Kobren v. A-1 Limousine Inc., both of which also rejected the NLRB’s position.

The NLRB has acquiesced in employers requiring employees to waive court action and agree to submit to arbitration wage and overtime and other employment related claims. However the Board has insisted that employees may not be required to arbitrate each employee’s claims separately, in individual arbitration. This, the Board contends, interferes with employees’ rights to participate in concerted activities for their mutual aid and benefit, otherwise protected under Sections 7 and 8 (a) (1) of the NLRA. In making this argument, commentators point out that the Board appears to be neglecting the second part of Section 7 which expressly reserves to employees the right to refrain from participating in any and all concerted activity.   NLRB opponents contend that waivers of class and collective arbitration are an exercise of that right.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Fall in Murphy Oil and consolidated cases as to whether the NLRA prohibits an employer from requiring employees to agree to waive their rights to arbitrate employment disputes on a class or collective basis, or whether the Federal Arbitration Act favoring arbitration controls. Conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit has recently been sworn in as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court and will take the seat of Justice Scalia, who passed away a year ago. It remains to be seen how the Court will rule on this very important employment law issue.

By Jill Barbarino

On October 28 a three-member majority of the National Labor Relations Board in Murphy Oil revisited and reaffirmed its position that employers violate the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) by requiring employees covered by the Act (virtually allnonsupervisory and non-managerial employees of most private sector employees, whether unionized or not) to waive, as a condition of their employment, participation in class or collective actions.

As previously reported in an Act Now Advisory, in 2012 the NLRB held in D.R. Horton that the home builder unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 right to engage in concerted activity by requiring them to sign an arbitration agreement prohibiting class or collective claims in any judicial or arbitral forum.  As we have also previously reported, however, on December 3, 2013, the Fifth Circuit rejected the NLRB’s position and held that the Act does not prohibit employers from requiring employees to sign class or collective action waivers.  The Second Circuit and the Eighth Circuit have likewise rejected the Board’s position.

Notwithstanding having “no illusions” that the Board’s decision would be the “last word on the subject”, in a 59-page decision, it reiterated and endorsed its prior position and addressed its critics head on, including the two lengthy dissents from Members Harry Johnson and Philip Miscimarra.

The Decision

Murphy Oil is the owner and operator of over 1,000 retail fueling stations.  Prior to March 6, 2012, Murphy Oil required all job applicants and current employees to execute a “Binding Arbitration Agreement and Waiver of Jury Trial,” which provided in pertinent part that all disputes related to an individual’s employment shall be resolved by binding arbitration and that the parties to the agreement “waive their right to commence or be a party to any group, class or collective action claim in arbitration or any other forum.”  The Charging Party, Sheila Hobson, signed this Agreement when she applied for employment in 2008.  Two years later, Hobson filed a collective action pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging that Murphy Oil failed to pay her and others for work-related activities performed off the clock.  Murphy Oil moved to compel arbitration and to dismiss the FLSA claims based on the plaintiffs having signed the Agreement.  Hobson, thereafter, filed an unfair labor practice charge and the NLRB’s General Counsel issued a complaint, alleging that Murphy Oil had violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.

At the heart of the dispute between the Board and its critics is the interpretation of Section 7 and 8(a)(1) of the Act as well as the application of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and Supreme Court jurisprudence interpreting same.

Section 8(a)(1) of the Act states that it “shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer . . . to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.  Section 7 of the Act states that employees shall have the right to “engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection[.]”  

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, in CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 132 S.Ct. 665, 673 (2012), held that where there is no specific “contrary congressional command” as to whether a claim can be arbitrated, the FAA “requires the arbitration agreement to be enforced according to its terms.”   The CompuCredit decision, however, only addressed the enforcement of an arbitration clause that barred access to courts, not a waiver of class or collection actions.  Moreover, the CompuCredit decision was not an employment-related dispute and did not involve the NLRA.  Thus, the specific issue at play in D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil remains unaddressed by the Supreme Court.

The Board’s rationale for upholding D.R. Horton is as follows:

(1)   Section 7 of the Act grants employees the  substantive right to act “concertedly for mutual aid or protection” and mandatory arbitration agreements that bar an employee’s ability to bring join, class, or collective workplace claims restrict this substantive right.

(2)   The conclusion that mandatory class action waivers are unlawful under the Act does not conflict with the FAA or its underlying policies because:

(a)    such a finding treats arbitration agreements no less favorably than any other private contract that conflicts with federal law;

(b)   Section 7 rights are substantive, which means that they cannot be waived under the FAA like procedural rights found in other statutes;

(c)    the “savings clause” in the FAA affirmatively provides that an arbitration agreement’s conflict with federal law is grounds for invalidating an agreement;

(d)   if there is a direct conflict between the NLRA and the FAA, the Norris-LaGuardia Act – which prevents private agreements that are inconsistent with the statutory policy of protecting employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity – requires the FAA to yield to the NLRA as necessary to accommodate Section 7 rights.

The Board criticized the Fifth Circuit’s decision for, among other things, giving too little weight to the “crucial point” that “the Board, like the courts, must carefully accommodate both the NLRA and the FAA” and not treat the FAA and its policies as “sweeping far more broadly than the statute or the Supreme Court’s decisions warrant.”

As to Member Johnson’s argument in his dissent that “there was no such thing as a class or collective action in any modern sense when the Act was passed in 1935” the Board majority found this point to be irrelevant because the language of “Section 7 is general and broad.”  As an example, the Board stated that the pursuit of unionization is “obviously protected” through the use of “modern communication technologies such as social media . . . regardless of whether workers during the Depression had access to Facebook.”

The Board also stated that contrary to the suggestion in Member Miscimarra’s dissent, it has not taken the position that the Act creates a guarantee to class certification or the equivalent; it does, however, create a right to “pursue joint, class or collective claims if and as available, without the interference of an employer-imposed restraint.”

What Does This Mean for Employers

After Murphy Oil, it is clear that the Board’s position and the position of at least some federal courts on this issue remain at odds.  If employers require employees covered by the Act to sign class action waivers, they should be aware that it could take significant time and money to ultimately have such an agreement upheld in federal court.  Clearly the last word on this issue will come only when the Supreme Court, as it is likely to do, considers the issue.  Until then employers that require such waivers should recognize that challenges through unfair labor practice charges will remain a fact of life.