National Labor Relations Act

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.

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.