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.

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.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: The U.S. Supreme Court takes on class action waivers.

In 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that class action waivers in arbitration agreements violate employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits disagreed, finding that these waivers do not violate the NLRA and are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. More recently, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits sided with the NLRB on the issue. The Supreme Court will consider three cases in order to resolve this split, but any resolution could depend on the timing of the hearing. If the case is heard this term, before President Trump’s nominee for the vacancy on the Supreme Court is confirmed, it could end in a 4-4 tie. That would leave the law as it stands, and the split would continue.

Watch the segment below and see our recent blog post by Michael Kun.

Supreme Court Set To Resolve Class Action Waiver DisputeOn January 13, 2017, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear three cases involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements that contain class action waivers.

Whether such agreements are enforceable has been a hotly contested issue for several years now, particularly in cases involving wage-hour disputes.

The Fifth Circuit has held that such waivers can be enforceable (NLRB v. Murphy Oil, Inc.), joining the Second and Eighth Circuits in that conclusion. The Seventh (Epic Systems, Inc. v. Lewis) and Ninth Circuits (Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris) have held that they are not, determining that they violate employees’ rights to engage in collective activities under the National Labor Relations Act.

Barring the failure to confirm a new Supreme Court Justice to fill the vacant seat before the cases are argued — which could well result in a 4-4 tie — the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Murphy Oil, Epic Systems and Ernst & Young cases would seem likely to resolve the current dispute between the Circuits regarding the enforceability of those waivers. And it would provide some much-needed guidance to employers across the country.

Whether a ninth Supreme Court Justice will be seated in time to hear the cases is questionable, though. It is possible that the case could be held over until the next term, when a full Court presumably will be seated. If that does not occur, and if a 4-4 tie resulted, the split among the Circuits would remain.

Of course, there are many cases across the country in which parties are currently debating whether class action waivers are enforceable. One would think that most, if not all, of those cases will now be stayed while the courts await the Supreme Court’s ruling.

One of the most controversial issues in employment law these days involves the position of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) that an employer violates the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) when it requires employees to pursue any dispute they have with their employer on an individual, rather than on a class or collective action, basis with other employees. It is a position that has been adopted by two circuit courts and rejected by three—a conflict that suggests that the issue is ripe for U.S. Supreme Court review.

The NLRB has contended that when an employer requires employees to sign an agreement precluding them from bringing or joining a concerted legal claim regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, the employer deprives them of rights guaranteed under Section 7 of the NLRA to engage in concerted activities for employees’ mutual aid or protection. That right, the proponents argue, includes the right to join together in class and collective litigation to pursue workplace grievances in court or in arbitration.

In making that argument, the NLRB appears to be neglecting the second part of Section 7 (added to the NLRA by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments), which guarantees to employees an equal right to refrain from engaging in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection. It would seem to follow that, if they have the right to refrain from engaging in concerted activities, employees could waive their right to participate in class and collective actions.

While the NLRB’s argument appears flawed, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits have agreed with the NLRB that where such agreements are a condition of employment, they deprived employees of their rights to engage in “concerted activities” for their mutual aid and benefit guaranteed to them under Section 7 of the NLRA. These decisions conflict with earlier decisions of the Fifth, Eighth, and, most recently, Second Circuits rejecting the Board’s position.

At least one dissenting judge, Sandra Ikuta of the Ninth Circuit, stated that the majority decision was “breathtaking in its scope and in its error.” She noted that the majority decision was directly contrary to Supreme Court Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) precedent and that the individual arbitration mandate should have been enforced according to its terms under the FAA. The Ninth Circuit, it should be noted, previously held that an arbitration agreement with a class and collective action waiver did not violate the NLRA when the employee could opt out of the individual arbitration agreement but chose not to do so.

In those jurisdictions covered by the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, class and collective action waivers are likely unenforceable to the extent they are a condition of employment. In jurisdictions covered by the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits, class and collective action waivers would appear to be enforceable. Other circuits have yet to rule on the issue, leaving district courts within those circuits to weigh conflicting arguments on both sides.

The Supreme Court may well step in to resolve the conflict between the circuits on this important issue. Petitions for certiorari have been filed recently in four different cases. The issue before the Supreme Court in all four of these cases is whether the NLRA prohibits an employer from requiring employees to agree to waive their rights to arbitrate class and collective disputes or whether the FAA, which favors arbitration, controls; in short, whether class and collective waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. As there is clearly a conflict among the circuits, it would appear that there is a significant chance that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari and resolve this conflict.

As a practical matter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia’s death earlier this year, his still-unfilled seat, and the upcoming presidential election may play significant roles in resolving this issue if the Supreme Court grants certiorari. As many will recall, it was Justice Scalia who wrote the majority opinions in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors. In those cases, the Supreme Court upheld class action waivers, albeit in the commercial setting, not in an employment, setting. With Justice Scalia’s seat unfilled and only eight current justices, a four-to-four split at the Supreme Court would leave all of the circuit decisions standing, including both the Seventh and Ninth Circuit decisions in favor of the NLRB’s position, as well as the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuit decisions rejecting the NLRB’s position. Depending upon which party wins the upcoming presidential elections, the makeup of the Supreme Court justices (and of the five-member NLRB) may play a significant role in the outcome of this issue.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Critical Wage and Hour Issues Impacting Employers.”