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Supreme Court reaffirms its ruling on arbitration agreements as bars to class actions, begins chipping away at state laws to the contrary

The Supreme Court reaffirmed its recent ruling in Epic Resources that arbitration agreements, even mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements, bar class actions, even when silent on the subject. In doing so, the Supreme Court declined to adopt a standard that would have required such agreements to “clearly and unmistakably” permit class actions, ensuring the issue of just how much an arbitration agreement can and cannot say on the issue of class actions will continue to be litigated. For now, its decision, combined with Epic, mean, at least, that silence is itself a bar to class actions in arbitration.

In this decision the Supreme Court extended its Epic ruling even over what the lower courts had held was contrary California law. The lower courts had held that California law would permit arbitration of class action claims if the arbitration agreement was, although not silent, at least ambiguous on the issue. The lower courts had held that such amibiguity should be interpreted against the company, as the drafter of the agreement. The Supreme Court held here, no, federal public policy under the Federal Arbitration Agreement called for any ambiguity to be interpreted in favor of arbitration, without class actions.

The decision was a tough 5-4 split for the justices, with J. Kagan authoring a vigorous dissent.

The majority’s reasoning suggests other state laws that attempt to chip away at mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements are likely to fall if challenged. However, employers should remember that, at least as written, this decision does not expressly mandate the reversal of state laws like California’s notorious fairness factors (Armendariz).

Employers wishing to adopt language that expressly blocks class actions in arbitration, or even, for example, to delete their current opt-out (or opt-in) provisions, may wish to consider the effects first. As other employers have begun to see, blocking class action claims in arbitration can guaranty the filing of mass individual demands for arbitration, which may prove much more costly and time-consuming than the class action.

Source: Lamps Plus v. Varela, — S.Ct. —, case no. 17-988 (4/24/19).

California continues its contortions over arbitration agreements in employment cases

A trio of recent cases illustrateS how federal and state courts in California continue to struggle with their efforts to reconcile the recent pro-arbitration rulings by the Supreme Court with the historically anti-arbitration approach in California.

In NBCUniversal Media, LLC v. Pickett, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals held that an employee was required, under the Supreme Court’s 2009 14 Penn Plaza decision, to arbitrate individual employment discrimination claims under his union’s collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration clause, which read “neither the Union nor any aggrieved employee may file an action or complaint in court on any claim that arises under [an anti-discrimination clause], having expressly waived the right to so file.”

While that seemed to be a relatively straightforward application of the Supreme Court’s arbitration cases, the California Court of Appeals seemed to make the waters muddier in a pair of other cases.

In one case, Del Rosario Martinez v. Ready Pac Produce, Inc., the California Court of Appeals noted that the Supreme Court ruled in its 2011 Concepcion case and then in its 2018 Epic Resources case that an arbitration agreement is enforceable even if it means the employee is unable to pursue a class action. In line with those decisions, the Court held that the plaintiff was required to arbitrate her wage claims even though she was unable to pursue a class action.

However, in the other case, Ramos v. Superior Court of San Francisco County, the California Court of Appeals considered the same Supreme Court decisions and held they did not alter the fundamental underlying approach that California has taken against arbitration of employment claims, since the California Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Armendariz. Under the Armendariz approach, the Court then held the arbitration agreement in this case was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable under California law, even though it would have been enforceable under federal law:

In sum, the arbitration agreement as applied to Ramos’s statutory and wrongful termination claims contains four unconscionable terms. The provisions requiring Ramos to pay half the costs of arbitration, pay her own attorney fees, restricting the ability of the panel of arbitrators to “override” or “substitute its judgment” for that of the partnership, and the confidentiality clause, are unconscionable and significantly inhibit Ramos’s ability to pursue her unwaivable statutory claims. Because we are unable to cure the unconscionability simply by striking these clauses, and would instead have to reform the parties’ agreement in order to enforce it, we must find the agreement void as a matter of law.

These three cases don’t answer every, or even most, questions about arbitration agreements in California employment cases. They do illustrate the federal and state courts continuing efforts to try to reconcile California’s Armendariz approach with the Supreme Court’s. Employers who wish to utilize arbitration agreements in California should carefully consider their options.

NLRB General Counsel eases rules for deferral to arbitration

What if a union files a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement alleging a violation of the CBA, and then also files a charge at the NLRB alleging a violation (unfair labor practice) of the NLRA premised on the same facts? What if the timeline is reversed: The union files its ULP charge at the NLRB first then its CBA grievance? What if the union files only a ULP and for whatever reason declines to file a CBA grievance, maybe because it knows it’s case lacks merit and fears losing an arbitration of the grievance?

Can a company in any of those scenarios ask the Board to defer to the arbitration process in the CBA? The answer had historically been, yes, to all three situations, though with some caveats. This is generally called Spielberg deferral (though technically it is called Collyer deferral or Dubo deferral depending on the timing of the various kinds of scenarios).

In its 2014 Babcock & Wilcox decision, the Board carved out one scenario for special consideration: Where the union/employee has filed a ULP charge alleging a violation of sections 8(a)(3) or 8(a)(1) but have not yet filed a grievance under the CBA. The Board added special requirements for deferral in such cases.

The NLRB General Counsel has, now, opined that he believes Babcock & Wilcox was wrongly decided. He has asked the Board to reconsider when the issue next arises in a case.

In the meantime the NLRB General Counsel has instructed Board personnel to stop applying the Babcock & Wilcox additional requirements at least in cases where a grievance has been filed but the arbitrator has yet to rule (i.e., Dubo cases). Instead of the Babcock & Wilcox factors, the NLRB General Counsel has instructed Board personnel to look at whether the union can pursue its grievance to arbitration not whether it has agreed or even wishes to do so.

Source: NLRB General Counsel memorandum no. 19-03 (12/28/18).