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NLRB implements Supreme Court’s 2018 decision on arbitration agreements

In 2018, the Supreme Court rejected, in a decision titled Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the argument that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act’s protections for protected concerted activity somehow encompass a right to file class action and collective action lawsuits. There the Supreme Court held that, accordingly, employers can require pre-dispute arbitration agreements, even if it means such agreements block class and collective actions.

The Board recently was faced with a case on the issue and adopted the Supreme Court’s approach, restating that the NLRA does not bar arbitration agreements, even if they have that effect. In doing so, the NLRB clarified that employers are still prohibited from retaliating against employees who choose to act together by filing a class or collective action. “We reaffirm, however, longstanding precedent establishing that Section 8(a)(1) prohibits employers from disciplining or discharging employees for engaging in concerted legal activity, which includes filing a class or collective action with fellow employees over wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment.

Source:  Cordua Restaurants, Inc., 368 NLRB No. 43 (8/14/19).

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).

Third Circuit expounds on class actions in wage claims

A class action is a way for one or more persons to sue on behalf of a voluminous group of similarly situated persons. The idea is that the claim may not be financially worthwhile for one or a few people to prosecute, but where many people have suffered the same wrong, it makes sense for them to litigate the claims all at once, just as it is more efficient for the courts and defendant.

Wage claims are often for relatively small amounts, when one considers only one plaintiff, but can be for huge amounts when prosecuted on behalf of a claim. Wage claims though aren’t technically called a class action. Wage claims are prosecuted under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provides for “collective” actions; whereas, class actions are prosecuted under Rule 23 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

What’s the difference between a class action and a collective action? Well, there aren’t many, but the few differences there are, are indeed significant. The biggest difference is conceptual and practical. In a class action, the judge declares a “class,” and members can opt out if they don’t wish to be part of the lawsuit. In a collective action (a FLSA wage claim), the judge declares the potential class, but members have to opt in to become part of the lawsuit.

There are other significant differences in terms of the procedures and standards court follow at the start of the case. Those differences can drive significant outcomes in terms of settlement strategies and litigation approaches.

Still, the differences can be as subtle as they are sometimes significant, triggering relatively frequent litigation in the courts. The Tenth Circuit has, for example, said, in a 2001 decision (Thiessen) that there is “little difference in the various approaches”  under Rule 23 for class actions versus FLSA for collective actions. However the Third Circuit, in a recent decision, Reinig v. RBS Citizens, N.A., held the differences, though often slight, are significant enough that an appeal involving the one did not give it jurisdiction to consider issues related to the other. The Third Circuit, therefore, declined to decide whether certification of a collective action under FLSA was appropriate, even though it did decide that certification of a class under Rule 23 was inappropriate. The court left the collective action certification for the lower court and later litigation.

In so ruling, the court did, though, hold that the class action Rule 23 certification — the issue on appeal before it — had been improper. The Court clarified that, in order to prove that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleging “off the clock” work was appropriate for class certification, Rule 23 required them to prove that they, and the requested class members, could all show that their rights were violated using the same evidence of liability. It was not sufficient to prove that they had all been wronged by the same employer, that they had all been shorted wages to which they should have been entitled, or even that they had all been shorted in the same way. Rule 23, the Third Circuit held, requires that they prove they, and the requested class, could establish their cases using common evidence.

As for the merits of their claim, the Third Circuit opined that, to prove an off-the-clock work claim, the plaintiffs would need to show they had worked off the clock, which constituted overtime, and that the employer had at least “constructive knowledge” of the same. The court did not explain what would constitute “constructive knowledge.”

To satisfy their wage-and-hour claims, Plaintiffs must show that: (1) pursuant to Citizens’ unwritten “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” the class MLOs performed overtime work for which they were not properly compensated; and (2) Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of that policy and of the resulting uncompensated work.  See Kellar v. Summit Seating Inc., 664 F.3d 169, 177 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Reich v. Dep’t of Conservation & Natural Res., 28 F.3d 1076, 1082 (11th Cir. 1994)); see generally Davis v. Abington Memorial Hosp., 765 F.3d 236, 240–41 (3d Cir. 2014).  Thus, to satisfy the predominance inquiry, Plaintiffs must demonstrate (1) that Citizens’ conduct was common as to all of the class members, i.e., that Plaintiffs’ managers were carrying out a “common mode” of conduct vis-à-vis the company’s internal “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” and (2) that Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of this conduct.  See Sullivan, 667 F.3d at 299; Dukes, 564 U.S. at 358; see also Tyson Foods, Inc., 136 S. Ct. at 1046 (explaining that, although a plaintiff’s suit may raise “important questions common to all class members,” class certification is proper only if proof of the essential elements of the class members’ claims does not involve “person-specific inquiries into individual work time [that] predominate over the common questions”).  

The Third Circuit’s holding that class and collective actions are sufficient different that it lacked jurisdiction over issues re the one even though it had jurisdiction over issues re the other firmly establishes a split among the Circuits on the issue. Interested readers may wish to check if either party seeks Supreme Court review.

Source: Reinig v. RBS Citizens, N.A.case no. 17-3464 (3rd Cir. 12/31/19).

Would-be class action plaintiffs jujitsu Uber’s arbitration agreement

In a move Bruce Lee would have admired, a group of 12,501 drivers seeking to assert wage-hour and related claims against Uber — faced with having each executed arbitration agreements — have filed a Petition in the federal courts for the Northern District of California demanding just that, 12,501 individual arbitrations.

The Petition illustrates what is likely to become a powerful tactic for would-be class/collective action plaintiffs who find themselves otherwise stymied by arbitration agreements that do not permit class/collective actions. As reported here, the U.S. Supreme Court recently endorsed arbitration agreements as effective tools against class/collective action litigation. This move turns that tool back onto the employer itself.

The drivers allege that, as early as August 18, 2018, they began submitting claims to arbitration under the arbitration agreements. The drivers allege that, as of the time of the Petition, 12,501 demands for arbitration had been submitted.

Of those 12,501 demands, in only 296 has Uber paid the initiating filing
fees necessary for an arbitration to commence. Out of those matters, only 47 have
appointed arbitrators, and out of those 47, in only six instances has Uber paid the
retainer fee of the arbitrator to allow the arbitration to move forward..

Why hasn’t Uber (allegedly) paid the arbitrator’s retainer fees in the other cases? Well, if true, it might be related to the (alleged) fact that (according to the Petition, the fee in each such case is a “NON-REFUNDABLE filing fee of $1,500 for each.” As in, according to the Petition, a total of $18,681,000 (12,501-47x$1,500), just to start each of the 12,501 cases.

Are the Uber drivers asking the court to, therefore, let them out of their arbitration agreements? Are they asking the court to allow them to pursue a class/collective action in court? No, because that would be contrary to recent Supreme Court decision. Instead, they’re asking the Court to order Uber to comply with the (alleged) arbitration agreements, starting by paying the initial arbitration fees. The Petition seeks other relief to include an order requiring Uber to continue to participate in each of the 12,501 arbitrations and to pay the drivers’ attorney fees and costs in prosecuting their Petition.

 

Supreme Court upholds mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements, even when they bar class/collective actions

In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court may have given employers — at least in some states — to block class and collective actions. The Court ruled that mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), even in employment cases, and even as a block against class/collective actions. The Court had previously so ruled in the context of consumer contracts. In this case, the Supreme Court extended that ruling to employment agreements.

This ruling means companies can now lawfully require — at least under federal law — both consumers (as a condition of buying their product or service) and now employees (as a condition of working for the company) to agree,

  • Before any dispute ever arises,
  • To submit any future possible disputes to arbitration,
  • Instead of litigating them in court, and
  • Unless otherwise spelled out in the arbitration agreement, to waive any future rights to participate in class or collective actions.

In extending its ruling to employment cases, the Court rejected the argument that the National Labor Relations Act protects an employee’s right to join class/collective actions.

Perhaps of greatest importance the Court signaled a sharp curtailing of precedent holding that courts must defer to administrative agencies. That principle is called Chevron deference (after the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.). Chevron deference has become highly controversial and is seen by conservative legal theorists as the chief vehicle for creation of the so-called administrative state. Here the issue of Chevron deference was raised because the National Labor Relations Board had held that the statute it oversees, the National Labor Relations Act, does include protection for class/collective actions and therefore should have rendered illegal the agreement at-issue. Over a heated dissent, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA was entitled to deference. Whether this portends an end to Chevron deference or will prove an isolated ruling remains to be seen.

A “collective” action is like a class action. Some laws, notably, some wage-hour laws (such as minimum wage and overtime laws) permit “collective” actions instead of class actions. Simply put, the difference is that in a class action, the judge declares the existence of a class, and class members opt out of the class if they do not wish to participate; whereas, in a collective action, members must opt in to join the class.

Employers that have previously been concerned about stepping into the waters of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements may now wish to consult with counsel about doing so. Employers should remember that, although this is a strong case for employers, it does not necessarily apply to claims brought under state laws, and some states, notably both New York and California, have taken strong positions against this type of agreement.

Source: Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, case no. 16-285 (5/21/18)