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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)