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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)

“Tolling” versus “Suspending”: Which is it? SCOTUS says “tolling” means tolling.

Imagine a plaintiff who has both federal and state law claims. This is commonly the case in employment lawsuits where a plaintiff may, for example, have federal discrimination claims (often under Title VII) and state law claims (such as assault). Imagine that plaintiff faces a 2-year statute of limitations on their state law claims. Assume he files his EEOC charge, receives a right to sue and, exactly 1 year after the incidents at-issue, files his federal lawsuit. In that lawsuit he also asserts his state law claims. 14 months later, the federal court dismisses the federal claims, then, without ruling on the merits of the state law claims, dismisses them because there is no longer a federal claim to establish federal jurisdiction. At that point, it’s been 26 months (12+14) since the incidents at-issue occur, in other words, the 2-year (24 month) statute of limitations is 2-months expired.

So does the state law 24-month statute of limitations bar the plaintiff from re-filing his state law claims, this time in state court? No, there is a federal statute, 28 USC 1367(c), that says state law claims are “tolled” while the case is pending in federal court and, thereafter, for another 30 days. In other words, our hypothetical plaintiff can still file his state lawsuit, but he has to do so quickly, at least within that 30-day period.

But what if our hapless plaintiff misses that 30-day period? In other words, the judge ruled 26 months after the incidents at-issue. He clearly had the right to file during that 27 month, but what if he misses that window and doesn’t file until, say, the 30th month? Did his deadline expire at the end of that 30-day period or, because sec. 1367(c) says the state statute of limitation is “tolled,” does he get that 30 days plus another 14 months for the period his case was pending in federal court?

Faced with a choice between reading sec. 1367(c) as giving that plaintiff either just 1 month (30 days) or 15 months (30 days plus 14 months), the Supreme court held, in a divided opinion, that he has15 months in that scenario. In other words, the majority held that, because the federal tolling statute says the state statute of limitations is “tolled,” the plaintiff stopped the clock when he filed his federal lawsuit. He gets all the rest of the state statute of limitations after that, in other words, all the time that the case was pending before the federal court, plus the federal tolling statute’s 30 extra days.

That is, the limitations clock stops the day the claim is filed in federal court and, 30 days postdismissal, restarts from the point at which it had stopped.

The majority’s 5-4 decision reverses the lower Circuit Court and overrules a dissent, both of which would have held that the plaintiff only had 30 days. In a frankly odd dissent, the normally articulate J. Gorsuch explained the dissent’s view of sec. 1367 by analogizing to an obscure 1929 book:

Chesterton reminds us not to clear away a fence just because we cannot see its point. Even if a fence doesn’t seem to have a reason, sometimes all that means is we need to look more carefully for the reason it was built in the first place. The same might be said about the law before us.

The decision is a victory for plaintiffs. Although a relatively unusual scenario, the majority’s reading of sec. 1367 provides plaintiffs with time to carefully consider their next move (whether and what to file in state court) following an adverse ruling in federal court.