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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)

Under the Supreme Court’s new “fair reading” doctrine, will FLSA exemptions be interpreted more broadly?

Historically courts have interpreted the overtime exemptions in FLSA (the Fair Labor Standards Act) narrowly in favor of employees. This “narrow construction” doctrine has made it difficult to treat employees who may be exempt as such unless they clearly fit an exemption. Now, the Supreme Court has rejected the “narrow construction” doctrine, ruling that it has not been “a useful guidepost for interpreting FLSA.”

The Supreme Court held that FLSA’s overtime obligations consist of two basic chunks of statutory language: The first requires employees to be paid overtime; the second chunk of language is a series of exemptions from that general rule. The Supreme Court held that FLSA provided courts with no basis for giving the first chunk of language any greater significance than the second chunk, in other words, to read the overtime requirement broadly at the expense of having to read the exemptions narrowly. Instead the Supreme Court held, both chunks of language should be given equal importance. The Supreme Court called this a “fair reading.”

Those exemptions are as much a part of theFLSA’s purpose as the overtime-pay requirement. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 9) (“Legislation is, after all, the art of compromise, the limitations expressed in statutory terms often the price of passage”). We thus have no license to give the exemption anything but a fair reading.

Having rejected the narrow-construction doctrine, and instead applying its fair-reading doctrine, the Supreme Court then held that, in this case, service advisors at the car dealership in question qualified for an overtime exemption under FLSA’s special exemption for salesmen at car dealerships.

It is likely this ruling will have substantial impact in all FLSA overtime cases. It will not be limited to the FLSA’s exemption for salesmen at car dealerships. Rather the fair-reading doctrine will substantially expand the reach of all of FLSA’s overtime exemptions.

Source: Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, case no. 16-1362 (2018).

To be a Dodd-Frank whistleblower, individual must complain to SEC

Dodd-Rank is the nation’s leading securities-related whistleblower law. What if an individual complains, not to the SEC, but to the company at-issue, is a mere internal complaint to the company sufficient to trigger Dodd-Frank’s protections? In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court, after reviewing the text of Dodd-Frank itself, held the answer was clear: Congress wrote Dodd-Frank to protect only complaints to the SEC. Therefore a complaint to the company at-issue, alone, is insufficient to trigger Dodd-Frank’s protections.

The case is also notable for the absence of analysis regarding Chevron deference. Chevron deference is the legal term used to refer to the practice of courts deferring to agency interpretations of statutes. Here, while Dodd-Frank itself clearly required a complaint to the SEC, the SEC had interpreted the language more broadly, saying that a complaint to a company alone should also be protected. The concept of Chevron deference has become quite controversial, and commentators anticipated this might be the case by which the Supreme Court revisited the topic. However, the Supreme Court, having decided the language of the statute itself was clear, had no opportunity to do so. The continuing viability of Chevron deference remains an issue for another case to resolve.

Source: Digital Realty v. Somers, case no. 16-01276 (Sup. Ct. 2/21/18).

Supreme Court holds deadline for appealing a federal lawsuit is not jurisdictional

Prior case law had suggested and many litigators had assumed that the deadline for filing an appeal in a federal lawsuit is jurisdictional, meaning it cannot be waived or extended and must be met at the risk of losing an otherwise meritorious appeal. In a recent case, the appellant requested and received, before her deadline to appeal, a 2-month extension of the deadline to appeal. That extension was one month more than the federal rules allow. Those federal rules are adopted by the courts, specifically the Supreme Court, they are not laws made by Congress.

The appellate court held that the deadline for her to appeal was jurisdictional and therefore the lower court had lacked authority to extend it so long. Accordingly the appellate court dismissed her appeal.

A unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. While the rule is in fact a rule, and failure to file a timely appeal still generally will warrant a dismissal, the Supreme Court held that  the deadline is not jurisdictional. It is merely a rule of court. It may be extended. To be jurisdictional, the Supreme Court held, it would have had to have been the product of Congressional legislation; the Supreme Court held it does not itself have the authority to create jurisdictional deadlines in its own rules. Accordingly, the dismissal of the appeal was vacated.

Source: Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, No. 16-658 (U.S. Nov. 08, 2017), Court Opinion

Supreme Court holds that trial court analysis of EEOC subpoena’s enforceability is entitled to discretion, not de novo review.

In a decision that probably surprised no one except the often-reversed and reversed-in-this-case Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court held that a trial court, not an appellate court, is in the best position to review the particulars of a subpoena.

Interestingly, the decision, which can be seen as reinforcing the EEOC’s ability to issue subpoenas – or at least reducing judicial scrutiny over EEOC subpoenas – was technically a loss for the EEOC. The EEOC had issued a subpoena for contact information for employees who’d taken a certain test, nationwide. The company objected, and the trial court agreed with the company, holding the EEOC’s nationwide request was overly broad. The EEOC then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which ruled it could review the trial court’s ruling de novo (from scratch) without having to give the trial court any deference. The Supreme Court disagreed and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit. Now, the EEOC will decide if it still wants the information, and if so, it will have the heavy burden of proving not only that  it is entitled to the information but that the trial court was so wrong when it decided otherwise that it abused its discretion.

While the EEOC lost the Supreme Court case, companies should be mindful of the overarching lesson: The EEOC has broad subpoena power, and a trial court may now be the only judicial body with substantial authority to hear a challenge to an EEOC subpoena.

For an example of how EEOC subpoenas are analyzed for enforceability, see this posting.

The case was McLane Co., Inc. v. EEOC, — S.Ct. — (4/3/17/).

Supreme Court review over benefits liability likely in union jurisdictional disputes

Sometimes, companies sign collective bargaining agreements (CBA), not realizing that each promises the same work to different unions. In this case, the employer allegedly signed one CBA that promised forklift and skidster work to the Operating Engineers and another CBA that promised the same work to Laborers. This can create a jurisdictional dispute; in other words, it can lead the two unions to argue over the work.

Under section 10(k) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has authority to decide which union gets the work in a jurisdictional dispute.

In this 10(k) case, the Board decided that the Operating Engineers not the Laborers had the better claim to forklift and skidster work. Despite the Board’s ruling, the Laborers sued the company for benefits under its collective bargaining agreement. In effect, the Laborers argued that the Operating Engineers could have the work, but the company should have to pay benefits to both unions’ trust funds. The law that governs liability for benefits is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The Laborers argued that the Board’s 10(k) authority only extends to determinations of which union has the better claim to the work under the NLRA, not to which union is entitled to benefits under ERISA.

The Circuit Courts are split on the issue. The Third, Ninth, District of Columbia and now Sixth Circuits hold that the Board’s 10(k) ruling governs the ERISA claim, meaning the losing union has no claim to the work under the NLRA or for benefit payments under ERISA. The Seventh Circuit has held otherwise.

The split in Circuit Courts foretells possible Supreme Court review, especially because, here, even as it joined the majority of other Circuits, the Sixth Circuit did so over a strong dissent.

Employers with multiple CBAs should carefully review the way each of their agreements describes covered work. Overlapping descriptions should be clarified.

The case was Orrand v. Hunt Construction Group, Inc., — F.3d — (6th Cir. 2017).