The Seventh Circuit issued an opinion last week that sounded like it would be a big deal.  The case, Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp., 2018 WL 5116905 (7th Cir. Oct. 22, 2018), dealt with the fallout from SCOTUS’s Epic Systems, and addressed a class arbitrability issue of first impression, which meant it could have been epic indeed.  But instead, the decision is a fizzle that punts all the truly exciting issues back to the district court.

Herrington began in court as a collective action for minimum wages and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The named plaintiff had an arbitration clause which included this statement “Such arbitration may not be joined with or join or include any claims by any persons not party to this Agreement.”  So, the defendant moved to compel individual arbitration.  But, based on the 7th Circuit’s precedent finding that class waivers in employment agreements violated federal labor laws (the NRLA), the court sent the parties to arbitration with an order instructing the arbitrator to allow the plaintiff “to join other employees to her case.”

In arbitration, the parties continued to fight over what type of suit could proceed.  The arbitrator concluded that the arbitration agreement evinced the parties’ intent to allow class arbitration, because it incorporated AAA employment rules, which the arbitrator interpreted to also include the supplementary rules for class arbitration.   In the end, however, the group proceeded as a collective arbitration with 175 members, and the arbitrator awarded them $10 million.

While the issue was on appeal, SCOTUS overruled the 7th Circuit’s precedent (in Epic Systems), which upended this entire proceeding.  On its face, it seemed as if the initial decision not to enforce the arbitration clause precluding joinder should be un-done, which would vacate the entire award.  However, the plaintiffs argued that despite the language precluding joinder, the arbitration clause still contained other language that authorized the collective arbitration.  At that, the 7th Circuit pivoted and framed the question as: who decides whether the arbitration clause allows collective arbitration?  The court or the arbitrator?

Noting it was “an open question in our circuit,” the 7th Circuit agreed with “every federal court of appeals to reach the question” that the “availability of class arbitration is a question of arbitrability” and therefore presumptively for courts to decide.  But, the 7th Circuit did not address the next logical question that must be answered to resolve the case: does or does not the parties’ choice of AAA rules delegate even the availability of class arbitration to an arbitrator?  Because that is not only an open question in the 7th Circuit, but one on which the other federal circuits are split.

That issue is important because if the parties validly delegated that question to the arbitrator, then the arbitrator’s decision finding the parties’ arbitration clause allowed collective action is entitled to deference.  At that point, isn’t it just like Sutter?  The arbitrator allowed the class action, and the courts have to live with that construction, “good, bad or ugly”?

Well, all those issues will have to be worked out by the district court.  The 7th Circuit found “the district court should conduct the threshold inquiry regarding class or collective arbitrability to determine whether [plaintiff’s] agreement with [defendant] authorized the kind of arbitration that took place.”

Happy Halloween!  (Or, by the time most of you read this, Day of the Dead.  Can you believe my husband carved this cool pumpkin?)

Lots of folks are writing about the long-term impact of SCOTUS’s recent decision in Epic Systems, but it is also important to note that there has been immediate, short-term impact.

For example, a lead plaintiff agreed to take her sex discrimination case against a law firm  to individual arbitration, abandoning her putative class action, after the Epic decision was released.  A federal judge is ready to dismiss a separate class action against Epic Systems (regarding overtime pay) as a result of the new decision.  And a class action against Chipotle may get sliced and diced up, with about 30% of employees being sent to individual arbitration, while 70% of the class can proceed in court (because they started working for the chain before it instituted the arbitration program). There must be dozens (hundreds?) of similar employment class actions around the country.

Speaking of the trickle down effects of SCOTUS’s arbitration cases, last year’s Kindred decision is certainly a relevant headwater for the Supreme Court of West Virginia’s recent opinion upholding the arbitration agreement in nursing home admission documents.  Although West Virginia used to be reliably anti-arbitration, its recent decisions are pro-arbitration.  So, it’s not too surprising that in AMFM LLC v. Shanklin, 2018 WL 2467770 (W. Va. May 30, 2018), that court reversed a trial court’s ruling that the arbitration agreement signed by the resident’s daughter was not enforceable.  Careful not to interpret its statutes and common law regarding power of attorney in a way that stands as an obstacle to the FAA, West Virginia’s high court found that the daughter’s role as understudy in the POA document (fine, it says “successor” or “alternate”) was sufficient to bind her mother to the arbitration agreement.  The position drew a spirited dissent from one lone justice.

 

SCOTUS finally delivered its decision today in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the consolidated case that addresses whether employers can require employees to give up their right to class or consolidated litigation as part of an arbitration agreement.  In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Gorsuch, the Court found that class action waivers are enforceable under the FAA, and nothing in the labor laws preclude that conclusion.

As usual, how the Court frames the question gives away its answer.  Justice Gorsuch began the majority opinion by asking: “Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration?”* In contrast, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent frames the issue as “Does the [FAA] permit employers to insist that their employees, whenever seeking redress for commonly experienced wage loss, go it alone, never mind the right secured to employees by the National Labor Relations Act . . . ‘to engage in . . . concerted activities’ for their ‘mutual aid or protection'”?

The majority opinion started by painting the NLRB’s opposition to class action waivers as a sudden shift after 77 years of peaceful coexistence with the FAA.  It then finds that the NLRA cannot be applied via the savings clause of Section 2 of the FAA because it interferes with one of arbitration’s fundamental attributes — individual resolution — and therefore is not the type of defense that applies to any contract. (It cites Concepcion for the proposition that individual resolution is fundamental to arbitration.)

After finding nothing in the FAA itself that would prevent enforcement of the class action waivers at issue, the majority opinion looks to see if the NLRA clearly and manifestly indicates that Congress intended to override the FAA.  It finds no statutory or contextual evidence of that clear intent.  It also made short work of the employees’ argument for Chevron deference to the NLRB.  [One of the best lines from the opinion is in that section.  Noting that Chevron was based, in part, on the idea that policy choices should be left to the executive branch which voters can hold accountable, the majority writes: “whatever argument might be mustered for deferring to the Executive on grounds of political accountability, surely it becomes a garble when the Executive speaks from both sides of its mouth, articulating no single position on which it might be held accountable.”]

Interestingly, the majority decision acknowledges that there is a vigorous policy debate over the merits of class action waivers in arbitration.  At multiple points during the opinion Justice Gorsuch bows to the possibility that the FAA could be flawed: “You might wonder if the balance Congress struck in 1925 between arbitration and litigation should be revisited in light of more contemporary developments.”  And later “This Court is not free to substitute its preferred economic policies for those chosen by the people’s representatives.”  But each time he returns to the idea that the Court is bound by the law to rigidly enforce arbitration agreements.  In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg agrees that Congress is now the right branch of government to act.  The dissent states: “Congressional correction of the Court’s elevation of the FAA over workers’ rights to act in concert is urgently in order.”

The dissent would hold that Section 7 of the NLRA does guarantee the right to pursue collective litigation and trumps the FAA.  The dissent reviews the text and legislative history of the NLRA to support its conclusion and addresses the majority’s arguments.  What I found most interesting in the dissent, however, was its review of the legislative history behind Section 1 of the FAA.  Apparently, organized labor was concerned about the FAA’s impact, and Herbert Hoover amended the legislation to specifically exclude workers’ contracts.  Congress passed the amended version and labor withdrew its opposition.  [Justice Ginsburg’s research on that topic may come in handy next term when the Court addresses the New Prime case.]

This is the result that everyone expected based on oral argument and the current politics of the court.  But still, when I read the “Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court,” I can’t help feeling like it should say “Justice Gorsuch delivered on President Trump’s promises of a conservative court.”  Would it have been better to just let the new appointments to the NLRB reverse the Board’s course of action, much like the reversals of other agencies, and save the Court from this particular insertion into politics?

*  (Do you hear that growly “one on one” from this song when you read that?   Maybe it’s just me.)