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.)

 

In National Labor Relations Board v. Alternative Entertainment, Inc., No. 16-1385, 2017 WL 2297620 (6th Cir. May 26, 2017), the Sixth Circuit joined the Seventh and Ninth Circuits in upholding the NLRB’s decision that barring an employee from pursuing class action or collective claims violates the NLRA. Already lined up on the other side of a growing Circuit split are the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits.

In Alternative Entertainment, Inc., the NLRB claimed that language in both the employment contract and the employee handbook used by Alternative Entertainment, Inc. (“AEI”) “violated the NLRA by barring employees from pursuing class-action litigation or collective arbitration of work-related claims.” Alternative Entertainment, Inc., 2017 WL 2297620 at *1.

Joining the Seventh Circuit’s critique of the Fifth Circuit’s logic in D. R. Horton, the Sixth expressly takes on the Fifth stating “the Fifth Circuit started with the wrong question.” When the Sixth asks the question it believes is the right one–if the NLRA is compatible with the FAA–the Court finds them in “harmony” and holds the employer’s ban on concerted action violates the NLRA. As a result, the court found the ban is also unenforceable under the FAA’s saving clause. According to the Sixth, the NLRA bans contracts that interfere with “employees’ right to engage in concerted activity, not because they mandate arbitration.” Any contract provision that interfered in this way would be illegal, which is in full accord with the FAA’s rejection of any contract that “undermine[s] employees’ right to engage in concerted legal activity.”

The Sixth’s second disagreement with the Fifth Circuit is expressed by the Sixth’s use of Chevron deference (arguing in the alternative, after stating there is no statutory ambiguity). The Sixth accepts the NLRB’s permissible construction of the NLRA’s right to concerted activity as a substantive, not procedural right.

In a partial dissent, and referring to the “manifestation of hostility toward arbitration,” Justice Sutton references the history of judicial protection and support of arbitration agreements provided over time. Specifically, the dissent objects to the majority’s overreaching use of Chevron, and states the majority opinion ignores Concepcion’s rejection of similar arguments harmonizing the NLRA with the FAA. (The majority opinion, however, distinguishes the kind of arbitration provision used by AEI and the kind of arbitration provision used by the employer in Concepcion.)

One question here is why would the Sixth Circuit bother drafting and filing this opinion when SCOTUS has already accepted review of this issue? It is possible the Sixth decided to issue this opinion in an effort to intentionally level the sides of this split by adding its voice to the Seventh and Ninth Circuits. It is also possible that since arguments had been heard in November 2016, opinions had already been formed by the time SCOTUS granted cert. on the question in January 2017. Either way, SCOTUS is expected to opine later this year on cases consolidated as National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., which will resolve the growing divide among the circuits. In granting cert., SCOTUS acknowledged the extent of the Circuit split as it existed in January—and footnoted this Sixth circuit case along with four other potential cases from the Third, Fourth, Eleventh and the D.C. Circuits. SCOTUS saw this one coming their way. I look forward to reading the resolution of this split.

ArbitrationNation thanks Jaclyn Schroeder, a law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, for researching and drafting this post.

Some arbitration topics just never die.  This post strings together new cases on three of those topics: 1) whether arbitration agreements that call for the now-defunct National Arbitration Forum (NAF) are enforceable; 2) formation fights in nursing home agreements; and 3) the continuing fight between the NLRB and the courts over class action waivers in employment agreements .

In a 3-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania refused to enforce an arbitration agreement that called for administration by the NAF.  Wert v. Manorcare of Carlisle PA, 2015 WL 6499141 (Pa. October 27, 2015).  In the context of a wrongful death claim against a nursing home, the parties disputed the enforceability of an arbitration agreement in the admission paperwork.  Pennsylvania’s highest court adopted a 2010 decision from its intermediate appellate court finding that the incorporation of the National Arbitration Forum Code was an essential term, such that if the NAF was unavailable, the entire arbitration agreement was unenforceable. The court found the subjective intent of the Appellee (who admitted she did not read the agreement) was irrelevant.  Relying on its analysis of the NAF rules, the court found “the provision integral and non-severable.”  For good measure, the court also noted that its result was not preempted by federal law because it was “based on settled Pennsylvania contract law principles that stand independent of arbitration.”  State courts, as well as federal courts, are now split on how to handle arbitration clauses incorporating NAF rules.

In another nursing home case, the Alabama Supreme Court found an arbitration agreement was not validly formed because the person who signed it did not have proper authority.  Diversicare Leasing Corp v. Hubbard, 2015 WL 5725116 (Ala. Sept. 30, 2015), involved a mother’s claim about the wrongful death of her son in a long-term care facility. When the adult son, whose mental capacity had not progressed beyond that of a toddler, was admitted, his mother signed the admission agreement as the “responsible party” and “resident’s representative.”  After she brought suit, the nursing home moved to compel arbitration.  However, the Alabama trial and appellate courts found that no valid arbitration agreement had been formed.  Critically, the son had never been mentally competent to authorize his mother to act on his behalf, and she had never been given his power of attorney, or health care decision-making rights, or been appointed his legal guardian after his 18th birthday.  Therefore, the mother’s signature did not bind the son.  The Alabama decision is in line with other state court decisions that have strictly interpreted the legal authority of relatives who sign arbitration agreements in nursing home contracts.

Finally, the third case taught me a new legal doctrine: nonacquiescence.  And who is not acquiescing to federal authority?  Well, the NLRB, at least according to the 5th Circuit.  In its D.R. Horton decision in 2013, the Fifth Circuit had rejected the NLRB’s analysis that federal labor laws override the FAA and preclude class action waivers.  Despite D.R. Horton, the NLRB applied its same analysis in Murphy Oil, just ten months later.  On review, the Fifth Circuit forcefully reaffirmed its earlier holding.  Murphy Oil USA v. NLRB, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015).  However, the court was not willing to hold the NLRB in contempt or otherwise penalize the Board. Because the Board only has to acquiesce to circuit court rulings when a case will be reviewed by that same circuit, and the Murphy Oil case could have been reviewed in multiple circuits, the court noted “[w]e do not celebrate the Board’s failure to follow our D.R. Horton reasoning, but neither do we condemn its nonacquiescence.”

After three federal circuits had already refused to defer to the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton, it is not surprising that the Fifth Circuit yesterday overruled the NLRB’s critical holding: that precluding class arbitrations is a violation of federal labor law.  D.R. Horton, Inc. v. Nat’l Labor Relations Bd., __ F.3d __, 2013 WL 6231617 (5th Cir. Dec. 4, 2013).

D.R. Horton builds homes in many states.  Starting in 2006, its employees had to sign a Mutual Arbitration Agreement.  The MAA called for binding arbitration of disputes and provided that “the arbitrator [would] not have the authority to consolidate the claims of other employees” or “the authority to fashion a proceeding as a class or collective action.”  In 2008, a class of superintendents tried to bring a class arbitration related to allegations that the builder violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Horton insisted that the employees could only arbitrate on an individual basis.  In response, the lead plaintiff filed an unfair labor practice charge.

In 2012, the NLRB found that the MAA violated labor law by requiring employees to waive their right to joint, class or collective employment actions.  On a petition for review, the Fifth Circuit reversed that decision.  Because the NLRB is entitled to deference in its interpretation of the labor laws, the Fifth Circuit largely accepted the Board’s analysis that requiring employees to refrain from collective and class actions violates Sections 7 and 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, because it impedes employees ability to enage in concerted activity, i.e. class claims.  (Not without some digs, though.  Like this one: “no court decision prior to [this one] had held that the Section 7 right…prohibited class action waivers.”)  However, the court found the NLRB had not given sufficient weight to the FAA in its analysis and “[c]aselaw under the FAA points us in a different direction than the course taken by the Board.”

The court analyzed the two potential bases for finding an arbitration agreement is invalid under the FAA.  First, it looked at whether the savings clause in Section 2 of the FAA (arbitration agreements are enforceable “save upon such grounds as exist at law” for revocation) provides authority to invalidate the MAA based on the NLRA.  (Holy acronyms!)  The court concluded that the “Board’s rule does not fit within the FAA’s savings clause” under the same reasoning set forth in Concepcion.  In short, “[r]equiring a class mechanism is an actual impediment to arbitration and violates the FAA.”

Second, the court looked at whether Congress intended the NRLA to override the FAA.  Nothing explicit in the text of the NLRA shows that intent and the court found nothing in the legislative history showing that intent.  Therefore, it looked to whether there was an “inherent conflict between the FAA and the NLRA’s purpose.”  The court found no inherent conflict, largely because courts have allowed arbitration of NLRA claims generally, and courts have specifically found that arbitration agreements cannot be voided based on inequality in bargaining power.  In its final paragraph on this issue, the court said it is “loath to create a circuit split.  Every one of our sister circuits to consider the issue has either suggested or expressly stated that they would not defer to the NLRB’s rationale, and held arbitration agreements containing class waviers enforceable.”

On a different issue, however, the court upheld the NLRB’s decision.  It found that the MAA improperly gave the impression that an employee was waiving his or her administrative rights.  (The agreement included the employee’s waiver of “the right to file a lawsuit or other civil proceeding relating to Employee’s employment with [Horton].”)  Therefore, the court held the Board properly forced the builder to change that language in its MAA.