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.)

 

Of all the federal circuit courts, I was not expecting the 7th Circuit to venture out on a limb to support the NLRB’s interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) as precluding class arbitration waivers.  After all, the 7th Circuit gets affirmed more than other circuit courts by SCOTUS, earning it a reputation for being fairly conservative.  Yet, contrary to the five other circuits that have already disagreed with the NLRB interpretation, the 7th Circuit just became the first to step out in support of the Board’s precedent.

In Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., 2016 WL 3029464 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016), the arbitration agreement between the employer and its employees called for individual arbitration of disputes and waived “the right to participate in or receive money or any other relief from any class, collective, or representative proceeding.”   Nevertheless, a technical writer (of all the unlikely heroes…) sued the employer in federal court asserting violations of labor laws.  When the employer moved to compel individual arbitration, the employee responded that the arbitration agreement violated the NLRA.   The district court agreed with the employee, and the 7th Circuit affirmed.

Knowing that it was creating a circuit split, the unanimous panel supported its result with as much precedent and analysis as it could muster.  The opinion’s logic is this: Section 7 of the NLRA gives employees the right “to engage in other concerted activities,” and filing class actions constitutes “other concerted activities,” by virtue of federal precedent as well as the statute’s legislative history.  Furthermore, the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA is entitled to deference.  Therefore, the Court held, because the employer forced its employees to agree to a contract that stipulated away the employees’ right to class and collective action, it was unenforceable.

The panel then addressed whether the FAA “overrides” the interpretation of the labor laws.  Finding that the two statutes were not in conflict, the panel rejected any notion that the FAA altered the result.  In particular, the opinion notes that on the whole, the NLRA is very pro-arbitration and therefore does not conflict with the federal policy favoring arbitration.  It then attempts to deal with the pro-class-action-waiver language in Concepcion and Italian Colors by pointing out that: 1) it was dicta, dicta, dicta; and 2) the savings clause in Section Two recognizes that arbitration agreements may be made invalid by other laws.

Would this panel have been so bold if there were not an equally divided 8 justices on the Supreme Court?  I don’t know.  But, I do know that if this decision (and the NLRB precedent) wins the day, and if the recent CFPB proposed regulations are issued and upheld, it will represent a fundamental shift in the use and value of arbitration agreements for large companies that contract with hundreds (or thousands or millions) of employees and consumers at once.

Post script: The 7th Circuit did not persuade the 8th Circuit to change its mind on this issue.  Just a week after the Lewis decision, the 8th Circuit decided Cellular Sales of Missouri v. NLRB, 2016 WL 3093363 (8th Cir. June 2, 2016), in which it reaffirmed its 2013 ruling that the NLRB was simply wrong in concluding that class-action waivers violate the labor laws.  However, the 8th Circuit did affirm the Board’s finding that the company violated the NLRA by drafting an arbitration agreement that would lead a reasonable employee to believe it waived or limited their rights to file unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.