Thursday, October 5, 2017
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument on three cases that could have a significant impact on an estimated 55% of employers and 25 million employees. The Court will opine on the controversial use of class action waivers and mandatory arbitration in the employment context. Specifically, the Court will decide whether mandatory arbitration violates the National Labor Relations Act or is permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act. Notably, the NLRA applies in the non-union context as well.
Monday’s argument was noteworthy for another reason—the Trump Administration reversed its position and thus supported the employers instead of the employees as the Obama Administration had done when the cases were first filed. The current administration also argued against its own NLRB’s position that these agreements are invalid.
In a decision handed down by the NLRB before the Trump Administration switched sides on the issue, the agency ruled that Dish Network’s mandatory arbitration provision violates §8(a)(1) of the NLRA because it “specifies in broad terms that it applies to ‘any claim, controversy and/or dispute between them, arising out of and/or in any way related to Employee’s application for employment, employment and/or termination of employment, whenever and wherever brought.’” The Board believed that employees would “reasonably construe” that they could not file charges with the NLRB, and this interfered with their §7 rights.
The potential impact of the Supreme Court case goes far beyond employment law, however. As the NLRB explained on Monday:
The Board's rule here is correct for three reasons. First, it relies on long-standing precedent, barring enforcement of contracts that interfere with the right of employees to act together concertedly to improve their lot as employees. Second, finding individual arbitration agreements unenforceable under the Federal Arbitrations Act savings clause because are legal under the National Labor Relations Act gives full effect to both statutes. And, third, the employer's position would require this Court, for the first time, to enforce an arbitration agreement that violates an express prohibition in another coequal federal statute. (emphasis added).
This view contradicted the employers' opening statement that:
Respondents claim that arbitration agreements providing for individual arbitration that would otherwise be enforceable under the FAA are nonetheless invalid by operation of another federal statute. This Court's cases provide a well-trod path for resolving such claims. Because of the clarity with which the FAA speaks to enforcing arbitration agreements as written, the FAA will only yield in the face of a contrary congressional command and the tie goes to arbitration. Applying those principles to Section 7 of the NLRA, the result is clear that the FAA should not yield.
My co-bloggers have written about mandatory arbitration in other contexts (e.g., Josh Fershee on derivative suits here, Ann Lipton on IPOs here, on corporate governance here, and on shareholder disputes here, and Joan Heminway promoting Steve Bradford’s work here). Although Monday’s case addresses the employment arena, many have concerns with the potential unequal playing field in arbitral settings, and I anticipate more litigation or calls for legislation.
I wrote about arbitration in 2015, after a New York Times series let the world in on corporate America’s secret. Before that expose, most people had no idea that they couldn’t sue their mobile phone provider or a host of other companies because they had consented to arbitration. Most Americans subject to arbitration never pay attention to the provisions in their employee handbook or in the pile of paperwork they sign upon hire. They don’t realize until they want to sue that they have given up their right to litigate over wage and hour disputes or join a class action.
As a defense lawyer, I drafted and rolled out class action waivers and arbitration provisions for businesses that wanted to reduce the likelihood of potentially crippling legal fees and settlements. In most cases, the employees needed to sign as a condition of continued employment. Thus, I’m conflicted about the Court’s deliberations. I see the business rationale for mandatory arbitration of disputes especially for small businesses, but as a consumer or potential plaintiff, I know I would personally feel robbed of my day in court.
The Court waited until Justice Gorsuch was on board to avoid a 4-4 split, but he did not ask any questions during oral argument. Given the questions that were asked and the makeup of the Court, most observers predict a 5-4 decision upholding mandatory arbitrations. The transcript of the argument is here. If that happens, I know that many more employers who were on the fence will implement these provisions. If they’re smart, they will also beef up their compliance programs and internal complaint mechanisms so that employees don’t need to resort to outsiders to enforce their rights.
My colleague Teresa Verges, who runs the Investor Rights Clinic at the University of Miami, has written a thought-provoking article that assumes that arbitration is here to stay. She proposes a more fair arbitral forum for those she labels “forced participants.” The abstract is below:
Decades of Supreme Court decisions elevating the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) have led to an explosion of mandatory arbitration in the United States. A form of dispute resolution once used primarily between merchants and businesses to resolve their disputes, arbitration has expanded to myriad sectors, such as consumer and service disputes, investor disputes, employment and civil rights disputes. This article explores this expansion to such non-traditional contexts and argues that this shift requires the arbitral forum to evolve to increase protections for forced participants and millions of potential claims that involve matters of public policy. By way of example, decades of forced arbitration of securities disputes has led to increased due process and procedural reforms, even as concerns remain about investor access, the lack of transparency and investors’ perception of fairness.
I’ll report back on the Court’s eventual ruling, but in the meantime, perhaps some policymakers should consider some of Professor Verges’ proposals. Practically speaking though, once the NLRB has its full complement of commissioners, we can expect more employer-friendly decisions in general under the Trump Administration.
 Murphy Oil USA v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017); Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 l. Ed. 2d. 595 (2017); Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 834 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017)