AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, that employment arbitration agreements that bar class actions are enforceable.  The vote was 5 to 4 in upholding the use of arbitration agreements in the workplace.

The plaintiff in the case argued that employees could not waive their rights in an agreement to be a part of a class action to pursue employment claims because this waiver violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) because these types of claims are “concerted activities” protected by § 7 of the NLRA.  This section guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively . . ., and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The Court disagreed with plaintiff’s reading of § 7, and held: “The NLRA secures to employees rights to organize unions and bargain collectively, but it says nothing about how judges and arbitrators must try legal disputes that leave the workplace and enter the courtroom or arbitral forum. This Court has never read a right to class actions into the NLRA – and for three quarters of a century neither did the National Labor Relations Board.”

In 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, upholding the enforceability of class action waivers in the consumer context, such as with cell phone providers, cable providers or services provided by internet companies.  The plaintiff in Epic Systems argued that the employment context was different because of the rights guaranteed to employees under the NLRA.  While many employers were using arbitration agreements with class action waivers, the ruling in Epic Systems confirms the enforceability of these agreements between employees and employers.

This decision resolves a split in authority between the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Ernst & Young v. Morris), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc.), and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis).

See my prior post for additional background on the case and impact on California employers.

Two cases decided in the last two months have further clarified the scope of discovery and plaintiff’s ability to pursue damages in addition to individual damages under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA).  The holdings are a bit of a mixed bag for employers, but they offer some clarification into PAGA.  This Friday’s Five is a summary of five issues employers need to understand about PAGA and the new decisions setting out the rights plaintiffs have to pursue representative actions under the statute:

1. PAGA representative actions are different than class actions.

California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) was designed by the California Legislature to offer financial incentives for private individuals to enforce state labor laws. At the time PAGA became law, the state’s labor law enforcement agencies did not have enough resources or staffing necessary to keep up with the rapid growth of California’s workforce. Therefore, PAGA allows aggrieved employees to sue as a proxy or agent of California’s state labor law enforcement agencies in collecting civil penalties for Labor Code violations. The employee must give 75 percent of the collected penalties to the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and the remaining 25 percent is to be distributed among the employees affected by the violations.

First, because the plaintiff under PAGA is seeking penalties and not other forms of damages, a one year statute of limitations applies. This varies drastically from the four year statute of limitations that apply to most wage and hour class actions when a Business and Professions Code section 17200 cause of action is alleged.

Second, in Arias v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court held that a plaintiff does not have to certify a class under PAGA to recover damages on behalf of all the other employees in the representative action.  However, as set forth below, courts are still deciding the scope of PAGA representative actions in terms of discovery rights and manageability issues.

2. Arbitration agreements with class action waivers are enforceable, but representative actions brought under the Private Attorneys General Act are not subject to arbitration and cannot be waived.

Many courts have been upholding arbitration agreements that contain class action waivers, including the California Supreme Court in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC.  That case held that class action waivers are enforceable, following the standards set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  However, in Iskanian, the California Supreme Court held that PAGA representative actions cannot be waived by employees and cannot be compelled to arbitration.  The Court held that, “we conclude that an arbitration agreement requiring an employee as a condition of employment to give up the right to bring representative PAGA actions in any forum is contrary to public policy.”

3. PAGA penalties are separate from individual damages.

In August 2017, a California appellate court held in Esparza v. KS Industries that PAGA representative actions can only seek “civil penalties” permitted by PAGA.  As set forth above, the civil penalties recovered by a PAGA claim 75 percent must be allocated to the Labor and Workforce Development Agency and 25 percent to the aggrieved employees in the representative action.  The court found that PAGA civil penalties do not include unpaid wages sought by the individual plaintiff.

4. Employers defending PAGA claims must require plaintiffs to explicitly state whether they are pursuing individual damages (which must be arbitrated) or PAGA civil penalties (which cannot be arbitrated).

As the court noticed in Esparza, PAGA representative claims for civil penalties are not subject to arbitration, but claims for unpaid wages based on Labor code section 558 are not civil penalties and can be compelled to arbitration.

If the employee wants to pursue both, the employer should compel arbitration of the plaintiff’s individual claims and stay the PAGA case pending the resolution of the individual claims.

5. Employers facing PAGA cases must consider filing a motion to sequence discovery early in the case.

In Williams v. Superior Court, a case decided in July 2017, the plaintiff sought to obtain the contact information for fellow California employees who worked for defendant, Marshalls of CA, LLC.  Defendant refused to provide the contact information for the other employees, and plaintiff filed a motion to compel.  The trial court limited the ability of plaintiff to obtain contact information to the store where the plaintiff worked, but denied it as to every other California store, subject to change after plaintiff sat for his deposition and made a showing of some merit to the underlying action.

The California Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and required defendant to provide the contact information for all California employees:

Our prior decisions and those of the Courts of Appeal firmly establish that in non-PAGA class actions, the contact information of those a plaintiff purports to represent is routinely discoverable as an essential prerequisite to effectively seeking group relief, without any requirement that the plaintiff first show good cause.  Nothing in the characteristics of a PAGA suit, essentially a qui tam action filed on behalf of the state to assist it with labor law enforcement, affords a basis for restricting discovery more narrowly.

The Court was clear, however, that upon a defendant’s motion showing good cause, a trial court can ordered sequenced discovery.   The Court explained:

Marshalls reasons instead that the trial court’s imposition of a merits requirement can be justified under Code of Civil Procedure section 2019.020.  That provision sets out the general rule that the various tools of discovery may be used by each party in any order, and one party’s discovery “shall not operate to delay the discovery of any other party.”  (Id., subd. (a).)  However, if a party shows “good cause,” the trial court “may establish the sequence and timing of discovery for the convenience of parties and witnesses and in the interests of justice.”  (Id., subd. (b).)  But Marshalls did not file a section 2019.020 motion, and we thus have no occasion to decide what showing might suffice to warrant a court order sequencing discovery.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently held in D.R. Horton, 357 NLRB No. 184, that a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement was unenforceable as it violates employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Specifically, it held that employees have “the right ‘to engage in…concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…” under section 7 of the NLRA and therefore any waiver to participate in class actions violates this right.

However, since the D.R. Horton decision courts have upheld class action waivers in the employment context and have rejected the NLRB’s reasoning in D.R. Horton as inconsistent with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which permitted class action waivers in arbitration agreements. For example, in LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc. (S.D.N.Y.), the plaintiff brought a putative class action alleging various wage and hour violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York labor laws. In rejecting the reasoning of D.R. Horton, the court held that:

Given that the Supreme Court held in AT&T Mobility that ‘[r]equiring the availability of classwide arbitration interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration and thus creates a scheme inconsistent with the FAA,’ this Court must read AT&T Mobility as standing against any argument that an absolute right to collective action is consistent with the FAA’s ‘overarching purpose’ of ‘ensur[ing] the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms so as to facilitate streamlined proceedings. To the extent that [plaintiff] relies…on the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board (‘NLRB’) in D.R. Horton, Inc. and Michael Cuda, Case 12-CA-25764, January 2, 2012, as authority to support a conflicting reading of AT&T Mobility, this Court declines to follow [that] decision[].

As I’ve written about previously, this area of the law is quickly changing. There is no doubt that new decisions this year will continue to add to the development of this area of the law.

 

What is an arbitration agreement?

            Employers can agree that they and any employees who enter into an arbitration agreement will resolve their differences before a private arbitrator instead of civil court. There are many different arbitration companies to choose from, but the American Arbitration Association and JAMS are two of the larger ones that are routinely appointed in arbitration agreements. 

Are they enforceable in California?

            Generally speaking, if the agreement is drafted and implemented properly, they are. However, arbitration agreements are routinely struck down by courts if they are not properly drafted. For example, recently a California court held in Ajamian v. CantorCO2e, that an arbitration agreement was not enforceable because it required the employee to waive statutory damages and remedies and only allowed the employer to recover its attorney’s fees if successful, not the employee. 

Why would an employer want to implement arbitration agreements?

            There are a number of reasons. The arbitration process can proceed more quickly than civil litigation, saving a lot of time and attorney’s fees in the process.  For example, often times the discovery process moves more quickly, and if there are any disputes, the parties can raise them with the arbitrator telephonically, instead of the lengthy motion process required to resolve disputes in civil court. The arbitration process is also confidential, so if there are private issues that must be litigated, these issues are not filed in the public records of the courts. The parties also have a say in deciding which arbitrator to use in deciding the case, whereas in civil court the parties are simply assigned a judge without any input into the decision. This is very helpful in employment cases, which often times involve more complex issues, and it is beneficial to the parties to select an arbitrator that has experience in resolving employment cases.   

Are class action waivers enforceable in arbitration agreements?

            Yes. Two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp. have established that class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. However, Plaintiffs continually challenge class action waivers on numerous grounds, and it is critical employers’ agreements are properly drafted and up-to-date. 

Should every employer implement arbitration agreements?

            No. The decision to implement an arbitration agreement should be reviewed with an employment lawyer to discuss the positives as well as the negatives of arbitration agreements. As discussed above, there are a lot of benefits of having an arbitration agreement in place, but it does not come without a few drawbacks. The primary drawback is that in California, the employer must pay all of the arbitrator’s fees in employment cases. Arbitration fees can easily be tens of thousands of dollars – a cost that employers do not need to pay in civil cases. However, if the company values the confidentiality and speed of process provided in arbitration, this extra cost may well be worth it.

 

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