The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on October 2, 2017 in Epic System Corp. v. Lewis.  And while the case may not make headline news, it has very important ramifications for employers across the country.  At issue is whether employers can legally compel employees to enter into arbitration agreements which contain class action waivers.  The decision is likely to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this December.  Below are five issues regarding the Supreme Court’s decision and the impact it may have on employer’s businesses going into 2018:

1. There is a split in Circuit Courts regarding if arbitration agreements with class action waivers are enforceable

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, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Morris v. Ernst & Young holding that a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement is unenforceable because the class action waiver is contrary to the rights provided to employees under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  The arbitration agreements in the Morris case were mandatory, and they contained a “concerted action waiver” clause preventing employees from bringing a class action.  Plaintiffs claimed that the “separate proceedings” clause contravenes the NLRA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 151 et. seq.  The Ninth Circuit held:

This case turns on a well-established principle: employees have the right to pursue work-related legal claims together. 29 U.S.C. § 157; Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 566 (1978). Concerted activity—the right of employees to act together—is the essential, substantive right established by the NLRA. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Ernst & Young interfered with that right by requiring its employees to resolve all of their legal claims in “separate proceedings.” Accordingly, the concerted action waiver violates the NLRA and cannot be enforced.

This holding is contrary to the holdings in the Second, Fifth, and Eight Circuits that have concluded that the NLRA does not invalidate collective action waivers in arbitration agreements.  This split in circuit courts will be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Epic System Corp. v. Lewis.

2. U.S. Department of Justice changed its position to support class action waivers

Under the Obama Administration, the DOJ supported the position taken by the NLRB that class action waivers found in arbitration agreements violated Section 7 of the NLRA.  However, under the Trump Administration, the DOJ has changed its view and in the summer of 2017 filed an amicus brief explaining it now does not believe class action waivers violate the NLRA.  This further adds to the split in authority that will be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Epic System Corp. v. Lewis.

3. Potential benefits of arbitration agreements for California employers

There are a number of benefits for California employers to have arbitration agreements.  One major benefit is the class action waiver discussed above.  For large employers this can be an effective bar from employees bringing class actions.  However, in California, employees still have rights to pursue “representative actions” under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) as discussed below.  Moreover, the arbitration process can proceed faster than civil litigation, saving a lot of time and attorney’s fees in the process.  For example, often the discovery process moves faster in arbitration, and if there are any disputes, the parties can raise them with the arbitrator telephonically, instead of the lengthy and formal 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 involves more complex issues, and it is beneficial to the parties to select an arbitrator with experience in employment law.

4. Potential drawbacks of arbitration agreements in California

While there are many benefits of arbitration agreements, they do 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, and potentially limiting class action liability exposure, this extra cost may well be worth it.

In addition, even if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of employers in Epic System Corp. and upholds the use of class action waivers, the California Supreme Court held that employees may still bring representative actions under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). Even though PAGA claims are limited to specific penalties under the law, and have a much shorter one-year statute of limitations than compared to potentially a four-year statute of limitations for most class actions brought for unpaid wages under the Labor Code, the potential penalties under PAGA can still be substantial for employers.

5. Impact on employers

Employers who utilize arbitration agreements will need to monitor the Supreme Court’s decision in Epic System Corp.  If the Supreme Court rules that class action waivers violate Section 7 of the NLRA, employers will need to review and potentially modify any arbitration agreements with class action waivers.  Such a ruling could spur many more class actions.  With that said, employers should always be auditing their wage and hour policies and practices to ensure compliance with Federal and state laws.

If the Supreme Court holds that arbitration agreements with class action waivers do not violate Section 7 of the NLRA, it is likely that employers can continue to implement the agreements with employees.  However, as mentioned above, California employers still must remain vigilant about their wage and hour practices, as there is still substantial liability under representative actions under PAGA.

Quick video on the five things California employers need to pay attention to in 2017.

(Sorry for the wind noise in the video.)

I briefly discuss the following five issues:

1) Augustus v. ABM Security Services: A new California Supreme Court decision about whether rest breaks during which security guards were required to monitor a pager for a call actually counts as a rest break under California law.  Short answer: No.  The Court held that the guards had to be completely relieved of all duties during the rest break.  I’ll write more about this decision in the coming weeks.

2) Local ordinances banning criminal history inquiries, such as Los Angeles’ new prohibitions staring in 2017.

3) Local paid sick leave requirements (such as San Diego and Los Angeles).

4) Local minimum wage ordinances.

5) Arbitration agreements and class action waivers.

Happy holidays!

Today’s Friday’s Five is a short video about five employment law considerations employers should review at the end of 2015.  As mentioned in the video, I will be conducting a webinar on December 2, 2015 for employers to understand and comply with new employment laws taking effect in 2016.  I will also discuss new case law developments from 2015 including paid sick leave and enforceability of arbitration agreements and class action waivers.  There will also be a discussion about businesses’ obligations under Proposition 65 postings at their establishments.

Registration and more information is here (http://elr.io/vtzyt2016).  Hope you can join us for the webinar.

1. Arbitration Agreements: What Are They?
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. Arbitrators are private companies that usually hire retired judges to resolve disputes in a private setting as opposed to civil court.

2. Are Arbitration Agreements Enforceable in California?
Generally speaking, if the agreement is drafted and implemented properly, it is enforceable. 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.  In addition, the agreement in that case only allowed the employer to recover its attorney’s fees if successful, not the employee.  The Court held these terms caused

3. Why Would an Employer Implement an Arbitration Agreement?
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.

4. Are Class Action Waivers Enforceable In Arbitration Agreements?
Yes. The California Supreme Court ruled in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC that class action waivers can be enforceable, following the standards set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  However, Plaintiffs continually challenge class action waivers on numerous grounds, and it is critical employers’ agreements are properly drafted and up-to-date. In addition, while courts will uphold class action waivers, the California Supreme Court held that employee may still bring representative actions under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). PAGA claims are limited to specific penalties under the law, and have a much shorter one year statute of limitations compared to potentially a four year statute of limitations for most class actions.

5. Based On the Holding in Iskanian, Should Every Employer Enter Into Arbitration Agreements With Its Employees?
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. In addition, while a class action waiver may be enforceable, employers still face substantial liability under PAGA representative actions, and a strategy in implementing a class action waiver should be thought through with the help of informed counsel.

Today, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC regarding the enforceability of class action waivers in arbitration agreements. In upholding class action waivers in arbitration agreements, the Supreme Court explained in the introduction of the opinion:

The question is whether a state’s refusal to enforce such a waiver on grounds of public policy or unconscionability is preempted by the FAA. We conclude that it is and that our holding to the contrary in Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443 (Gentry) has been abrogated by recent United States Supreme Court precedent. We further reject the arguments that the class action waiver at issue here is unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act and that the employer in this case waived its right to arbitrate by withdrawing its motion to compel arbitration after Gentry.

When asserting a Labor Code claim in connection with an Unfair Competition Law claim (Business and Professions Code section 17200), the statute of limitations extends back four years. Today’s holding upholds arbitration agreements entered into between employers and employees barring employees from brining any claims on a class wide basis as long as the underlying arbitration agreement is enforceable under California law.

In addition, the Supreme Court reviewed whether an employer could have an employee waive his ability to bring a representative action under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). PAGA is a Labor Code provision that permits aggrieved employees to recover civil penalties that are only recoverable by the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) and the Labor Commissioner. PAGA expands the scope of penalties available through wage and hour lawsuits. In holding that arbitration agreements could not limit an employee’s right from bringing a representative PAGA claim, the Court explained:

The employee also sought to bring a representative action under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA) (Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq.). This statute authorizes an employee to bring an action for civil penalties on behalf of the state against his or her employer for Labor Code violations committed against the employee and fellow employees, with most of the proceeds of that litigation going to the state. As explained below, 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. In addition, we conclude that the FAA’s goal of promoting arbitration as a means of private dispute resolution does not preclude our Legislature from deputizing employees to prosecute Labor Code violations on the state’s behalf. Therefore, the FAA does not preempt a state law that prohibits waiver of PAGA representative actions in an employment contract.

Because PAGA claims seek to recover penalties, a one year statute of limitations applies. Therefore, even if employers have a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement entered into with an employee, the employee may still assert a representative PAGA action to recover appropriate penalties with a one year statute of limitations on behalf of all aggrieved employees. PAGA is sometimes referred to as the “bounty-hunter law” because it allows a plaintiff to recover these civil penalties that were only recoverable by the Labor Commissioner, but it requires that the plaintiff provide 75% of the civil penalties recovered to the LWDA and the remaining 25% to the aggrieved employees. In a previous post, I’ve written about PAGA claims and what to do in response to receiving a PAGA notice. The California Supreme Court’s ruling in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC can be downloaded here (Word).  This is an initial summary of the holding, and I’ll write more about the case as I’ve had more time to review the opinion in more detail. 

In Kinecta Alternative Financial Solutions v. Superior Court (wrd) held that a trial could improperly ordered a wage and hour class action to proceed in arbitration as a class action. The appellate court held that even though the arbitration agreement was silent on whether the parties agreed to arbitrate class claims, the fact that the agreement only referenced plaintiff’s claims against the employer (not other employees’ claims as well) the plaintiff could only bring her individual claims in arbitration.

The plaintiff signed an arbitration agreement that provided to arbitrate all disputes arising out of her employment. The arbitration agreement was silent on the issue of class arbitration. Plaintiff filed a class action complaint alleging various wage and hour violations including failure to pay overtime and failure to provide meal and rest breaks. The employer filed a motion to compel arbitration and a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s class claims. The issue the court addressed was whether the employer in this case could be compelled to arbitrate a class action when the arbitration agreement does not expressly provide for a class arbitration.

In agreeing with the employer, the Court held that even though the arbitration agreement was silent on class arbitration, it cannot be assumed that the parties agreed to arbitration class claims. Relying upon the recent United States Supreme Court rulings, the court held:

This petition is governed by Stolt-Nielsen v. Animalfeeds International Corp. (2010) 559 U.S. __ [130 S.Ct. 1758], which holds that under the [Federal Arbitration Act], a party may not be compelled to submit to class arbitration unless the arbitration contract provides a basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so. The arbitration provision in this case expressly limited arbitration to the arbitration of disputes between Malone and Kinecta. The arbitration agreement made no reference to, and did not authorize, class arbitration of disputes. Thus the parties did not agree to authorize class arbitration in their arbitration agreement, and the order denying Kinecta’s motion to dismiss class claims must be reversed.

The arbitration agreement in this case only made reference to the plaintiff, by referencing “I”, “me,” and “my.” The agreement never made reference to other employees or groups of employees. Under the Federal Arbitration Act a party cannot not be compelled to submit to class arbitration unless there is a contractual basis for concluding that they agreed to do so. The mere silence on the issue of class arbitration in an arbitration agreement cannot be interpreted to mean that a party agreed to class arbitration. Therefore, the court held that plaintiff’s lawsuit could only proceed on her own individual claims in arbitration.

Employers should carefully examine whether or not arbitration agreements are appropriate for their company. There are some negative aspects of entering into arbitration agreements, but the ruling in Kinecta is a good example of the enforceability of class action waivers in arbitration agreements.

For more information about arbitration agreements, and the enforceability of their terms, please see my previous post, Things You Wanted To Know About Arbitration Agreements In California, But Were Afraid To Ask.

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.

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