3d Cir.: Enforceability Of Class/Collective Action Waiver In Agreement To Arbitrate Is Issue For Arbitrator Not The Court

Vilches v. Travelers Companies, Inc.

This appeal raised the issue of whether the District Court properly determined that the Plaintiff-Appellant (employee) assented to the insertion of a class arbitration waiver into an existing arbitration policy, and that the waiver was not unconscionable.  The District Court ordered the parties into arbitration to individually resolve the claims brought by Plaintiff under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq. (“FLSA”), and New Jersey Wage and Hour Law, N.J.S.A. § 34:11-4.1, et seq. (“NJWHL”).  While it held that the class arbitration waiver was not unconscionable, the Third Circuit vacated the District Court’s order and referred the matter to arbitration to determine whether Vilches can proceed as a class based upon the parties’ agreements.

Discussing the relevant procedural and factual background the court stated:

“We briefly summarize the allegations pertinent to our decision. Appellants Vilches filed a class and collective action in the Superior Court of New Jersey to recover unpaid wages and overtime allegedly withheld in violation of the FLSA and the NJWHL, contending that Travelers consistently required its insurance appraisers to work beyond 40 hours per week but failed to properly compensate the appraisers for the additional labor. Travelers removed the matter to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking the dismissal of the complaint and an order compelling Vilches to arbitrate their individual wage and hour claims.

Upon commencing employment with Travelers, Vilches agreed to an employment provision making arbitration “the required, and exclusive, forum for the resolution of all employment disputes that may arise” pursuant to an enumerated list of federal statutes, and under “any other federal, state or local statute, regulation or common law doctrine, regarding employment discrimination, conditions of employment or termination of employment.” (App’x at 79.) The agreement did not expressly reference class or collective arbitration or any waiver of the same. The agreement reserved to Travelers the right to alter or amend the arbitration policy at its discretion with appropriate notice to employees.

In April 2005, Travelers electronically published a revised Arbitration Policy. In addition to restating the expansive scope of the Policy, the update also included an express statement prohibiting arbitration through class or collective action:

The Policy makes arbitration the required and exclusive forum for the resolution of all employment-related and compensation-related disputes based on legally protected rights (i.e ., statutory, contractual or common law rights) that may arise between an employee or former employee and the Company…. [T]here will be no right or authority for any dispute to be brought, heard or arbitrated under this Policy as a class or collective action, private attorney general, or in a representative capacity on behalf of any person. (App’x at 88) (emphasis added). Travelers communicated the revised Policy to Vilches in several electronic communications.

Before the District Court, Vilches initially alleged that they never agreed to arbitrate any claims against Travelers; their position changed, however, during the course of proceedings and they ultimately conceded that all employment disputes with Travelers must be arbitrated pursuant to the arbitration agreement they signed at commencement of employment. They nevertheless insisted that the revised Arbitration Policy introduced by Travelers in April 2005 prohibiting class arbitration, which Travelers attempted to enforce, did not bind them because they never assented to its terms. Vilches further argued that, even assuming that the updated Policy did bind them, the revision was unconscionable and unenforceable.

Notwithstanding the fact that the parties agreed to arbitrate all employment disputes, as we discuss below, the District Court addressed the question of whether Vilches agreed to waive the right to proceed by way of class arbitration. In an oral decision, the District Court granted Travelers’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the various forms of correspondence from Travelers provided sufficient notice to Vilches of the revised Policy, and that their electronic assent and continued employment constituted agreement to the update. As such, the Court held that Vilches waived the ability to proceed in a representative capacity through class arbitration. The Court’s opinion only briefly touched upon the unconscionability claims, stating that “there was no adhesion that was part of that process.” (App’x at 23.) The Court ordered the parties to individually arbitrate the employment disputes, and this appeal followed.”

Holding that the Arbitrator and not the Court should decide the issue of enforceability of the class/collective action waiver, the Third Circuit reasoned:

“The parties agree that any and all disputes arising out of the employment relationship-including the claims asserted here-are to be resolved in binding arbitration. Accordingly, the role of the Court is limited to deciding whether the revised Arbitration Policy introduced in April 2005-and the class arbitration waiver included within that revision-governed this dispute. We conclude that the District Court should not have decided the issue presented as to the class action waiver, and, as we explain below, we will refer the resolution of this question to arbitration in accordance with governing jurisprudence. The District Court should have, however, ruled on the issue of unconscionability and we will address it.

We have repeatedly stated that courts play a limited role when a litigant moves to compel arbitration. Specifically, “whether the parties have submitted a particular dispute to arbitration, i.e., the question of arbitrability, is an issue for judicial determination unless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise.’ “ Puleo, 605 F.3d at 178 (quoting Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 83 (2002)). “[A] question of arbitrability arises only in two circumstances-first, when there is a threshold dispute over whether the parties have a valid arbitration agreement at all,’ and, second, when the parties are in dispute as to whether a concededly binding arbitration clause applies to a certain type of controversy.’ “ Id. (quoting Green Tree Fin. Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444, 452 (2003)). In contrast, the Supreme Court has distinguished “questions of arbitrability with disputes over arbitration procedure, which do not bear upon the validity of an agreement to arbitrate.” Id. at 179. We noted in Puleo that “procedural questions”-such as waiver or delay-“which grow out of the dispute and bear on its final disposition are presumptively not for the judge.” Id.

This matter satisfies neither of the Puleo arbitrability circumstances. As stated, neither party questions “whether the parties have a valid arbitration agreement at all.” Id.; (see also Appellants’ Br. at 15 (“Plaintiffs do not challenge the validity of the arbitration agreements they entered into when they first began their employment”); Appellees’ Br. at 6 (“At the outset of employment, Appellants agreed to the Travelers Employment Arbitration Policy”).) The original arbitration provision to which Vilches admittedly agreed provided that “the required, and exclusive, forum for the resolution of all employment disputes ” would be arbitration. (App’x at 79 (emphasis added).) Here, the issue of whether an employee is bound by a disputed amendment to existing employment provisions falls within the scope of this expansive agreement to arbitrate. Indeed, the language makes clear that the “concededly binding arbitration clause applies” to the particular employment claims at stake here, and the parties do not advance a cognizable argument to suggest otherwise. Puleo, 605 F.3d at 178. Accordingly, the second Puleo arbitrability element is also unfulfilled.

While the parties framed their arguments so as to invite the Court’s attention to the class action waiver issue-namely, whether the revised Arbitration Policy expressly prohibiting class arbitration governs the relationship between Travelers and Vilches-we conclude that “the relevant question here is what kind of arbitration proceeding the parties agreed to.”   Bazzle, 539 U.S. at 452 (emphasis in original). As stated, the addition of the disputed class arbitration waiver did not disturb the parties’ agreement to refer “all employment disputes” to arbitration, and, thus, “does not bear upon the validity of an agreement to arbitrate.” Puleo, 605 F.3d at 179. Assuming binding arbitration of all employment disputes, the contested waiver provision solely affects the type of procedural arbitration mechanism applicable to this dispute. “[T]he Supreme Court has made clear that questions of contract interpretation’ aimed at discerning whether a particular procedural mechanism is authorized by a given arbitration agreement are matters for the arbitrator to decide .” Id. (emphasis in original). Where contractual silence is implicated, “the arbitrator and not a court should decide whether a contract [ was] indeed silent’ on the issue of class arbitration,” and “whether a contract with an arbitration clause forbids class arbitration.” Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. Animalfeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758, 1771-72 (2010).

The Policy originally in force made no mention of class action or class arbitration, and was entirely silent on whether the parties had a right to proceed through class or collective arbitration. In contrast, the amended Policy explicitly precludes class arbitration. Accordingly, we must “give effect to the contractual rights and expectations of the parties,” and refer the questions of whether class arbitration was agreed upon to the arbitrator. Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1774.

Although we offer no forecast as to the arbitrator’s potential resolution of these questions, assuming arguendo that the arbitrator finds the class action waiver binding, we will address Vilches’ alternative argument that the addition of the class action waiver was unconscionable for the sake of judicial efficiency, and because it does concern “arbitrabillity.” See Puleo, 605 F.3d at 179.”

The Third Circuit went on to hold that, in the event the class action waiver language was binding, it was not unconscionable.

Click Vilches v. Travelers Companies, Inc., to read the entire opinion.

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Filed under Arbitration, Class Certification, Collective Actions

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