Category Archives: Arbitration

D.N.J.: District Court Denies Motion to Vacate Clause Construction Permitting Arb to Proceed on Class Basis, Where Contract Was Silent as to Class Issues; U.S.S.C. to Take Up Issue

Opalinski v. Robert Half Intern., Inc.

Another court, this one within the Third Circuit (which had previously ruled on the issue), has held that an arbitrator does not exceed his or her authority when the arbitrator permits FLSA claims to proceed on a class-wide basis, in the face of an arbitration agreement that the parties stipulate is “silent” as to class issues. Determining that same was permissible under Stolt-Nielsen and under principles of New Jersey contract law, the court explained:

At issue here is whether the Award should be vacated because the Arbitrator exceeded her powers by finding that the Agreements allow for class arbitration. Defendants contend that the Arbitrator’s finding was erroneous and violates Supreme Court precedent. See Stolt–Nielsen v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., –––U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 1758, 176 L.Ed.2d 605 (2010) (finding that arbitration panel exceeded its powers by imposing its own policy choice instead of interpreting and applying the agreement of the parties, and explaining that a party cannot be compelled to submit to class arbitration unless there is a contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so). Defendants note that the Agreements did not expressly authorize class arbitration and argue that an agreement to arbitrate does not implicitly authorize class arbitration, nor does the non-existence of an express class action waiver imply that the parties agreed upon class arbitration.

Defendants’ arguments are unpersuasive particularly given the binding precedent of Sutter v. Oxford Health Plans LLC, 675 F.3d 215 (3d Cir.2012), which is directly on point. In light of Stolt–Nielsen, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Sutter evaluated an arbitrator’s decision that class arbitration was allowed under a contract that was silent on the issue of class arbitration. The court explained that while “Stolt–Nielsen does prohibit an arbitrator from inferring parties’ consent to class arbitration solely from their failure to preclude that procedure,” it did not establish a rule that class arbitration is only allowed where an arbitration agreement expressly provides for class arbitration procedures. Sutter, 675 F.3d at 222, 224 . Instead, an arbitrator can interpret an arbitration clause to allow for class arbitration, even if the clause does not expressly provide for it, if the arbitrator articulates a contractual basis for that interpretation. Id. at 224. The arbitrator in Sutter examined the parties’ intent and used contract interpretation principles to reach his conclusion. He described the text of the arbitration clause—which provided that “no civil action concerning any dispute arising under this [a]greement shall be instituted before any court”—as broad and embracing all conceivable court actions including class actions. He further explained that an express carve-out for class arbitration would be required to negate this reading of the clause. Id. at 218. When reviewing the award, the court explained that the arbitrator had the authority to find for class arbitration because such a finding had a contractual basis. Id. at 223–24.

In light of binding Third Circuit authority and basic principles of New Jersey law regarding contract interpretation, the court held that the arbitrator was within her powers to hold that the arbitration of plaintiff’s claims could proceed on a class-wide basis, in the absence of an explicit class-waiver in the arbitration agreement.

Click Opalinski v. Robert Half Intern., Inc. to read the entire Opinion & Order.

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Significantly, within days of the Opalinkski decision, the Supreme Court agreed to take up this very issue. To that end, the Supreme Court accepted cert of the Sutter case, on which the Opalinski relied. The question certified by the Supreme Court is:

Whether an arbitrator acts within his powers under the Federal Arbitration Act (as the Second and Third Circuits have held) or exceeds those powers (as the Fifth Circuit has held) by determining that parties affirmatively “agreed to authorize class arbitration,” Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1776, based solely on their use of broad contractual language precluding litigation and requiring arbitration of any dispute arising under their contract.

Click Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter to read more about the Supreme Court’s decision to accept cert.

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Respondent-Employer Enjoined From Requiring Current Employee Putative Class Members From Waiving Right to Participate in Class/Collective Action, Once Putative Class/Collective Action Pending

Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp.

In this case, the claimant-employees had initially filed their case as a class/collective action in federal court. Pursuant to arbitration agreements that the plaintiffs had signed during their employment, the defendant successfully moved to compel the plaintiffs to pursue their claims in arbitration. Because the arbitration agreement at issue called for arbitration pursuant to the American Arbitration Association’s (AAA) rules governing arbitration, the plaintiffs successfully argued that a Rule 23 type opt-out mechanism rather than 216(b)’s opt-in governed as the appropriate class mechanism. Twelve (12) days after the arbitrator’s holding that an opt-out class procedure would govern, the defendant began requiring all current employees to sign a new arbitration clause, which if enforced, would have precluded the current employees from participating in the putative class action, yet to be certified. Arguing that the respondent-employer’s unilateral effort to defeat putative class members’ participation in the arbitration required thorough remedial measures, the claimant-employees moved for a protective order and temporary restraining order to:

(1) Enjoin any further dissemination of the letter to current employees with the class-waiver form; (2) Enjoin any effort by the respondent-employer or its counsel to chill participation in the case, including prohibiting any further unauthorized communication with any class members concerning joining the case, except as approved by the arbitrator; (3) Enjoin retaliation by [Waterstone] against any individual participating in the case; (4) Direct that [Waterstone] (in a form and manner supervised by the Arbitrator or on consent of claimants’ counsel) promptly notify all class members who received Exhibits A and B of the impropriety of [Waterstone's] acts and the invalidity of the waivers it solicited; (5) Sanction [Waterstone] with monetary relief for its improper behavior [ ] so that [Waterstone] does not achieve any of the benefit of chilling individuals from participating in this case; (6) Reserve the opportunity for individuals to join the case post-judgment, should they opt-out now, given their employer’s clear statement of its desire that they not join this case; (7) Award Claimant’s costs and attorneys’ fees for the time spent on the motion; [and] (8) Award such further relief in the future, as may become necessary to remedy the ill effects of [Waterstone's] improper behavior.

In opposition, the respondent-employer argued that the motion should be denied because: (1) the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction over the issue presented, because the parties had not agreed to arbitrate the issue of the permissibility of the subsequent class-waivers; (2) it was procedurally improper, because a class or collective action had yet to be certified; and (3) the employees had not demonstrated the requisite irreparable harm to warrant the relief sought.

Initially, the arbitrator rejected the respondent-employer’s jurisdictional argument:

It is true that a class has not yet been certified. Indeed, the clause-construction award that contemplates a class arbitration may itself be vacated by the District Court. However, even if the motion to certify a class should be denied, or if the Court should vacate the clause-construction award, the arbitration may continue as a collective proceeding (opt in) as a result of Judge Crabb’s direction that Herrington “must be allowed to join other employees to her case.” (D. Ct. Decn. at 18).

The arbitrator similarly rejected the argument that the relief sought was premature:

Whether a proceeding continues as a class procedure or a collective procedure, it must be protected from coercive or misleading communications that are designed to, or have the effect of, persuading or intimidating potential claimants to withhold their participations. The law realistically recognizes that such improper communications may be just as effective pre-certification as post-certification. Therefore, it is within the jurisdiction – indeed, it is the duty – of the judge or arbitrator before whom such a proceeding is pending to protect the integrity of the proceeding and to require that all information conveyed by the parties to potential class members about the proceeding be accurate, not coercive, and not misleading.

Waterstone’s argument that control over communications cannot arise until a class is certified is simply wrong. The power (jurisdiction) to control the parties’ communications to class members or putative class members can arise at least as early as when the initial pleading is filed. See, e.g. Hoffman-LaRoche at 487 (“[I]t lies within the discretion of a district court to begin its involvement early at the point of the initial notice.”).

The arbitrator added:

Waterstone’s contention that it has “has never consented to arbitrate its management decisions as to the nature and form of employment agreements with employees who are not parties to this case” (Jurisd. Memo at 1) assumes that this arbitration is about what kind of dispute resolution provision going forward Waterstone may provide in its form employment agreement. The assumption is false. Herrington brought this arbitration to recover past minimum wages and overtime compensation allegedly due to her and to her fellow employees. Jurisdiction over that claim was established with the filing of the demand for arbitration, and it is the duty of the arbitrator to preserve and protect the integrity of the proceedings with respect to that claim. The entire dispute that is subject to this arbitration is therefore to be resolved under the dispute resolution provisions of the pre-Amendment employment agreement that governs Herrington’s claims.

Instead, the arbitrator held that once the proceeding had commenced, the employer-respondent could not require the potential class members to waive their rights to participate in the case, as members of the class:

However, whatever may be the legality or enforceability of either Option A or Option B in future disputes that might arise between Waterstone and its mortgage-loan employees, those amendments can have no impact on this Herrington arbitration or on the employee class’s rights or choices in it. Once Herrington commenced her arbitration under the original arbitration clause in the employment agreement, Waterstone could not change the nature or course of this pending arbitration by requiring the putative claimants in this proceeding to agree to an entirely different dispute-resolution regime. This arbitration must, therefore, continue under the Agreement that governed when it was commenced, the Agreement that Waterstone, itself, argued successfully to the District Court requires Herrington’s dispute to be arbitrated.

Thus, the arbitrator granted the claimant-employees’ their requested relief.

Click Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp. to read the entire Decision and Order on Claimant’s Application for Protective Order, Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction.

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W.D.Wisc.: Loan Officers Compelled to Arbitrate FLSA Claims, But Class Waiver Stricken In Light of D.R. Horton

Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp.

In  this  proposed  collective  action,  the plaintiff sought to pursue a collective action on behalf of defendant’s loan officers, seeking unpaid overtime wages under the FLSA.  As discussed here, the defendant moved to to dismiss or stay the case on the ground that plaintiff’s claims were subject to an arbitration agreement.  Significantly, while the court enforced the arbitration agreement and remanded the case to arbitration, it struck the purported class waiver portion of the arbitration agreement in light of the recent holding in In  re D.R. Horton, Inc.

The specific language at issue was the following language from the parties’ agreement to arbitrate:

“[A]ny  dispute  between  the  parties  concerning  the  wages,  hours,  working conditions,  terms,  rights,  responsibilities  or  obligations  between  them  or arising out of their employment relationship shall be  resolved  through binding arbitration  in  accordance  with  the  rules  of  the  American  Arbitration Association applicable to employment claims.  Such arbitration may not be joined with or  join or  include any claims by any persons not party to  this Agreement.  Except as otherwise set forth herein, the parties will share equally in the cost of arbitration.”

After discussing a litany of cases from the NLRB holding that claims for unpaid wages by workers represent concerted activity, the court discussed the ramifications of the recent D.R. Horton case and held that the class action waiver here was unenforceable. In so doing the court addressed and rejected defendant’s arguments as to why D.R. Horton should not be applied to the case. Specifically, the court rejected defendant’s arguments that: (1) D.R. Horton (and the NLRA) only protect “employees,” and not “former employees” such as plaintiff; (2) an employee can bring about the same changes in the workplace pursuing an individual claim as he or she can pursuing a claim collectively with other employees; and (3) D.R. Horton impermissibly conflicts with AT&T Mobility  LLC  v. Concepcion.

However, because the court held that the class waiver provision was severable from the arbitration agreement, the court severed the waiver and remanded the case to arbitration, potentially as a collective action.

Click Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp. to read the entire Opinion and Order.

Thanks to Dan Getman for the heads up on this recent decision.

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2 New Decisions Regarding Enforcement of Arbitration Agreements in Context of FLSA Claims Reach Opposite Results

Recent weeks have brought more opinions regarding the issue of whether specific arbitration agreements are enforceable.  However, as two recent opinions show, these decisions continue to be fact-specific in virtually all instances, and judge and/or state-law specific in others.  In the first case, Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc., relying on Texas state law, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision holding that an arbitration agreement allowing the employer to unilaterally change the terms lacked the necessary consideration to render the agreement enforceable.  In a second case, LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc., a court within the Southern District of New York examined a different arbitration-related issue- the substantive unconscionability of a collective action waiver- concluding that compelling a potentially high value FLSA claim to arbitration on an individual basis does not conflict with the substantive law regarding the FLSA’s collective action provisions.  Significantly, the court’s conclusion in this regard appears to conflict with another recent holding discussed here, in which another court within the same district held that collective action waivers are unenforceable per se, because they prevent employees from vindicating their substantive statutory rights under the FLSA.

Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc.

Law360 aptly summarized this decision as follows:

“The Fifth Circuit on Wednesday allowed a proposed overtime class action against 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc. to go forward, finding an arbitration agreement at issue contained an ‘escape hatch’ for the fitness chain that made it unenforceable.

In a unanimous, published opinion, the appeals court upheld a Texas federal court’s ruling that the arbitration agreement in 24 Hour Fitness’ employee handbook was illusory because it allowed the company to retroactively modify or terminate the agreement.

Because 24 Hour Fitness reserved the right to unilaterally adjust the conditions of employment — including those which required employees to arbitrate claims on an individual basis — the appeals court found that the arbitration agreement was invalid from the outset.

‘If a 24 Hour Fitness employee sought to invoke arbitration with the company pursuant to the agreement, nothing would prevent 24 Hour Fitness from changing the agreement and making those changes applicable to that pending dispute if it determined that arbitration was no longer in its interest,’ the panel said.

Click Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc. to read the entire Fifth Circuit Opinion.

 

LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc.

In LaVoice, the court held that an arbitration agreement, requiring individual arbitration was enforceable, despite plaintiff’s argument that such an scheme would deprive plaintiff of substantive statutory rights to proceed collectively under the FLSA.  Discussing the issue, the court reasoned:

“…LaVoice also argues that the arbitration agreements between him and UBS are unenforceable because they would preclude him from exercising his statutory rights. To support this position, LaVoice likens the class waivers in the instant case with those that were found unenforceable in the Amex line of cases. LaVoice also draws comparison between his circumstances and those of the plaintiff in Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547 (S.D.N.Y.2011).

The enforceability of a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement must be considered on a case-by-case basis “on its own merits, governed with a healthy regard for the fact that the FAA is a congressional declaration of a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.” Amex II, 634 F.3d at 199. Turning to the class waiver at issue and LaVoice’s specific circumstances, this Court finds that the “practical effect of enforcement of the waiver” in the instant case would not “preclude” LaVoice from exercising his rights under the statutes. Id. at 196. The Court comes to its finding that LaVoice’s statutory rights will not be precluded by enforcement of the class waiver after reviewing his submissions regarding: his estimated damages claim, his estimated attorneys’ fees, his estimated expert fees, his disinclination to pursue his claims individually, his counsel’s disinclination to pursue the claims individually, and his likelihood of success at arbitration.

Although LaVoice and Defendants contest the value of LaVoice’s overtime claim, in reaching its decision, the Court accepts the figure cited in LaVoice’s own opposition papers of overtime claims between $127,000 to $132,000. Aff. Jeffrey G. Smith in Supp. of Opp’n. to Mot. to Compel Arbitration at ¶ 5. Assuming this self-reported value of claims, the Court finds that LaVoice’s circumstances differ drastically on their face from those of the plaintiffs in either the Amex line of cases or Sutherland. Plaintiffs in those cases could each only claim de minimus damages of less than $6000.

With respect to the estimated attorneys’ fees, the Court finds that, unlike the arbitration agreement at issue in Sutherland, the arbitration agreements at issue in the instant case would permit LaVoice to recover an award of attorneys’ fees. Since the agreements authorize the arbitrator(s) to “award whatever remedies would be available to the parties in a court of law” and awards of attorneys’ fees are mandatory for the prevailing party under the FLSA, the agreements themselves crate no impediment to LaVoice’s recovery of fees. See Ex. 6 to Decl. of Matthew Levitan at 20; Ex. 10 to Decl. of Matthew Levitan at 3; and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“The court in such action shall … allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.”) The instant case is therefore distinguishable from Sutherland and its consideration of attorneys’ fees in determining whether plaintiff’s claims were unarbitrable. See also Banus v. Citigroup Global Mkts., Inc., No. 09–7128, 2010 WL 1643780, at *10 n. 61 (S.D.N.Y. Apr.23, 2010) (enforcing class action waiver in arbitration agreement where plaintiff’s estimated recovery was $45,675.36 and attorney’s fees would be “at least $100,000.”)

The court also evaluated and rejected plaintiff’s claim that expert costs to be incurred would be prohibitive in an individual claim, whereas spreading the cost over a collective group would be more palatable and rejected same, in the context of plaintiff’s proffered argument that his counsel would be disinclined to pursue his claims on an individual basis by themselves.

The court concluded, “[i]n light of the foregoing, the Court finds that LaVoice has not met his “burden of showing the likelihood of incurring” such “prohibitively expensive” costs such that the class waiver provisions in the instant action would preclude him from bringing his claims against Defendants in an individual or collective capacity. Amex II, 634 F.3d at 197 (citing Randolph, 531 U.S. at 92.)”

Click LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order compelling the case to arbitration on an individual basis.

As more and more cases are decided following recent United States Supreme Court jurisprudence on arbitrability and class waiver issues, it’s becoming more and more clear that the results are very fact-specific to each case.  Hopefully, higher courts will begin to weigh in on some of the broader issues and give some clarity in the near future.

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D.Minn.: Where Agreement Silent As to Collective Action, Case May Proceed on Collective Basis in Arbitration

Mork v. Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration on an individual basis.  While, the parties were in agreement that the case should be remanded to arbitration, the salient issue before the court was whether the arbitration agreement- silent on the issue of collective/class proceedings- allowed for collective treatment of the case.  The court held that the parties had agreed to collective treatment of claims by the agreement’s silence.  Thus, the case was remanded to arbitration, but to be treated as a collective action.

Initially the court held that, based on the absence of clear authority one way or another from the Supreme Court, the court had the authority to decide whether the case could proceed on a collective basis.  Having made this decision, it proceeded into its analysis.

Discussing the standard it would apply, the court explained:

“The scope of an arbitration agreement is determined with reference to the agreement of the parties as evidenced by the terms of “the arbitration agreement itself or [based on] some background principle of contract law that would affect its interpretation.” See AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1750 (2011). The Court must “give effect to the contractual rights and expectations of the parties.” Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1774 (citation omitted); see Mitsubishi Motors Corp. v. Soler Chrysler–Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 626 (1985) (“as with any other contract, the parties’ intentions control”). Imposition of a particular type of arbitration cannot be based solely “on policy judgments.” Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. at 1750. Like any contract dispute, however, ambiguities in the agreement must be construed against the drafter. See, e.g., Advantage Consulting Group, Ltd. v. ADT Sec. Sys., Inc., 306 F.3d 582, 588 (8th Cir.2002).

In facing the question of whether to compel collective versus individual arbitration, the Court must therefore determine what the parties agreed to in the Arbitration Clause. A mere agreement to arbitrate, without more, does not imply agreement to collective arbitration. Cf. Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1775. This approach is consistent with Eighth Circuit precedent in the context of class arbitrations, Dominium Austin Partners, L.L.C. v. Emerson, 248 F.3d 720, 728–29 (8th Cir.2001), and consolidation of individual arbitrations, Baesler v. Cont’l Grain Co., 900 F.2d 1193, 1195 (8th Cir.1990). In Emerson and Baesler, the Eighth Circuit held that an arbitration agreement must provide for the type of arbitration which is sought to be compelled by the Court.

Loram urges a restrictive reading of Baesler, Emerson, and Stolt–Nielsen which would require explicit reference to, and acceptance of, collective arbitration in order for Mork’s claim to proceed on a collective basis. Those cases do not stand for such a strict standard. In Stolt–Nielsen, the Supreme Court’s statement that an intention to authorize class arbitration cannot be “infer[red] solely from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate,” Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1775 (emphasis added), indicates that such an intention may be inferred and need not be explicitly stated.  The majority in Stolt–Nielsen therefore “[did] not insist on express consent to class arbitration.” Id. at 1783 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting). Accordingly, “Stolt–Nielsen does not foreclose the possibility that parties may reach an ‘implicit’—rather than express—‘agreement to authorize class-action arbitration.’ “ Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 646 F.3d 113, 123 (2d Cir.2011); see Jones v. St. Paul Cos ., Inc., 495 F.3d 888, 893 (8th Cir.2007) (“[F]ederal courts are bound by the Supreme Court’s considered dicta almost as firmly as by the Court’s outright holdings, particularly when … [the dicta] is of recent vintage and not enfeebled by any [later] statement.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

In sum, the question before the Court is not whether the Arbitration Clause used the precise words “collective arbitration.” Rather, the Court must determine whether the Arbitration Clause evinces sufficient indicia of agreement between the parties that a claim within its scope may proceed on a collective basis. In doing so, the Court must keep in mind that Loram drafted the language of the Arbitration Clause and, therefore, that ambiguities must be construed against it. Advantage Consulting, 306 F.3d at 588.

The Court notes that the test from Stolt–Nielsen stated here may be more stringent that the appropriate test for contracts of adhesion. See Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1783 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (“[T]he Court apparently spares from its affirmative-authorization requirement contracts of adhesion presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”). Because the Court concludes that the Arbitration Clause does affirmatively authorize collective arbitration, there is no need to address whether the CAA was a contract of adhesion and therefore subject to a less stringent standard. The Court notes, however, that the parties here, unlike those in Stolt–Nielsen, are not both “sophisticated business entities” with comparable bargaining power, see id. at 1775, and the CAA appears to have been a “take-it-or-leave-it” boilerplate contract.”

The court then applied its standard and held that the silence of the parties on the collective issue demonstrated the indicia that the parties agreed to collective arbitration:

“While the parties distinguish between “express” and “implied” agreement to collective arbitration, as discussed above, the relevant question is whether there exists sufficient indicia that the parties agreed to undertake collective arbitration in the event of an employment dispute. While the Arbitration Clause does not refer explicitly to collective claims, the Court concludes that it does authorize such claims to proceed before an arbitrator.

To begin, the Arbitration Clause applies to “claims or disputes of any nature arising out of or relating to the employment relationship” and “statutory claims … arising out of or resulting from [Mork's] employment with Loram.” (CAA ¶ 8 (emphasis added).) Mork’s claim that he and similarly situated coworkers were deprived of overtime pay is undisputedly related to “the employment relationship” and his FLSA claim is “statutory.” An action arising from FLSA violations “may be maintained against any employer … in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated.29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). Thus, Mork has a statutory right to bring a FLSA claim on behalf of himself and similarly situated Field Application Technicians, and such a claim arises out of his employment relationship with Loram.

Loram contends that Mork’s ability to bring a claim on behalf of similarly situated employees is foreclosed because the Arbitration Clause’s references to potential arbitral parties include only Loram and Mork. For example, the Arbitration Clause provides that the arbitrator will have “exclusive authority to resolve any dispute or claim relating to, arising out of, or resulting from my employment with Loram” and the “statutory claims” covered by the Arbitration Clause are those “arising out of or resulting from my employment with Loram or the formation or the termination of my employment with Loram.” (CAA ¶ 8 (emphasis added).) These statements, Loram argues, show that the Arbitration Clause does not authorize collective arbitrations.

The Court is not persuaded that the Arbitration Clause’s particular reference to disputes between Mork and Loram must be read to preclude a collective claim. Mork’s FLSA claim is no less a claim “arising out of [his] employment with Loram” because it implicates similarly situated employees. The FLSA claim remains “his.” Viewed in even the most charitable light, Loram’s argument only creates some amount of ambiguity in the Arbitration Clause—ambiguity that must be resolved in Mork’s favor. Advantage Consulting, 306 F.3d at 588.

The conclusion that the Arbitration Clause permits collective arbitration is also supported by the contrast between its broad delegation of “any claims and disputes” to arbitration and its exclusion of only “claims or disputes [arising out of the CAA], or the breach, termination or invalidity thereof.” (CAA ¶ 8.) By negative implication, collective arbitration—a type of arbitration not expressly excluded—can be presumed to be covered by the wide ranging terms of the Arbitration Clause, particularly in light of the factors already discussed.

The Court further notes that the Arbitration Clause provides that arbitration be conducted in accordance with model rules provided by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) “in force at the time of the claim or dispute” and that the AAA “shall administer any such arbitration.” (CAA ¶ 8.) The AAA’s “Policy on Class Arbitrations” states that the AAA will “administer demands for class arbitration … if (1) the underlying agreement specifies that disputes arising out of the parties’ agreement shall be resolved by arbitration in accordance with any of the Association’s rules, and (2) the agreement is silent with respect to class claims, consolidation or joinder of claims.” See American Arbitration Association, Policy on Class Arbitrations, July 14, 2005, available at http://www.adr.org/sp.asp?id=25967. Even as interpreted by Loram, the Arbitration Clause in this case satisfies both criteria.

While this AAA policy was promulgated after the execution of the Arbitration Clause, the parties here agreed to be bound by the AAA rules in force “at the time of the claim or dispute.” (CAA ¶ 8.) The parties thus intended to be bound by future iterations of those rules. Loram’s decision to follow and abide by AAA rules therefore lends further support to the Court’s conclusion that the Arbitration Clause authorizes collective arbitration.

It is important to note that Mork has not moved the Court to consolidate otherwise independent actions into a single proceeding as was the case in Baesler, 900 F.3d at 1194–95. Rather, Mork seeks to proceed with a single, statutorily prescribed collective claim. Consolidation is a method by which a Court may efficiently resolve otherwise legally independent claims which happen to share a common question of law or fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a). A FLSA collective action, in contrast, is a mechanism in which one claim can vindicate the rights of many. If Mork were seeking consolidated treatment of independent claims brought by employees, the Court would hesitate in considering those claims as “arising out of or resulting from [Mork's] employment with Loram.” (See CAA ¶ 8.)

The Court also notes that some of the concerns raised by the Supreme Court about class arbitration are not present in the sort of collective arbitration sought by Mork. For one, a FLSA collective action is unlike a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because similarly situated employees must always “opt-in” to a FLSA action. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Worries about an arbitrator “adjudicat[ing] the rights of absent parties” without affording them the full panoply of protections provided in court are therefore greatly diminished. See Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1776.

Finally, while fully cognizant that policy judgments may not be dispositive in this legal analysis, see Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. at 1750, the Court would be remiss if it did not briefly address the consequences of adopting a rule that an arbitration agreement cannot allow for collective or class arbitration except where the agreement explicitly uses and ratifies those precise terms. Such a rule would lead to great uncertainty, calling into question the countless arbitration agreements that have been executed in the shadow of a less stringent rule. Moreover, the adoption of such a rule would likely prevent the vindication of workers’ basic rights under the FLSA. See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547, 553–54 (S.D.N.Y.2011).”

Click Mork v. Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum of Law and Order.

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M.D.Tenn.: Contractual Limitation of FLSA Claims to One Year SOL Unenforceable; Provision Severed and Arb Agreement Enforced

Pruiett v. West End Restaurants, LLC

Before the court in this putative collective action were the defendants’ motion to dismiss and remand the case to arbitration, as well as plaintiffs’ motion to conditionally certify the case as a collective action.  As discussed here, the court held that the provision within the arbitration agreement purporting to reduce the applicable statute of limitations to one year (from either two or three years) was unenforceable.  However, because the court further held that the unenforceable provision was severable, it severed the statute of limitations provision and otherwise held the arbitration agreement to be enforceable.  Thus, it remanded the case to arbitration after striking the unenforceable provision.

After reviewing a history of applicable case law and determining that the enforceability of the provision in question was an issue of first impression, the court reasoned that allowing an employer to contractually shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims would unduly abridge the statutory rights granted under the FLSA.  The court explained:

“The FLSA requires employers to pay their employees a statutory minimum wage and to pay overtime compensation at a rate not less than one and one-half times the employees’ regular rate of pay. 29 U.S.C. §§ 206 and 207 (2011). An employer who fails to comply with these provisions is liable for the unlawfully withheld compensation, as well as an additional equal amount of liquidated damages. Id. at § 216(b). These damages, including liquidated damages, are compensatory. Elwell v. Univ. Hosp. Home Care Servs., 276 F.3d 832, 840 (6th Cir.2002).

A plaintiff seeking to recover under the FLSA must file the claim within two years of accrual of the cause of action, or within three years of accrual for a willful violation. 29 U.S.C. § 255(a) (2011). Each paycheck that fails to include required wages constitutes a separate statutory violation. See Archer v. Sullivan Cnty., Nos. 95–5214, 95–5215, 129 F.3d 1263, 1997 WL 720406, at *2 (6th Cir.1997). The plaintiff may recover compensatory damages under § 216(b) as far back as the statute of limitations will reach—that is, the plaintiff may recover up to two years of compensatory damages if the violation was not willful, and up to three years of compensatory damages if the violation was willful, dating back from the date of the complaint. See, e.g., Campbell v. Kelly, No. 3:09–cv–435, 2011 WL 3862019, at *10 (S.D.Ohio Aug.31, 2011) (finding that, where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on November 16, 2009, the plaintiff could seek relief dating back to November 17, 2007 for a non-willful violation, or back to November 17, 2006 for a willful violation); Sisk v. Sara Lee Corp., 590 F.Supp.2d 1001, 1004 (W.D.Tenn.2008) (finding that where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on May 7, 2007, the “relevant time period” for willful violations began on May 7, 2004); Herman v. Palo Grp. Foster Home, Inc., 976 F.Supp. 696, 700, 705–06 (W.D.Mich.1997) (finding that defendant willfully violated FLSA and awarding back wages and liquidated damages for period of three years prior to filing of complaint), aff’d, 183 F.3d 468 (6th Cir.1999) (upholding damages award). Thus, under the FLSA, a plaintiff’s substantive right to full compensation is determined by the statute of limitations. As a consequence, unlike the federal statutory claims at issue in Morrison, Daimler–Chrysler, and Ray, shortening the statute of limitations for an FLSA claim necessarily precludes a successful plaintiff from receiving full compensatory recovery under the statute.

Indeed, BrickTop’s does not dispute that enforcing the contractual limitations provision would limit the Plaintiffs to one year of compensatory damages recovery, even though the FLSA entitles Plaintiffs to more. Thus, Defendants concede that the provision prevents plaintiffs from recovering the “full panoply” of compensatory remedies to which the FLSA entitles them. That is not a permissible result. Plaintiffs’ substantive right to full compensation under the FLSA may not be bargained away. Accordingly, the contractual limitations provision is unenforceable as to FLSA claims.

In reaching this holding, the court has undertaken the necessary statute-specific analysis that neither the Boaz court nor the Wineman court conducted. In Wineman, which was issued before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Penn Plaza limited Barrentine to its facts, the district court found that a six-month contractual limitations provision in an employment agreement was not enforceable as to FLSA claims. Wineman, 352 F.Supp.2d at 821–23. The defendant had argued, as BrickTop’s does here, that waiver of the FLSA statute of limitations constituted waiver of a procedural right, not a substantive right. Id. at 922. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that, “in light of the public policy implications, … that is a distinction without a difference.” Id. In support of this reasoning, the court relied on Barrentine for the proposition that even FLSA procedural rights, including the right to the judicial forum, could not be abridged, compromised, or waived by private agreement. Id. at 823. Thus, the court characterized the shortened limitations period as “a compromise of employees’ rights under the FLSA” in violation of public policy. Id. at 822–23. It did not analyze whether the shortened statute of limitations affected FLSA remedies, likely based on its assumption that Barrentine rendered that inquiry irrelevant.

In Boaz, the district court enforced a six-month contractual limitation on FLSA claims, but, like Wineman, did not analyze whether that limitation affected FLSA remedies. In Boaz, the plaintiff had asserted claims under Title VII for race and gender discrimination, as well as FLSA claims for pay discrimination and failure to pay overtime compensation. Id. at 932. At the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff, relying on Wineman, contended that her FLSA claims were not time-barred by a six-month limitations provision in her employment agreement. The court declined to follow Wineman, reasoning that the subsequent Penn Plaza decision limited Barrentine to its facts, and found that federal statutory procedural rights may be abridged. Id. The court observed that several courts had found that limitations provisions were enforceable as to other federal statutes, including discrimination claims under § 1981, ERISA claims, and FMLA claims. Id. at 933. It is also noted that, as a general matter, statutes of limitations are procedural, not substantive. Id. However, without any analysis specific to the FLSA, the court summarily concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations is procedural and, therefore, waivable.

Thus, although Boaz and Wineman reached differing conclusions about the enforceability of a contractual limitation on FLSA claims, neither reached the crucial inquiry presented here. In particular, the reasoning in Boaz is flawed for two reasons. First, the Boaz court misinterpreted Penn Plaza, which merely held that statutory claims may be arbitrated, but did not address whether the statute of limitations for any federal statute—let alone the FLSA—constituted a waivable right. Second, the court should not have concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations was purely “procedural” without assessing whether enforcing a shortened limitation on FLSA claims prevented successful plaintiffs from vindicating their substantive right to full compensation.”

Click Pruiett v. West End Restaurants, LLC to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

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S.D.Cal.: Although Arbitration Agreement With Class Waiver Enforceable, Confidentiality Provision Stricken as Unconscionable Because Overbroad

Grabowski v. Robinson

This case was before the court on defendant’s motion to compel arbitration on an individual (rather than class) basis.  Although the court noted that plaintiffs were required to sign the arbitration agreement contained in their compensation agreements, under threat of forfeiture of commissions, the court held that did not make the agreement unenforceable as entered into under duress.  The court also, in large part, dismissed other arguments regarding the substantive and procedural unconscionability of the agreement.  However, as discussed here, the court held that the confidentiality provision which barred any discussion of the litigation without the other party’s consent to be far too broad.

Discussing the confidentiality provision the court stated:

“Plaintiff contends: ‘[T]he Defendant’s rules impose confidentiality which unfairly favors Defendant. While arbitration normally is not open to the public, the Defendant’s rules go much further. Defendant’s rules require that the record of the proceedings be confidential under threat of a sanction order by the arbitrator.’

The Employment Dispute Mediation/Arbitration Procedure contains a provision entitled, “Confidentiality,” which states:

All aspects of the arbitration, including without limitation, the record of the proceeding, are confidential and shall not be open to the public, except (a) to the extent both Parties agree otherwise in writing, (b) as may be appropriate in any subsequent proceedings by the Parties, or (c) as may otherwise be appropriate in response to a governmental agency or legal process, provided that the Party upon whom such process is served shall give immediate notice of such process to the other Party and afford the other Party an appropriate opportunity to object to such process.

At the request of a Party or upon his or her initiative, the Arbitrator shall issue protective orders appropriate to the circumstances and shall enforce the confidentiality of the arbitration as set forth in this article.

In Davis, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated that, under California law, “[c]onfidentiality by itself is not substantively unconscionable,” but the employer’s “confidentiality clause … is written too broadly” and “unconscionably favors [the employer],” when the clause at issue “would prevent an employee from contacting other employees to assist in litigating (or arbitrating) an employee’s case.” Davis, 485 F.3d at 1078–79 (“The clause precludes even mention to anyone ‘not directly involved in the mediation or arbitration’ of ‘the content of the pleadings, papers, orders, hearings, trials, or awards in the arbitration’ or even ‘the existence of a controversy and the fact that there is a mediation or an arbitration proceeding.’ ”). In this case, the confidentiality provision in the Employment Dispute Mediation/Arbitration Procedure is broader than what the court in Davis indicated would be conscionable. Cf. id. at 1079 (noting that “[t]he parties to any particular arbitration, especially in an employment dispute, can always agree to limit availability of sensitive employee information (e.g., social security numbers or other personal identifier information) or other issue-specific matters, if necessary”).

The Court finds that the confidentiality provision in the arbitration agreement is substantively unconscionable under California law.”

While courts- seemingly bound by a recent slew of employer/arbitration-friendly decisions from the Supreme Court- continue to compel arbitration and enforce class and collective action provisions contained in arbitration agreements, this decision seems somewhat in line with the remedial nature of the FLSA and related state wage and hour laws.  One way employees and their counsel can try to even the playing field might be to seek court-approved notice of pending litigation, notwithstanding the inability to proceed as a class/collective action.  Notifying other employees of existing litigation (and their rights to be paid in accordance with wage and hour laws) would certainly be in line with the remedial purposes of the FLSA and related state wage and hour laws.  In any event, the court’s holding that an employer cannot hide its alleged violations for other employees certainly seems to be a step in the right direction.

Click Grabowski v. Robinson to read the entire Opinion.

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