Tag 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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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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S.D.N.Y.: Collective Action Waiver Unenforceable Because It Would Prevent Employees From Vindicating Their Substantive Statutory Rights Under the FLSA

Raniere v. Citigroup Inc.

In an issue appearing more and more these days, this case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration on an individualized basis.  Although the plaintiffs raised several issues regarding the enforceability of the arbitration agreement at issue, as discussed here, the case is significant because it held that- as a matter of law- purported waivers of the right to participate in an FLSA collective action are unenforceable, because they prevent employees from vindicating their substantive statutory rights (that are not waivable).

In so holding, the court reasoned:

“Plaintiffs make two arguments to the effect that the collective action waiver is unenforceable because it would prevent Plaintiffs from vindicating their substantive statutory rights. The first, and broader, of these arguments is that if the waiver is given effect, the FLSA will not serve both its remedial and deterrent functions. Plaintiffs’ second, narrower, contention is that to give effect to the collective action waiver and arbitration agreement here would have the practical effect of precluding Plaintiffs from pursuing the enforcement of their statutory rights due to the costs involved.

It is well recognized that employees cannot release their substantive rights under the FLSA by private agreement. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (“No one can doubt but that to allow waiver of statutory wages by agreement would nullify the purposes of the Act.”); see also Bormann v. AT & T Commc’ns, Inc., 875 F.2d 399 (2d Cir.1989) (“[P]rivate waiver of claims under the [FLSA] has been precluded by such Supreme Court decisions as Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945), and D.A. Shulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946).” (citations omitted)).

It is likewise well established that “ ‘[b]y agreeing to arbitrate a statutory claim, a party does not forgo the substantive rights afforded by the statute; it only submits to their resolution in an arbitral, rather than a judicial, forum.’ “ Circuit City, 532 U.S. at 123 (quoting Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 26); see also Desiderio, 191 F.3d at 205–06. Arbitration of a claim of statutory rights will only be compelled if that claim can be effectively vindicated through arbitration. See Mitsubishi, 473 U.S. at 637 n. 19 (noting that if arbitration clause and other contractual provisions “operated in tandem as a prospective waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies,” “we would have little hesitation in condemning the agreement as against public policy”); Green Tree, 531 U.S. at 90 (noting that “even claims arising under a statute designed to further important social policies may be arbitrated because so long as the prospective litigant effectively may vindicate his or her statutory cause of action in the arbitral forum the statute serves its functions.” (citations and internal quotation marks and brackets omitted)).

Federal substantive law of arbitrability requires federal courts to declare otherwise operative arbitration clauses unenforceable when enforcement would prevent plaintiffs from vindicating their statutory rights. American Express II, 634 F.3d at 199; see also Kristian v. Comcast Corp., 446 F.3d 25, 47–48 (1st Cir.2006); Hadnot v. Bay, Ltd., 344 F.3d 474, 478 n. 14 (5th Cir.2003); Paladino v. Avnet Computer Technologies, Inc., 134 F.3d 1054, 1062 (11th Cir.1998); Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547, 549 (S.D.N.Y.2011); Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 785 F.Supp.2d 394 (S.D.N.Y.2011); DeGaetano v. Smith Barney, Inc., 983 F.Supp. 459, 469 (S.D.N.Y.1997).

The Second Circuit addressed this issue in American Express I, 554 F.3d 300. The Court concluded that the class action waiver in that case was unenforceable because plaintiffs had demonstrated that they otherwise would not be able to vindicate their statutory rights “in either an individual or collective capacity,” id. at 314 (emphasis in original), due to the great expense of pursuing that antitrust litigation and the small individual recovery each plaintiff could expect. As such, the waiver would have the practical effect of ensuring no claims would be brought at all, granting the defendant “de facto immunity from … liability.” Id. at 320. The Supreme Court vacated American Express I and remanded for reconsideration in light of Stolt–Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., ––– U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 1758, 176 L.Ed.2d 605 (2010). American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., ––– U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 2401, 176 L.Ed.2d 920. On remand, the Circuit again found the arbitration provision unenforceable because “the class action waiver in this case precludes plaintiffs from enforcing their statutory rights” due to the prohibitive cost of litigating on an individual basis. American Express II, 634 F.3d at 197–99.

In Ragone, 595 F.3d 115, the Court of Appeals again confirmed the importance of the statutory rights analysis, indicating its willingness, if in dicta, to hold unenforceable an arbitration agreement containing a shortened statute of limitations and a fee-shifting provision that would “significantly diminish a litigant’s rights under Title VII.” 595 F.3d at 125–26.  The Court of Appeals discussion in Ragone demonstrates “that the holdings of American Express apply not only to ‘negative value’ class action claims, that is, claims that are so small in value that it is not economically viable to pursue them as individual claims.” Chen–Oster, 785 F.Supp.2d at 408.

Defendants are incorrect that the Supreme Court’s decision in AT & T, –––U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742, overrules American Express and Ragone. AT & T addressed only whether a state law rule holding class action waivers unconscionable was preempted by the FAA. ––– U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742. The holdings of both the American Express cases and Ragone were based, in contrast and as this decision must be, on federal arbitral law, and AT & T in no way alters the relevance of those binding circuit holdings. See Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 2011 WL 2671813 (S.D.N.Y. July 7, 2011) (holding that AT & T does not abrogate American Express or Ragone and noting that “it remains the law of the Second Circuit that an arbitration provision which precludes plaintiffs from enforcing their statutory rights is unenforceable.” Id. at *4). Moreover, while the dissent in AT & T noted with concern that “agreements that forbid the consolidation of claims can lead small-dollar claimants to abandon their claims rather than to litigate,” 131 S.Ct. at 1760, AT & T involved the vindication of state, not federal, rights. Thus, even if AT & T is read broadly to acquiesce to the enforcement of an arbitral agreement that as a practical matter would prevent the vindication of state rights in the name of furthering the strong federal policy favoring arbitration, that would not alter the validity of the federal statutory rights analysis articulated in Mitsubishi, Green Tree, American Express and Ragone. The Court accordingly analyses the present issues under the reasoning articulated in those cases.

i. The Right to Proceed Collectively Under the FLSA Cannot be Waived

The Second Circuit has not determined whether the collective action provisions of the FLSA are integral to its structure and function, and, as such, whether an agreement waiving that right can be enforced.

The First Circuit has expressly reserved decision on this question.   Skirchak v. Dynamics Research Corp., 508 F.3d 49, 62 (1st Cir.2007) (“We do not need to decide if class actions under the FLSA may ever be waived by agreement…. We also do not reach the question of whether such waivers of FLSA class actions are per se against public policy under either the FLSA or the Massachusetts Fair Wage Law”). And while a number of other Circuits have accepted that, at least in principle, arbitration agreements containing waivers of the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA are enforceable, those decisions were either based upon a premise rejected by the Second Circuit or did not reach the question here. See Horenstein v. Mortgage. Mkt., Inc., 9 F. App’x 618, 619 (9th Cir.2001); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Indus. ., Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 297–98 (5th Cir.2004); Vilches v. Travelers Co., Inc., 413 Fed. App’x 487, 494 n. 4 (3d Cir.2011); Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1378 (11th Cir.2005); Adkins v. Labor Ready, Inc., 303 F.3d 496, 503 (4th Cir.2002).

Specifically, the court in Caley did not address whether the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA may be waived as a matter of federal law. Instead, it addressed whether such waivers were unconscionable under Georgia state law principles. See Caley, 428 F.3d at 1377–79.

The Second Circuit has rejected the reasoning relied on in Horenstein, Adkins, Carter, and Vilches. In American Express, the Second Circuit noted that the issue of whether statutorily granted collective action rights under the ADEA, which incorporates by reference the collective action rights granted in the FLSA, could be waived was not decided by Gilmer, 500 U.S. 20, 111 S.Ct. 1647, 114 L.Ed.2d 26, because “because a collective and perhaps a class action remedy was, in fact, available in that case.” American Express II, 634 F.3d at 195–96; American Express I, 554 F.3d at 314 (same). Countrywide, Adkins, Horenstein, and Vilches, the latter three relying on Johnson v. West Suburban Bank, 225 F.3d 366, 377 (3d Cir.2000), assumed that Gilmer resolved whether collective enforcement rights were waivable. See Vilches, at 494 n. 4 (citing Adkins, 303 F.3d at 503 (citing Johnson, 225 F.3d at 377)); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 503 (citing Johnson, 225 F.3d at 377); Countrywide, 362 F.3d at 298 (citing Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 32). Under the Second Circuit’s precedents, Gilmer does not. See American Express II, 634 F.3d at 195–96.  Accordingly, the issue presented by Plaintiffs here, namely whether the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA is unwaivable—beyond such a clause being unenforceable were Plaintiffs to demonstrate that to do so would have the practical effect of denying them their substantive rights—is an open question in this Circuit.

This issue is fundamentally distinct, and more nuanced, than that presented in Gilmer, which addressed whether ADEA claims are arbitrable at all. Here, Plaintiffs do not contest that individually filed FLSA claims are generally arbitrable or that were the agreement to permit proceeding as a collective in arbitration, as the parties could in Gilmer, see American Express II, 634 F.3d at 195–96, that such a provision would be enforceable. Accordingly, this case does not oppose the strong federal policy favoring arbitration with the rights granted in the FLSA, but instead only questions whether the right to proceed collectively may be waived.

There are good reasons to hold that a waiver of the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA is per se unenforceable—and different in kind from waivers of the right to proceed as a class under Rule 23. Collective actions under the FLSA are a unique animal. Unlike employment-discrimination class suits under Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act that are governed by Rule 23, Congress created a unique form of collective actions for minimum-wage and overtime pay claims brought under the FLSA.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and its original collective action provision, was a product of the forces that gave rise to what has been termed the constitutional revolution of 1937, marking a high point in the clash of the federal courts with President Roosevelt and New Deal legislators.  The original FLSA collective action provision, passed in the wake of the “switch in time that saved nine,” provided that

[a]ny employer who violates the provisions of section 6 or section 7 of this Act shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. Action to recover such liability may be maintained in any court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated, or such employee or employees may designate an agent or representative to maintain such action for and in behalf of all employees similarly situated. The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant and costs of the action.

Fair Labor Standards Act, 75 Cong. Ch. 676, § 16(b), 52 Stat. 1060, 1069 (1938). As the Supreme Court has noted, this provision appeared for the first time in the bill reported by a Conference Committee of both Houses. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank, 324 U.S. at 705 n. 15 (citing H. Rep. No. 2738, 75th Cong.3d Sess., at 33). The bill that later became the FLSA took over thirteen months to become law and went through a variety of iterations, creating a veritable raft of legislative history. Within this, however, “[t]he only reference to Section 16(b) was by Representative Keller….” Id. at 705 n. 16. Representative Keller stated in relevant part:

Among the provisions for the enforcement of the act an old principle has been adopted and will be applied to new uses. If there shall occur violations of either the wages or hours, the employees can themselves, or by designated agent or representatives, maintain an action in any court to recover the wages due them and in such a case the court shall allow liquidated damages in addition to the wages due equal to such deficient payment and shall also allow a reasonable attorney’s fees and assess the court costs against the violator of the law so that employees will not suffer the burden of an expensive lawsuit. The provision has the further virtue of minimizing the cost of enforcement by the Government. It is both a common-sense and economical method of regulation. The bill has other penalties for violations and other judicial remedies, but the provision which I have mentioned puts directly into the hands of the employees who are affected by violation the means and ability to assert and enforce their own rights, thus avoiding the assumption by Government of the sole responsibility to enforce the act.  Id. (citing 83 Cong. Rec. 9264).

This collective action provision was amended by the Portal–to–Portal Act of 1947, the history of which has been described by the courts in the following manner:

In 1947, in response to a “national emergency” created by a flood of suits under the FLSA aimed at collecting portal-to-portal pay allegedly due employees, Congress enacted the Portal–to–Portal amendments to the FLSA. 61 Stat. 87 (1947). The original, stated purpose of the bill containing these amendments was: “To define and limit the jurisdiction of the courts, to regulate actions arising under certain laws of the United States, and for other purposes.” 93 Cong. Rec. 156 (H.R.2157). To this end, the amendments, among other things, barred unions from bringing representative actions under the FLSA.  Arrington v. Nat. Broadcasting Co., Inc., 531 F.Supp. 498, 500 (D.D.C.1982) (citations omitted); see also United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1564 of N.M. v. Albertson’s, Inc., 207 F.3d 1193, 1200–01 (11th Cir.2000) (noting the Arrington court’s “exhaustive survey of the legislative history of the 1947 amendments”). As amended, FLSA collective actions allow “plaintiffs the advantage of lower individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources. The judicial system benefits by efficient resolution in one proceeding of common issues of law and fact arising from the same alleged” unlawful activity. Hoffman–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989) (describing the collective action provisions under the ADEA, which are by reference those of the FLSA).

More specifically, the revised collective action provision that resulted from these amendments limited representative suits to those workers who submit written opt-in notices. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“No employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought”). FLSA actions are, consequently, not true representative actions as under Rule 23, but instead those actions brought about by individual employees who affirmatively join a single suit. These collective action provisions were crafted by not one but over the course of several Congresses to balance the need to incentivize the bringing of often small claims by way of collectivization in order to ensure the statute’s function, while barring actions “brought on behalf of employees who had no real involvement in, or real knowledge of, the lawsuit.” Arrington, 531 F.Supp. at 501. The Act’s, and more specifically this provision’s, lengthy legislative history evidences Congress’ precise determination of how this balance should be struck in order to ensure the statute’s remedial and deterrent functions.

In addition, as the Supreme Court has described,

[t]he legislative history of the Fair Labor Standards Act shows an intent on the part of Congress to protect certain groups of the population from substandard wages and excessive hours which endangered the national health and well-being and the free flow of goods in interstate commerce. The statute was a recognition of the fact that due to the unequal bargaining power as between employer and employee, certain segments of the population required federal compulsory legislation to prevent private contracts on their part which endangered national health and efficiency as a result of the free movement of goods in interstate commerce.  Brooklyn Sav. Bank, 324 U.S. at 706–07. Although the right to sue under the FLSA is compensatory, “it is nevertheless an enforcement provision.” Id. at 709. Not the least integral aspect of this remedy is the ability of employees to pool resources in order to pursue a collective action, in accordance with the specific balance struck by Congress. The particular FLSA collective action mechanism was additionally a Congressional determination regarding the allocation of enforcement costs, as the ability of employees to bring actions collectively reduces the burden borne by the public fisc, as Representative Keller noted. See 83 Cong. Rec. 9264. Moreover, prohibition of the waiver of the right to proceed collectively accords with the Congressional policy of uniformity with regard to the application of FLSA standards, see H. Rep. No. 2182, 75th Cong., 3d Sess. at 6–7, because an employer is not permitted to gain a competitive advantage because his employees are more willing to assent to, or his human resources department more able to ascertain, collective action waivers than those of his competitors. As the Supreme Court has noted, “the purposes of the Act require that it be applied even to those who would decline its protections.” Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 105 S.Ct. 1953, 85 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985). It is not enough to respond that such a waiver should be upheld in the name of the broad federal policy favoring arbitration, simply because the waiver was included in an arbitration agreement. An otherwise enforceable arbitration agreement should not become the vehicle to invalidate the particular Congressional purposes of the collective action provision and the policies on which that provision is based.

In sum, a waiver of the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA is unenforceable as a matter of law in accordance with the Gilmer Court’s recognition that “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate a statutory claim, a party does not forgo the substantive rights afforded by the statute.” Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 26. See also Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 785 F.Supp.2d 394 (S.D.N.Y.2011) (holding arbitral provision waiving right to proceed as a class unenforceable as to Title VII pattern and practice claims).”

Further, because the arbitration agreement at issue said that if the collective action waiver were found to be unenforceable, the case(s) must be litigated in court, the court held that the case should not be remanded to arbitration, having held the collective action waiver unenforceable.

Click Raniere v. Citigroup Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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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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E.D.N.Y.: Where Agreement to Arbitrate Is Silent As To Class Arbitration, Arbitrator Not Court to Decide Class Arbitrability Issue

Guida v. Home Savings of America, Inc.

Plaintiffs brought this putative class action on behalf of themselves, and on behalf of individuals similarly situated, against Defendants, asserting claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et. seq., and related New York state wage and labor laws.  Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ complaint, and compel arbitration on an individual basis pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 et. seq.  While Plaintiffs agreed to arbitrate the dispute, they argued that the arbitrator should decide whether the arbitration can proceed on a class basis, because the arbitration agreement was silent on the issue of class arbitration.  The court agreed and held that while the parties were required to arbitrate the dispute, the determination of whether or not the arbitration should proceed on a class basis is for the arbitrator to make in the first instance.

Discussing the relevant provisions of the agreement(s) to arbitrate, the court explained:

“The terms of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreement are identical for all of the plaintiffs. The following are relevant portions from the Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreements:

I understand that Home Savings of America makes available arbitration for resolution of employment disputes that are not otherwise resolved by internal policies or procedures.

I agree that if I am unable to resolve any dispute through the internal policies and procedures of Home Savings … I will arbitrate … any legal claim that I might have against Home Savings … or its employees, in connection with my employment or termination of employment … whether arising out of issues or matters occurring before the date of this Agreement or after such date.

I agree to abide by and accept the final decisions of the arbitration panel as ultimate resolution of any disputes or issues for any and all events that arise out of employment or termination of employment.

I agree that the Employee Dispute Resolution Rules of the American Arbitration Association will apply to any resolution of any such matters. In exchange for the benefits of arbitration, I agree that the arbitrator will only have the power to grant those remedies available in court, under applicable law.”

In light of the silence as to class arbitration, the court held that the issue was one for the arbitrator, not the court to decide.  The court reasoned that Supreme Court jurisprudence supported this holding, because the issue was one of substantive interpretation of the contract language and not merely a procedural issue:

“This Court concludes, in light of StoltNielsen and Bazzle, that the ability of a class to arbitrate a dispute where the parties contest whether the agreement to arbitrate is silent or ambiguous on the issue is a procedural question that is for the arbitrator to decide.  Even though Bazzle does not have the full weight of Supreme Court precedent, it is nevertheless instructive. See, e.g., Barbour v. Haley, 471 F.3d 1222, 1229 (11 th Cir.2006) (“Plurality opinions are not binding on this court; however, they are persuasive authority.”); Galli v. N.J. Meadowlands Comm’n, 490 F.3d 265, 274 (3d Cir.2007) (concluding that dicta in Supreme Court opinions has persuasive value). The Second Circuit found Bazzle persuasive, as have other courts prior to Stolt–Nielsen. See Vaughn v. Leeds, Morelli & Brown, P.C., 315 F. App’x 327, 329 (2d Cir.2009) (concluding that the district court “properly compelled arbitration on the question of the arbitrability of class claims under the Settlement Agreement[,]” citing Bazzle and Howsam); JSC Surgutneftegaz v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, 04 Civ. 6069(RMB), 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79161, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 11, 2007) (citing Bazzle for the proposition that “arbitrators are well situated to answer the question whether contracts forbid[ ] class arbitration” (quotation marks omitted)); Scout. com, LLC v. Bucknuts, LLC, No. C07–1444 RSM, 2007 WL 4143229, at *5 (W.D.Wa. Nov.16, 2007) (concluding that, in light of Bazzle, it was for the arbitrator to decide the procedural question of whether the plaintiffs can arbitrate as a class (collecting cases)). Furthermore, many courts since Stolt–Nielsen have continued to follow Bazzle’s conclusion that the ability to arbitrate on a class basis is a procedural question left for the arbitrator to decide. This Court finds the Third Circuit’s opinion in Vilches v. The Travelers Companies, Incorporated, No. 10–2888, 2011 U.S.App. LEXIS 2551 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2011), particularly instructive. In Vilches, the Third Circuit reconciled Bazzle and StoltNielsen as follows:

Although contractual silence [on the issue of arbitration on a class basis] has often been treated by arbitrators as authorizing class arbitration, Stolt–Nielsen suggests a return to the pre-Bazzle line of reasoning on contractual silence, albeit decided by an arbitrator, because it focuses on what the parties agreed to—expressly or by implication.

Id. at *12–13 n. 3. The Third Circuit concluded that the ability of the plaintiffs to proceed on a class basis in arbitration was essentially a question of “what kind of arbitration proceeding the parties agreed to [,]” id. at *10 (emphasis in original) (citing Bazzle), and went on to conclude that “[w]here 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.” Id. at *11 (quotation marks omitted) (citing StoltNielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1771–72, describing the plurality opinion in Bazzle). In Vilches, the agreement in question “did not expressly reference class or collective arbitration or any waiver of the same.” Id. at *3. The parties debated whether a revised arbitration policy including a class arbitration waiver applied to plaintiffs but agreed that plaintiffs’ causes of action alleged in the complaint otherwise fell under the purview of the arbitration agreement. Id. at *3–6, *9–10. The court in Vilches referred the “questions of whether class arbitration was agreed upon to the arbitrator.” Id. This Court similarly concludes that Stolt–Nielsen and Bazzle are reconcilable and that arbitrating on a class basis is a procedural question that is for the arbitrators to decide in accordance with the Supreme Court’s analysis in Stolt–Nielsen, which provides a framework for the arbitrator’s analysis of the issue.

Nor is Vilches alone in its conclusion. There are a number of cases in addition to Vilches in which courts have concluded, subsequent to Stolt–Nielsen, that the ability of plaintiffs to arbitrate on a class basis is an issue to be determined by the arbitrator. See, e.g., Aracri v. Dillard’s Inc., No. 1:10cv253, 2011 WL 1388613, at * 4 (S.D.Ohio Mar.29, 2011) (concluding that “it is not for this Court, but for an arbitrator to decide whether class arbitration is forbidden under the Arbitration Agreement and Dillard’s Rules of Arbitration” where the arbitration agreement did not explicitly mention class arbitration but the parties contested whether Dillard’s Rules, to which all arbitration claims were subject, provided for class arbitration); Smith v. The Cheesecake Factory Restaurants, Inc., No. 3:06–00829, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121930, at *7 (M.D.Tenn. Nov. 16, 2010) (concluding that “whether the parties agreed to class arbitration is to be resolved by the arbitrator[,]” citing Stolt–Nielsen and Bazzle); Fisher v. General Steel Domestic Sales, LLC, No. 10–cv–1509–WYD–BNB, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108223, at *6–7 (D.Col. Sept. 22, 2010) (where parties agreed that plaintiffs’ claims were subject to arbitration but were contesting whether the agreement in question permitted class arbitration, “based on the plain language of Stolt–Nielsen, it is clear that an arbitrator may, as a threshold matter, appropriately determine whether the applicable arbitration clause permits the arbitration to proceed on behalf of or against a class” (quotation marks omitted)). See also Clark v. Goldline Int’l, Inc., No. 6:10–cv–01884 (JMC), 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126192, at *21–22 (D.S.C. Nov. 30, 2010) (“[T]he court notes that whether a class is appropriately certified in this case or otherwise is yet to be determined. Second, whether the Account Agreement precludes any putative classmember from bringing a claim has no bearing on the validity or enforceability of the arbitration provisions. Such issues raised by Plaintiffs must be determined by an arbitrator, not this court.” (citing Bazzle)). But see Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., No. 10 Civ. 6950(LBS)(JCF), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46994, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 28, 2011) (concluding that the ability to arbitrate on a class basis requires a “determination of the scope and enforceability of the arbitration clause, and therefore the issue is appropriately characterized as a dispute over arbitrability[,]” further noting that this question “fits into the narrow circumstances where contracting parties would likely have expected a court to have decided the gateway matter[,]” relying on Stolt–Nielsen’s emphasis that Bazzle was solely a plurality opinion).”

Interestingly, the court also addressed and rejected Defendants’ argument that the Supreme Court’s recent holding in AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion stood for the proposition that the issue of whether or not to arbitrate on a class basis is not a procedural issue, which would have allowed the court to decide the issue.

Click Guida v. Home Savings of America, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

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U.S.S.C.: State Law Regarding Unconscionability of Class Waivers in Arbitration Agreements Preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA)

AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion

There has long been talk of the pr0-business conservative majority that currently comprises the United State’s Supreme Court.  However, many pundits have commented that while the Court has ruled as might be expected, largely based on their political leanings, on social issues, there has been wide agreement that other cases have not necessarily gone as some might have expected.  Last term with its decision that corporations could contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns (while individuals were subject to the caps put in place by campaign finance laws), it appeared that the Court was getting more comfortable in trading in a lot of the basic individual freedoms that have always been a foundation for the United States, in exchange for satiating the demands of big business who are forever seeking to tilt the playing field in its favor.  Wednesday the Court handed down perhaps its biggest blow to average Americans ever, when it reversed the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Concepcion v. AT&T Mobility, a decision that had sought to balance individual consumer rights, against those of a behemoth corporation.

As the Court stated in its Syllabus opinion, “[t]he cellular telephone contract between respondents (Concepcions) and petitioner (AT&T) provided for arbitration of all disputes, but did not permit classwide arbitration. After the Concepcions were charged sales tax on the retail value of phones provided free under their service contract, they sued AT&T in a California Federal District Court.Their suit was consolidated with a class action alleging, inter alia, that AT&T had engaged in false advertising and fraud by chargingsales tax on “free” phones. The District Court denied AT&T’s motion to compel arbitration under the Concepcions’ contract. Relying onthe California Supreme Court’s Discover Bank decision, it found the arbitration provision unconscionable because it disallowed classwide proceedings. The Ninth Circuit agreed that the provision was unconscionable under California law and held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which makes arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract,” 9 U. S. C. §2, did not preempt its ruling.”

However, the Supreme’s disagreed.  Instead they held that “[b]ecause it ‘stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,’ Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U. S. 52, 67, California’s Discover Bank rule is preempted by the FAA. Pp. 4–18.”

Of course big business cheered the opinion as a necessary step towards giving parties the rights they had contracted for.  In reality however, the Ninth Circuit’s decision was much more in line with the realities of today’s business environment.  As anyone who has a cell phone can attest, the contracts we all enter into with a cell phone provider are anything but a fairly negotiated one.  In order to get your phone and/or start your service, you must sign away any rights you would normally have, in a take it or leave it contract.

Although aimed at eliminating consumer class actions, those in which the size of the claims is typically a few dollars to a few thousand dollars at most, the effects of the decision will be felt throughout all types of litigation, including employment and wage and hour litigation, where individual claims are often small by themselves, by collectively worthwhile for an attorney to pursue, in order to vindicate the rights of an entire class.  Given what could be a death nell for class and collective litigation for employees, pro-consumer legislators have been shaken to action.

As noted by blog thePopTort, Senator Al Franken, who actually has a great track record persuading Congress to outlaw unfair arbitration agreements, is taking the lead on this one.  Responding to yesterday’s decision, “U.S. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said today they plan to introduce legislation next week that would restore consumers’ rights to seek justice in the courts. Their bill, called the Arbitration Fairness Act, would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, and civil rights cases, and would allow consumers and workers to choose arbitration after a dispute occurred.”

Consumer and employee groups have been quick to respond as well, calling for legislation, that has been raised but stalled in prior legislative sessions in Washington, D.C.  For example the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), who had filed an Amicus Brief in support of the Concepcions, released this press release calling for immediate action by Congress to rectify the situation.  It remains to be seen how this will all end in both the short and long terms, but for now the decision is unquestionably a boon for big business, who has essentially been given the green light to ignore laws big and small to the detriment of average Americans, with the knowledge that there will be little or no repercussions for same.

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