Tag Archives: Collective Action Waiver

D.Idaho: Collective Action Waiver Unenforceable Under Section 7, Because It Would Prevent Employees “from Asserting a Substantive Right Critical to National Labor Policy”

Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the plaintiffs operative (second amended) complaint. Of significance, joining several recent courts, the court considered the effect of the NLRA’s Section 7, as it relates to a purported waiver of employees’ rights to proceed under the FLSA’s collective action mechanism. Reasoning that a waiver of the right to proceed as a collective action basis, “bars [plaintiff] from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy,” the court held that same was unenforceable.

Discussing prior precedent and explaining that same failed to consider the argument that the NLRA forbids such a waiver the court explained:

Several Circuits have cited the dicta in Gilmer to uphold waivers of the FLSA’s collective action rights—these Circuits hold that the waiver affects only the employee’s procedural right to bring a collective action, not his substantive right to seek recovery under the FLSA for himself, and thus the waiver is valid. Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1378 (11th Cir.2005); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Industries, Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 298 (5th Cir.2004); Adkins v. Labor Ready, Inc., 303 F.3d 496, 503 (4th Cir.2002). The Ninth Circuit has reached the same result but in an unpublished decision that cannot be cited for any purpose.

These cases did not address, however, the issue of whether a waiver of FLSA collective action rights violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 7 of the NLRA vests in employees the right “to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. The right to engage in concerted action for “mutual aid or protection” includes employees’ efforts to “improve terms and conditions of employment or otherwise improve their lot as employees through channels outside the immediate employee-employer relationship.” Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 565–566, 98 S.Ct. 2505, 57 L.Ed.2d 428 (1978). Those “channels’ include lawsuits. See Brady v. National Football League, 644 F.3d 661, 673 (8th Cir.2011) (holding that “a lawsuit filed in good faith by a group of employees to achieve more favorable terms or conditions of employment is ‘concerted activity’ under 29 U.S.C. § 157“).

The National Labor Relations Board has recently held that an employee’s lawsuit seeking a collective action under the FLSA is “concerted action” protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. In re D.R. Horton, Inc., 2012 WL 36274 (N.L.R.B. Jan.3, 2012). Although some Section 7 rights can be waived by a union acting on behalf of employees, see Metro. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 460 U.S. 693, 707–08, 103 S.Ct. 1467, 75 L.Ed.2d 387 (1983), it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995). That is precisely what Brown alleges happened here.

Under Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984), the Court must defer to the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA if its interpretation is rational and consistent with the Act. Local Joint Executive Bd. of Las Vegas v. NLRB, 657 F.3d 865, 870 (9th Cir.2011). The Board’s interpretation in Horton of Section 7 of the NLRA is rational and consistent with the Act: A collective action seeking recovery of wages for off-the-clock work falls easily within the language of Section 7 protecting “concerted action” brought for the “mutual aid and protection” of the employees.

Holding that it had the power to invalidate the waiver, and doing so, the court reasoned:

Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement waives Brown’s Section 7 rights to bring an FLSA collective action. As discussed, an arbitration agreement may, by the terms of the FAA, be declared unenforceable “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” See 9 U.S.C. § 2. Do legal grounds exist to revoke an agreement to waive Section 7 rights?

Section 7 rights are protected “not for their own sake but as an instrument of the national labor policy.” Emporium Capwell Co. v. W. Addition Cmty. Org., 420 U.S. 50, 62, 95 S.Ct. 977, 43 L.Ed.2d 12 (1975). Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement does more than merely waive Brown’s right to a procedural remedy; it bars her from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy. A contract that violates public policy must not be enforced. See United Paperworkers Int’l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 42, 108 S.Ct. 364, 98 L.Ed.2d 286 (1987) (citing the “general doctrine, rooted in the common law, that a court may refuse to enforce contracts that violate law or public policy”). Moreover, it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995).

For these reasons, the Court finds that under the FAA, there are legal grounds to revoke the arbitration agreement’s waiver of Brown’s right to bring a collective action under the FLSA and a class action under the IWCA. Accordingly, the Court will deny Citicorp’s motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss Brown’s claims.

Given the lack of clarity on this issue (see, e.g., here), and the fact that courts continue to come down on opposite sides of it, this issue is likely to end up at the Supreme Court at some point in the relatively near future. However, this case was certainly a win for employees in the ongoing battle.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Click Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.

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8th Cir.: NLRB’s Holding in D.R. Horton Does Not Preclude Enforcement of FLSA Class/Collective Action Waiver

Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc.

While district courts that have considered the issue since the NLRB handed down its decision in D.R. Horton last year have reached divergent opinions on its effect regarding the enforceability of class waivers, the first circuit to consider the issue has rejected D.R. Horton’s applicability in the FLSA context. By way of background, last year the NLRB held that the existence of a collective action waiver in an employment agreement constituted an unfair labor practice, because it improperly restricted the “concerted activity” of employees who are subject to same. Following the decision, courts have reached different conclusions as to whether the NLRB’s decision necessarily rendered such waivers unenforceable in the context of FLSA collective action waivers. In this case, the district court held that the parties arbitration agreement was unenforceable, because it contained such a waiver. However, on appeal, the Eight Circuit reversed, holding that the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton did not render the arbitration agreement at issue unenforceable.

Discussing this issue, the Eight Circuit opined that it was not obligated to defer to the National Labor Relations Board’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedent, under Chevron or any other principle:

Finally, in arguing that there is an inherent conflict between the FLSA and the FAA, Owen relies on the NLRB’s recent decision in D.R. Horton, which held a class waiver unenforceable in a similar FLSA challenge based on the NLRB’s conclusion that such a waiver conflicted with the rights protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. 2012 WL 36274, at *2. The NLRB stated that Section 7’s protections of employees’ right to pursue workplace grievances through concerted action includes the right to proceed as a class.   Id. However, D.R. Horton carries little persuasive authority in the circumstances presented here. First, the NLRB limited its holding to arbitration agreements barring all protected concerted action. Id. at *16. In contrast, the MAA does not preclude an employee from filing a complaint with an administrative agency such as the Department of Labor (which has jurisdiction over FLSA claims, see 29 U.S.C. § 204), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the NLRB, or any similar administrative body. Cf. Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 28, 111 S.Ct. 1647 (upholding an arbitration agreement that allowed Age Discrimination in Employment Act claimants to pursue their claims before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Further, nothing in the MAA precludes any of these agencies from investigating and, if necessary, filing suit on behalf of a class of employees. Second, even if D.R. Horton addressed the more limited type of class waiver present here, we still would owe no deference to its reasoning. Delock v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, –––F.Supp.2d ––––, ––––, No. 4:11–CV–520–DPM, 2012 WL 3150391 (E.D.Ark. Aug. 1, 2012), at *3 (“The Board’s construction of the [NLRA] ‘is entitled to considerable deference and must be upheld if it is reasonable and consistent with the policies of the Act,’ … the Board has no special competence or experience in interpreting the Federal Arbitration Act.” (quoting St. John’s Mercy Health Sys. v. NLRB, 436 F.3d 843, 846 (8th Cir.2006))). The NLRB also attempted to distinguish its conclusion from pro-arbitration Supreme Court decisions such as Concepcion.  D.R. Horton, 2012 WL 36274, at *16. This court, however, is “not obligated to defer to [the Board's] interpretation of Supreme Court precedent under Chevron or any other principle.” Delock, –––F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2012 WL 3150391, at *3 (quoting N.Y. N.Y. LLC v. NLRB, 313 F.3d 585, 590 (D.C.Cir.2002)). Additionally, although no court of appeals has addressed D.R. Horton, nearly all of the district courts to consider the decision have declined to follow it.

The court also opined that there is nothing inherently wrong with a collective action waiver in employment agreements.

Click Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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Filed under Arbitration, Class Waivers, Collective Actions

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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NLRB: Class Action Bans Unlawfully Restrict NLRA Protected Rights to Engage in Concerted Activity

D.R. Horton Inc. and Michael Cuda.  Case 12-CA-25764

This case was before the NLRB on Michael Cuda’s challenge to D.R. Horton’s class/collective action waiver, which Cuda was required to sign as a condition of his employment.  Specifically the certified question was “whether an employer violates Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act when it requires employees covered by the Act, as a condition of their employment, to sign an agreement that precludes them from filing joint, class, or collective claims addressing their wages, hours or other working conditions against the employer in any forum, arbitral or judicial.”  The NLRB held that such an agreement unlawfully restricts employees’ Section 7 right to engage in concerted action for mutual aid or protection, notwithstanding the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which generally makes employment-related arbitration agreements judicially enforceable.”

The NLRB stressed that arbitration agreements are not per se unenforeceable.  However, whether the class/collective action mechanism is used in arbitration or in a court of law, the NLRB held that it must be available to employees.

Rejecting D.R. Horton’s contention that the NLRB’s holding was inconsistent with prior U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, the NLRB explained:

“The Respondent and some amici further argue that holding that the MAA violates the NLRA would be inconsistent with two recent Supreme Court decisions stat-ing that a party cannot be required, without his consent, to submit to arbitration on a classwide basis. See Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758, 1775–1776 (2010) (arbitration panel exceeded its authority by permitting class antitrust claim when commercial shipping charter agreement’s arbitration clause was silent on class arbitration); AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1751–1753 (2011) (claim that class-action waiver in consumer arbitration agreement was unconscionable under state law was preempted by FAA). Neither case is controlling here. Neither involved the waiver of rights protected by the NLRA or even employment agreements. Furthermore, AT&T Mobility involved a conflict between the FAA and state law, which is governed by the Supremacy Clause, whereas the present case involves the argument that two federal statutes conflict.  Finally, nothing in our holding here requires the Respondent or any other employer to permit, participate in, or be bound by a class-wide or collective arbitration proceeding.  We need not and do not mandate class arbitration in order to protect employees’ rights under the NLRA.  Rather, we hold only that employers may not compel employees to waive their NLRA right to collectively pursue litigation of employment claims in all forums, arbitral and judicial. So long as the employer leaves open a judicial forum for class and collective claims, employees’ NLRA rights are preserved without requiring the availability of classwide arbitration. Employers remain free to insist that arbitral proceedings be conducted on an individual basis.”

Click D.R. Horton Inc. and Michael Cuda. Case 12-CA-25764 to read the entire Decision and Order.

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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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S.D.N.Y.: Class Action Waiver Unenforceable in FLSA Case, Because Cost of Individual Litigation vs. Potential Recovery Prohibitive

Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP

This case was before the court on Defendant’s motion to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration on an individual (rather than class/collective) basis.  There was no dispute as to whether the Plaintiff had executed the arbitration agreement, containing the class waiver, however the court held that the class waiver was unenforceable, after a lengthy discussion of Second Circuit law and the impact of the recent United States Supreme Court case, Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010).

The court reasoned:

“Because the Amex decision retains its persuasive force, the Court applies the test adopted in Amex to determine the enforceability of the class waiver provision here at issue. In the totality of the circumstances, the Court finds that the class waiver provision is invalid because it prevents Sutherland from vindicating her statutory rights.

1. Cost to Individual Plaintiff Versus Potential Recovery

The record supports Sutherland’s argument that her maximum potential recovery would be too meager to justify the expenses required for the individual prosecution of her claim. Sutherland alleges “an actual overtime loss of approximately $1,867.02, with potentially liquidated damages of an equal amount under the FLSA.” (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 8; see also Sutherland Deck. ¶ 4.) If her only option were to prosecute her claim on an individual basis, Sutherland would be required to pay expenses that would dwarf her potential recovery. 

Sutherland’s uncontested submission estimates that her attorney’s fees during arbitration will exceed $160,000, and that costs will exceed $6,000. (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 20, 24.) Sutherland will utilize expert assistance in support of her claims.(Id. ¶ 22.) Her expert, a professor of accountancy, has submitted an affidavit stating that his fees may exceed $33,500, and that he requires a retainer payment of $25,000. (Carmichael Decl. ¶ 5.) In sum, Sutherland would be required to spend approximately $200,000 in order to recover double her overtime loss of approximately $1,867 .02. Only a “lunatic or a fanatic” would undertake such an endeavor. Carnegie v. Household Intern., Inc., 376 F.3d 656, 661 (7th Cir.2004). Indeed, rather than prosecuting her low-value, high-cost claim on an individual basis, Sutherland “would give up any rights” she might have to recover overtime payments allegedly owed to her. (Sutherland Decl.¶ 2.)

Pursuant to the E & Y Agreement, Sutherland is responsible for the Court Equivalent Fee, or a fee specified by the arbitration provider, whichever is less; arbitration fees and costs are to be shared equally between the parties. (Reece Decl. Exh. D¶ IV.P.) Sutherland has submitted an uncontested affidavit stating that arbitration fees would amount to $24,000, and that the applicable Court Equivalent Fee is $350. (Folkenflik Decl.¶ 24.) E & Y’s offer to pay such costs, which the Court has factored into Sutherland’s expenses as detailed above, thus lessens her burden by $12,350. Although this amount is not insignificant, it is hardly enough to allow Sutherland to bring her claims on an individual basis: she would still be required to spend approximately $200,000 on attorney’s fees and costs, as well as expert fees, in order to recover double her overtime loss of approximately $1,867.02.

E & Y’s attempt to distinguish the cost-recovery differential in Amex from the differential present here is unavailing. The “median plaintiff” in Amex would have recovered damages of $1,751, and the expert’s services would have cost at least several hundred thousand dollars. Amex, 554 F.3d at 317. According to E & Y, a “median plaintiff” in the instant matter could recover “substantially more,” and expert fees here amount to “a small fraction” of those at issue in Amex. (Def. Reply at 6-7.) The Amex decision did not, however, set a cost-to-recovery ratio below which claims are deemed “prosecutable.” The court instead embraced a functional approach, which “depends upon a showing that the size of the recovery received by any individual plaintiff will be too small to justify the expenditure of bringing an individual action.” Amex, 554 F.3d at 320. Sutherland has satisfied her burden on that score.

E & Y also cites to authorities in which the cost-recovery differential was held not to preclude the prosecution of claims on an individual basis. Such decisions are either inapposite or unpersuasive. In Pomposi v. GameStop, Inc., for instance, a class waiver was enforced where the amount in controversy was $11,000, and plaintiff’s total fees and costs ranged from $46,000 to $62,000.09 Civ. 0340, 2010 WL 147196, at *7 (D.Conn. Jan. 11, 2010). The court in Pomposi did not, however, meaningfully discuss plaintiff’s ability to retain counsel notwithstanding the differential between potential costs and recovery. E & Y cites Ornelas v. Sonic-Denver T, Inc., No. 06 Civ. 253, 2007 WL 274738 (D.Colo. Jan. 29, 2007), as standing for the proposition that “compelling arbitration would not preclude plaintiff from pursuing his claims where damages were at least $3500.” (Def. Mem. at 12.) But the plaintiff in Ornelas was allegedly entitled to (i) a trebling of the approximately $3500 in actual damages, and (ii) unspecified punitive damages and interest. Id. at *6. Moreover, the plaintiff in Ornelas apparently would not incur any expert witness fees. Id. at *7. Finally, E & Y offers Anglin v. Tower Loan of Miss., Inc., 635 F.Supp.2d 523 (S.D.Miss.2009) as precedent for “compelling arbitration where damages, attorney’s fees and punitive damages would result in [a] recovery of over $5,000.” (Def. Reply at 12.) The nub of Anglin, however, was that the plaintiff “made no effort” to demonstrate the prohibitive costs of individual arbitration. Anglin, 635 F.Supp.2d at 529. By contrast, Sutherland has “substantial[ly] demonstrat[ed]” that an inability to prosecute her claims on a class basis “would be tantamount to an inability to assert [her] claims at all.” Amex, 554 F.3d at 302-03 n.1.

2. Ability to Obtain Legal Representation

Even if Sutherland were willing to incur approximately $200,000 to recover a few thousand dollars, she would be unable to retain an attorney to prosecute her individual claim. This is due largely to the E & Y Agreement’s obstacles to reimbursement of fees and expenses. Whether attorney’s fees and expenses incurred during arbitration are compensable is subject to the discretion of the arbitrators. (Reece Decl. Exh. D ¶ IV.P.3.) The amount of such reimbursement is also left to the arbitrators’ discretion. (See id. (arbitrators may award attorney’s fees, “in whole or part, in accordance with applicable law or in the interest of justice”); 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (providing for the reimbursement of “reasonable” attorney’s fees).)

In light of the foregoing, Sutherland cannot reasonably be expected to retain an attorney to pursue her individual claim, and E & Y has not submitted an affidavit stating otherwise. Sutherland cannot afford to advance the fees and costs in order to hire an attorney on an hourly basis: she has remained unemployed since her termination from E & Y in December 2009; she has no savings, and owes $35,000 in student loans. (Sutherland Decl. ¶ 5.) Counsel for Sutherland will not prosecute her individual claim without charge, and will not advance the required costs where the E & Y Agreement’s fee-shifting provisions present little possibility of being made whole. (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 25.) As the uncontested affidavit of Sutherland’s counsel reflects, Sutherland would find no attorney willing to represent her under the circumstances. (Id. ¶ 27.) Cf. Kristian, 446 F.3d at 60 (“[I]t would not make economic sense for an individual to retain an attorney to handle one of these cases on an hourly basis and it is hard to see how any lawyer could advise a client to do so.”) (internal quotations omitted).

Sutherland’s only option in pursuing her individual claim is thus to retain an attorney on a contingent fee basis. But just as no rational person would expend hundreds of thousands of dollars to recover a few thousand dollars in damages, “no attorney (regardless of competence) would ever take such a case on a contingent fee basis .” Caban v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., 606 F.Supp.2d 1361, 1371 (S.D.Fla.2009); see also Folkenflik Decl.¶ 27. Cf. Kristian, 446 F.3d at 59 (“[I]t would not make economic sense for an attorney to agree to represent any of the plaintiffs in these cases in exchange for 33 1/3% or even a greater percentage of the individual’s recovery.”) (internal quotations omitted). E & Y has submitted no evidence that an attorney would expend approximately $200,000 in time and costs in return for a mere chance to earn potentially one-third of Sutherland’s less than $4,000 recovery.

If Sutherland could aggregate her claim with the claims of others similarly situated, however, she would have no difficulty in obtaining legal representation. (See Folkenflik Decl.¶ 25; see also Pl. Reply at 3.) This is because class proceedings “achieve economies of time, effort, and expense….” Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 616 (1997) (internal quotations omitted).

3. The Practical Effect of Waiver

Enforcement of the class waiver provision in this case would effectively ban all proceedings by Sutherland against E & Y. She will be unable to pursue her claims, even if they are meritorious. As a result, E & Y would enjoy de facto immunity from liability for alleged violations of the labor laws. The legislative purposes in enacting such laws-including, for example, combating “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living” FLSA § 2(a), 29 U.S.C. § 202(a), and assuring workers “additional pay to compensate them for the burden of a workweek beyond” 40 hours per week, In re Novartis Wage and Hour Litig. Litig. 611 F.3d 141, 150 (2d Cir.2010)-would go unfulfilled. “Corporations should not be permitted to use class action waivers as a means to exculpate themselves from liability for small-value claims.” Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1224 (11th Cir.2007).

4. Summary

Having examined the totality of the facts and circumstances, the Court finds that the class waiver provision here at issue is unenforceable because it prevents Sutherland from vindicating her statutory rights. See Amex, 554 F.3d at 302-03 n.1.

V. Future Proceedings

Although the class waiver provision is unenforceable, the Court cannot order E & Y to submit to class arbitration. After the offending provision is severed from the E & Y Agreement, (see Reece Decl. Exh. D ¶ V.F.), the Agreement is rendered silent as to whether class arbitration is permissible. In accordance with Stolt-Nielsen, class arbitration may not be imposed on parties whose arbitration agreements are silent on the permissibility of class proceedings. 130 S.Ct. at 1764, 1775. See also Fensterstock v. Educ. Fin. Partners, 611 F.3d 124, 140 (2d Cir.2010). The Court must accordingly deny E & Y’s motion to compel arbitration.”

It will be interesting to see whether courts in other circuits will follow this well-reasoned opinion.  This is an area of FLSA jurisprudence where there is a wide divergence of opinions.  The Eleventh Circuit for example has long-held that FLSA Collective Action rights can be waived by agreement.

Click Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP to read the entire opinion.

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

Vilches v. Travelers Companies, Inc.

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

Discussing the relevant procedural and factual background the court stated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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D.Mass.: Where Arbitration Agreement Silent On Class Action And Parties Did Not Stipulate That There Was ‘No Agreement’ Re: Class Action Arbitration, Arbitrator Properly Decided Class Claims Could Proceed

Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, Inc. v. Passow

This case is of interest, because it offers some incite into how courts and arbitrators will interpret the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Stolt-Nielsen.

This matter was before the court on Petitioner-Respondent’s (the employer or “S&W”) Motion to Vacate Arbitrator’s Clause Construction Award.  The Claimants in the underlying proceeding were four current and former employees.  The parties had a dispute resolution agreement (“DRA”), that provided for binding arbitration of claims between them arising out of the Claimants’ employment.  Pursuant to the DRA, the Claimants commenced an arbitration proceeding with the AAA.  In a document styled “Class Action Complaint,” they alleged that the Petitioner-Respondent had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq., the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151 §§ 1, 7, and the Massachusetts Tip Statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149 § 152A.

Petitioner-Respondent asserted that the case could not proceed as a class action, inasmuch as the DRA did not contemplate the arbitration of class or collective claims. On July 2, 2008, the Arbitrator issued a Partial Final Award on Arbitration Clause Construction (“Initial Clause Construction Award”), holding that the DRA permitted the claims to proceed in arbitration.  On April 27, 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States issued Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., —U.S. —-, —-, 130 S.Ct. 1758, 1766, 176 L.Ed.2d 605 (2010), which dealt with the arbitration of class claims.  Subsequently, the Arbitrator, at the request of the Petitioner-Respondent, reconsidered his Initial Clause Construction Award in light of Stolt-Nielsen. On July 28, 2010, the arbitrator issued a Memorandum and Order Regarding Reconsideration of the Arbitration Clause Construction (the “Revised Clause Construction Award”), in which he affirmed the Initial Clause Construction Award as consistent with Stolt-Nielsen . This Motion followed.

Holding that the Arbitrator properly ruled the case could proceed as a class/collective action, the court reasoned:

“S & W contends that Stolt-Nielsen prevents the claim from proceeding in arbitration. The Court disagrees. In Stolt-Nielsen, “the parties stipulated that there was ‘no agreement’ on the issue of class-action arbitration.” Id. at 1776 n. 10. Here, there was no such stipulation and, thus, the arbitrator was authorized “to decide what contractual basis may support a finding that the parties agreed to authorize class-action arbitration.” Id. The arbitrator ruled that the parties intended that class-action claims and relief were contemplated and permitted by the DRA and the Court concludes that the language of the DRA supports such a ruling.

The arbitrator found that the arbitration clause in the DRA was broad in its reach, covering “any claim that, in the absence of this Agreement, would be resolved in a court of law under applicable state and federal law.” The arbitrator noted that “any claim” is defined as “any claims for wages, compensation and benefits” and that both the FLSA and Massachusetts wage laws statutorily authorize an individual employee to bring a class-action in a court of law. The arbitrator further found that the DRA expressly provided that the “[a]rbitrator may award any remedy and relief as a court could award on the same claim,” that the applicable statutes provide for class relief and the statutes were in existence when the DRA was executed. The arbitrator also noted that “wage and hour claims like those in play here are frequently pursued as class or collective actions, and both the Claimants and S & W must be deemed to understand that.”

The arbitrator’s award was the result of a reasonable interpretation of the DRA. Given this Court’s limited standard of review, such interpretation must stand. See Eastern Associated Coal Corp. v. Mine Workers, 531 U.S. 57, 62, 121 S.Ct. 462, 148 L.Ed.2d 354 (2000) (“[C]ourts will set aside the arbitrator’s interpretation of what their agreement means only in rare instances.”); Paperworkers v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38, 108 S.Ct. 364, 98 L.Ed.2d 286 (1987) (“[A]s long as the arbitrator is even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority, that a court is convinced he committed serious error does not suffice to overturn his decision.”).

The Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, Inc.’s Motion To Vacate Arbitrator’s Clause Construction Award (Docket No. 2) is, hereby, DENIED.”

Click Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, Inc. v. Passow to read the entire decision.

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