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.