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11th Cir.: Arbitration Clause Requiring Fee/Cost Splitting Violates the FLSA

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Andrew Frisch

Hudson v. P.I.P., Inc.

This case was before the Eleventh Circuit on the defendant-employer’s appeal of the district court’s denial of its motion to compel arbitration. Specifically, the district court held that the parties’ agreement to arbitrate was unenforceable because the arbitration clause required each party to bear its own attorneys’ fees and costs. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part, so that the district court could decide whether the offending provision could be severed, which the lower court had already held it could not.

Describing the relevant arbitration clauses at issue, the court explained:

Those arbitration clauses provide:Any dispute arising out of this agreement shall be resolved by mediation or arbitration, each party agrees, the parties will equally divide cost of mediation. Each party to any arbitration will pay its own fees and expense, including attorney fees and will share other fees of arbitration. The arbitrat[or] may conduct the hearing in absence of either party. After notified of such hearing. [sic](Emphasis added).

In his R&R, the magistrate judge determined the language of the arbitration provisions plainly prohibited Appellees from recovering their fees and costs, and thus the fees and costs clauses were unenforceable as they contravened the FLSA. The magistrate judge went on to note the arbitration provisions did not contain severability clauses, and that in the absence of a severability clause, the objectionable language could not be severed. Accordingly, the magistrate judge determined the arbitration provisions were unenforceable in their entirety. PIP filed objections to the R&R, arguing the fees and costs clauses merely required the parties to “pay their own way” while the arbitration is proceeding, and that nothing in the ECAs prohibited the arbitrator from shifting the fee if and when the Appellees were determined to be prevailing parties. And, even if the fees and costs clauses were unenforceable, the magistrate judge erred in concluding the “objectionable language could not be severed solely because the arbitration clauses do not contain a severability provision.” PIP asserted that Eleventh Circuit case law does not hold that any arbitration agreement that contains an unenforceable remedial restriction is completely null and void in the absence of a severability clause. Instead, the court is required to determine whether the unenforceable clauses are severable, which is decided as a matter of state law, here the law of Florida. PIP claimed Florida law allowed an unenforceable clause to be severed as long as the unenforceable clause does not go to the essence of the agreement. Thus, PIP asserted, even if the court were to sever the offending clause, there would still be a valid agreement to resolve employment-related disputes through arbitration.The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s R&R and denied PIP’s motion to compel arbitration after concluding the arbitration provisions in the relevant contracts were unenforceable because they denied the Appellees a substantive right under the FLSA—the right to recover fees and costs pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Furthermore, the court concluded that because the arbitration provisions did not provide for severability, the arbitration provisions were unenforceable in their entirety.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that the fee/cost splitting provision violated the FLSA. However, it remanded for further decision on whether the offending provision could be severed notwithstanding the absence of a severability clause.

Holding the fee/costs splitting provision to be unenforceable, the court explained:

Appellees contend the arbitration provisions improperly deny them their statutory right to recover fees and costs under the FLSA.The district court did not err in concluding that the statement “[e]ach party to any arbitration will pay its own fees and expense, including attorney fees and will share other fees of arbitration,” does not leave any discretion with the arbitrator to award fees and costs. (Emphasis added). We have held the terms of an arbitration clause regarding remedies must be “fully consistent with the purposes underlying any statutory claims subject to arbitration.” Paladino v. Avnet Comput. Techs., Inc., 134 F.3d 1054, 1059 (11th Cir. 1998). Thus, the clause providing that each party will pay its own fees and costs is unenforceable, as the FLSA allows fees and costs as part of a plaintiff’s award. Id. at 1062 (“When an arbitration clause has provisions that defeat the remedial purpose of the statute, … the arbitration clause is not enforceable.”); 29 U.S.C. § 216(b)… Appellees have met their burden of establishing that enforcement of the fees and costs clauses in the arbitration provisions would preclude them from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights in the arbitral forum. See id. at 1259. Thus, the district court did not err in concluding the fees and costs clauses are unenforceable.

However, the Court rejected the portion of the district court’s opinion which had held–consistent with Florida law–that the absence of a severability clause rendered the arbitration cause unenforceable in its entirety. As such, it reversed and remanded this issue for further consideration, reasoning:

The district court then reasoned that if the arbitration provisions contained a severability clause, the offending clauses could potentially be severed. Because the ECAs did not contain a severability provision, the court stated the objectionable language could not be severed and determined the arbitration clauses were unenforceable in their entirety.However, we have rejected the proposition that an “arbitration agreement that contains an unenforceable remedial restriction is completely null and void unless it also contains a severability clause.” Terminix Int’l Co., LP v. Palmer Ranch Ltd. P’ship, 432 F.3d 1327, 1331 (11th Cir. 2005). Instead, if a provision is “not enforceable, then the court must determine whether the unenforceable provisions are severable. Severability is decided as a matter of state law.” Id.Our law does not support that an arbitration provision is unenforceable in its entirety if it contains an offending clause and lacks a severability provision. Id. The district court did not go on to the next step to address whether the unenforceable clauses were severable as a matter of Florida law, despite PIP arguing this issue in its objections to the R&R. Thus, we remand to the district court to decide in the first instance the issue of whether the offending clauses are severable under Florida law.

Thus, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion the fees and costs clauses of the arbitration provisions were unenforceable, but reversed the district court’s conclusion the arbitration provisions are unenforceable in their entirety solely because they lack a severability provision, and remanded for the district court to determine whether the fees and costs clauses are severable as a matter of Florida law.

Click Hudson v. P.I.P., Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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