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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.
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.
Respondent-Employer Enjoined From Requiring Current Employee Putative Class Members From Waiving Right to Participate in Class/Collective Action, Once Putative Class/Collective Action Pending
Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp.
In this case, the claimant-employees had initially filed their case as a class/collective action in federal court. Pursuant to arbitration agreements that the plaintiffs had signed during their employment, the defendant successfully moved to compel the plaintiffs to pursue their claims in arbitration. Because the arbitration agreement at issue called for arbitration pursuant to the American Arbitration Association’s (AAA) rules governing arbitration, the plaintiffs successfully argued that a Rule 23 type opt-out mechanism rather than 216(b)’s opt-in governed as the appropriate class mechanism. Twelve (12) days after the arbitrator’s holding that an opt-out class procedure would govern, the defendant began requiring all current employees to sign a new arbitration clause, which if enforced, would have precluded the current employees from participating in the putative class action, yet to be certified. Arguing that the respondent-employer’s unilateral effort to defeat putative class members’ participation in the arbitration required thorough remedial measures, the claimant-employees moved for a protective order and temporary restraining order to:
(1) Enjoin any further dissemination of the letter to current employees with the class-waiver form; (2) Enjoin any effort by the respondent-employer or its counsel to chill participation in the case, including prohibiting any further unauthorized communication with any class members concerning joining the case, except as approved by the arbitrator; (3) Enjoin retaliation by [Waterstone] against any individual participating in the case; (4) Direct that [Waterstone] (in a form and manner supervised by the Arbitrator or on consent of claimants’ counsel) promptly notify all class members who received Exhibits A and B of the impropriety of [Waterstone’s] acts and the invalidity of the waivers it solicited; (5) Sanction [Waterstone] with monetary relief for its improper behavior [ ] so that [Waterstone] does not achieve any of the benefit of chilling individuals from participating in this case; (6) Reserve the opportunity for individuals to join the case post-judgment, should they opt-out now, given their employer’s clear statement of its desire that they not join this case; (7) Award Claimant’s costs and attorneys’ fees for the time spent on the motion; [and] (8) Award such further relief in the future, as may become necessary to remedy the ill effects of [Waterstone’s] improper behavior.
In opposition, the respondent-employer argued that the motion should be denied because: (1) the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction over the issue presented, because the parties had not agreed to arbitrate the issue of the permissibility of the subsequent class-waivers; (2) it was procedurally improper, because a class or collective action had yet to be certified; and (3) the employees had not demonstrated the requisite irreparable harm to warrant the relief sought.
Initially, the arbitrator rejected the respondent-employer’s jurisdictional argument:
It is true that a class has not yet been certified. Indeed, the clause-construction award that contemplates a class arbitration may itself be vacated by the District Court. However, even if the motion to certify a class should be denied, or if the Court should vacate the clause-construction award, the arbitration may continue as a collective proceeding (opt in) as a result of Judge Crabb’s direction that Herrington “must be allowed to join other employees to her case.” (D. Ct. Decn. at 18).
The arbitrator similarly rejected the argument that the relief sought was premature:
Whether a proceeding continues as a class procedure or a collective procedure, it must be protected from coercive or misleading communications that are designed to, or have the effect of, persuading or intimidating potential claimants to withhold their participations. The law realistically recognizes that such improper communications may be just as effective pre-certification as post-certification. Therefore, it is within the jurisdiction – indeed, it is the duty – of the judge or arbitrator before whom such a proceeding is pending to protect the integrity of the proceeding and to require that all information conveyed by the parties to potential class members about the proceeding be accurate, not coercive, and not misleading.
Waterstone’s argument that control over communications cannot arise until a class is certified is simply wrong. The power (jurisdiction) to control the parties’ communications to class members or putative class members can arise at least as early as when the initial pleading is filed. See, e.g. Hoffman-LaRoche at 487 (“[I]t lies within the discretion of a district court to begin its involvement early at the point of the initial notice.”).
The arbitrator added:
Waterstone’s contention that it has “has never consented to arbitrate its management decisions as to the nature and form of employment agreements with employees who are not parties to this case” (Jurisd. Memo at 1) assumes that this arbitration is about what kind of dispute resolution provision going forward Waterstone may provide in its form employment agreement. The assumption is false. Herrington brought this arbitration to recover past minimum wages and overtime compensation allegedly due to her and to her fellow employees. Jurisdiction over that claim was established with the filing of the demand for arbitration, and it is the duty of the arbitrator to preserve and protect the integrity of the proceedings with respect to that claim. The entire dispute that is subject to this arbitration is therefore to be resolved under the dispute resolution provisions of the pre-Amendment employment agreement that governs Herrington’s claims.
Instead, the arbitrator held that once the proceeding had commenced, the employer-respondent could not require the potential class members to waive their rights to participate in the case, as members of the class:
However, whatever may be the legality or enforceability of either Option A or Option B in future disputes that might arise between Waterstone and its mortgage-loan employees, those amendments can have no impact on this Herrington arbitration or on the employee class’s rights or choices in it. Once Herrington commenced her arbitration under the original arbitration clause in the employment agreement, Waterstone could not change the nature or course of this pending arbitration by requiring the putative claimants in this proceeding to agree to an entirely different dispute-resolution regime. This arbitration must, therefore, continue under the Agreement that governed when it was commenced, the Agreement that Waterstone, itself, argued successfully to the District Court requires Herrington’s dispute to be arbitrated.
Thus, the arbitrator granted the claimant-employees’ their requested relief.
Click Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp. to read the entire Decision and Order on Claimant’s Application for Protective Order, Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction.
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.