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U.S.S.C.: Arbitration Agreement “Silent” as to Class Actions Allows For Same
Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter
Although not an FLSA case, this case has far ranging effects throughout the litigation and arbitration worlds. The issue presented to the Court was whether an arbitrator exceeded his authority by rendering a clause construction of the parties’ arbitration agreement that permitted class arbitration, where the parties’ arbitration agreement was silent on its face as to the issue. The Court held that the arbitrator did not exceed his authority and, as the Third Circuit had prior, affirmed the District Court’s opinion upholding the arbitrator’s clause construction permitting class arbitration, because it was a well-reasoned opinion and the parties’ had explicitly asked the arbitrator to render a clause construction. In so doing, the Supreme Court distinguished this case from its prior case Stolt-Nielsen explaining that:
[ ] Oxford misreads Stolt-Nielsen: We overturned the arbitral decision there because it lacked any contractual basis for ordering class procedures, not because it lacked,in Oxford’s terminology, a “sufficient” one. The parties in Stolt-Nielsen had entered into an unusual stipulation that they had never reached an agreement on class arbitration. See 559 U. S., at 668–669, 673. In that circumstance, we noted, the panel’s decision was not—indeed, could not have been—”based on a determination regarding the parties’ intent.” Id.,at 673, n. 4; see id., at 676 (“Th[e] stipulation left no room for an inquiry regarding the parties’ intent”). Nor, we continued, did the panel attempt toascertain whether federal or state law established a “default rule” to take effect absent an agreement. Id., at 673. Instead, “the panel simply imposed its own conception of sound policy” when it ordered class proceedings. Id.,at 675. But “the task of an arbitrator,” we stated, “is to interpret and enforce a contract, not to make public policy.” Id.,at 672. In “impos[ing] its own policy choice,” the panel “thus exceeded its powers.” Id., at 677.
The contrast with this case is stark. In Stolt-Nielsen, the arbitrators did not construe the parties’ contract, and did not identify any agreement authorizing class proceedings. So in setting aside the arbitrators’ decision, we found not that they had misinterpreted the contract, but that they had abandoned their interpretive role. Here, the arbitrator did construe the contract (focusing, per usual, on its language), and did find an agreement to permit class arbitration. So to overturn his decision, we would have to rely on a finding that he misapprehended the parties’ intent. But §10(a)(4) bars that course: It permits courts to vacate an arbitral decision only when the arbitrator strayed from his delegated task of interpreting a contract, not when he performed that task poorly. Stolt-Nielsen and this case thus fall on opposite sides of the line that §10(a)(4) draws to delimit judicial review of arbitral decisions.
While the unanimous decision supports the idea that class arbitration is permissible where the parties’ agreement is silent on its face, as with its prior decisions on class arbitration issues, the decision also leaves many related issues unresolved.
Click Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter to read the Court’s opinion and Justice Alito’s concurring opinion.
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.
E.D.Pa.: Defendant’s Attempt to Obtain Class Waivers From Absent Class Members While Motion for Conditional Certification Pending Impermissible; Corrective Measures Ordered
Williams v. Securitas Sec. Services USA, Inc.
Before the court was the emergency motion of plaintiffs for a protective order and corrective mailing to address defendant’s improper communications with absent class members. While plaintiffs motion for conditional certification was pending before the court (but before it had been resolved), the defendant sought to obtain class waivers of the claims in the case from its current employees, by sending each an alternative dispute resolution agreement. The court held that such attempts by the defendant amounted to an obstruction of the court’s role in managing the collective action, granted plaintiffs motion and ordered related corrective action by defendant.
The motion alleged that defendant distributed to all its employees, including its Pennsylvania employees, a document entitled “Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. Dispute Resolution Agreement” (hereinafter “the Agreement”). The body of the Agreement consists of ten paragraphs on four type-written, single-spaced pages and is written in a small font. A fifth page provides a place for the employee to acknowledge receipt of the document. In relevant part:
“The Agreement purports to require all Securitas employees to submit “any dispute arising out of or related to Employee’s employment with [Securitas] … or termination of employment” to a binding arbitration conducted pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq. It states in small boldface letters that “this Agreement requires all such disputes to be resolved only by an arbitrator through final and binding arbitration and not by way of court or jury trial.” The Agreement specifies that any dispute arising from federal “wage-hour law” and the FLSA must be arbitrated. The Agreement states, again in small bold font, “there will be no right or authority for any dispute to be brought, heard or arbitrated as a class, collective or representative action (“Class Action Waiver”).”
Paragraph 7 of the Agreement says that although the Agreement is meant to apply “broadly,” if an employee is “a named party plaintiff, or ha[s] joined as a party plaintiff this Agreement shall not apply to those Actions, and you may continue to participate in them without regard to this Agreement,” but “shall apply to all Actions in which you are not a plaintiff or part of a certified class.” The Agreement then lists five representative or class action lawsuits in which Securitas is a named defendant, including this lawsuit, “Frankie Williams and Kimberly Ord, filed 12/10/2010, USDC, Eastern District of Pennsylvania Case No. 2:10–CV–07181–HB.” The term “Actions” is defined as “litigation on behalf of [Securitas] employees in which those employees desire to represent claims of other employees in class, collective or other representative actions.” Thus, the term “Actions” does not appear to be limited only to the five lawsuits enumerated later in paragraph 7. The nature of the Williams action is not explained.
The Agreement further states that if the employee would like to participate in one of the “Actions,” he or she “may opt out of this Agreement by following the procedure set forth in Section 9, below.” To opt out of the Agreement, the employee must call a toll-free telephone number within 30 days of the date the employee received the Agreement. According to the Agreement, “Should an Employee not opt out of this Agreement within 30 days of the Employee’s receipt of this Agreement, continuing the Employee’s employment constitutes mutual acceptance of the terms of this Agreement by the Employee and [Securitas].” The Agreement declares that not opting out means an employee forfeits the right to participate in any collective or representative action. Securitas adds that it will not retaliate against any employee for opting out of the Agreement or for asserting claims according to its terms.
The fifth page of the Agreement states as follows:
ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RECEIPT OF THE SECURITAS SECURITY SERVICES USA, INC. DISPUTE RESOLUTION AGREEMENT
BY SIGNING BELOW, I AM ACKNOWLEDGING RECEIPT OF THE SECURITAS SECURITY SERVICES USA, INC. DISPUTE RESOLUTION AGREEMENT, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY.
Below this text is a place for the employee to sign and date the Agreement. There is also a place for a witness to sign his or her name.”
The court rejected defendant’s attempts to stretch the holding of the Supreme Court’s recent holding in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, stating:
“Under Hoffman–La Roche, this court has a responsibility to prevent confusion and unfairness concerning this action in which plaintiffs seek to have the matter proceed as a collective action and to insure that all parties act fairly while the court decides whether and how this action will move forward under the FLSA. In the meantime, to prevent confusion and unfairness, we will order Securitas to rescind the Agreement with respect to its Pennsylvania employees as it relates to this litigation. We will require Securitas to set forth the nature of this action and advise its Pennsylvania employees that the Agreement is not binding with regard to those employees’ right to participate in this lawsuit, notwithstanding the fact that the employee may have signed the Agreement or failed timely to opt out.
Securitas contends that any interference by this court with its efforts to compel arbitration of disputes with its employees will be contrary to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, –––U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742 (2011). We disagree. In Concepcion, the Supreme Court held that, generally, states may not adopt rules of contract interpretation that undermine the “overarching purpose” of the FAA, which “is to ensure the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms so as to facilitate streamlined proceedings.” Id. at 1748. There, the Court considered California contract law, which deemed unconscionable certain contracts that disallowed class arbitration. The Court found the law impermissibly stood “as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the FAA’s objectives.”
Securitas’ reliance on Concepcion is inapposite because plaintiffs’ motion for a protective order does not rely on any state-law ground to invalidate the Agreement. Here the issue is quite different. This court has found the Agreement to be a confusing and unfair communication with the class of possible plaintiffs in this action under the FLSA.
Securitas argues that invalidating the Agreement merely because this class action lawsuits is pending is equivalent to preventing it from adopting any arbitration policy at all. Whatever right Securitas may have to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, its current effort, which specifically references this lawsuit, is confusing and misleading and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its employees to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this collective action under the FLSA. Since the Agreement by its terms will directly affect this lawsuit, this court has authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. Hoffman–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171–72. Securitas did not act fairly when it gave notice through the Agreement to potential class members concerning this lawsuit.
Defendant’s proposal to resolve the plaintiffs’ pending motion for conditional class certification before resolving issues related to the Agreement is insufficient to prevent potential plaintiffs from misapprehending their rights. The confusing nature of the Agreement may cause Securitas employees to misunderstand the nature of their rights to participate in this litigation while the court determines whether to conditionally certify a class, damage not easily undone. Similarly, Securitas’s proposal to allow its Pennsylvania employees a second 30–day opt out period if the court conditionally certifies a class is also insufficient because it is for the court, not Securitas, to determine the amount of time employees shall have to consider their right to join this action. Immediate action by this court is necessary.
Securitas shall be required to implement the corrective measures described in the accompanying order.”
In the accompanying Order, the court required that the defendant submit a proposed corrective notice to the plaintiffs within 48 hours which, among other things, stated the the dispute resolution agreement was not binding on with regard to participation in the case (i.e. they would not be precluded from joining this class if they signed the agreement at issue).
Click Williams v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and here to read the accompanying Order.