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11th Cir.: District Court Correctly Refused to Enforce Arbitration Agreement Obtained From Putative Class Members With Motion for Conditional Cert Pending
Employers seem to getting increasingly aggressive with class waivers, arbitration agreements in the wake of recent high court rulings which are seemingly boundless. In the wake of these recent decisions, some employers—who previously did not include waivers or arbitration agreements in their employment agreements—are seeking to play catch up. Troublingly, we seem to be seeing more and more situations where employers, facing the prospect of class/collective actions based on their often willful violations of wage and hour laws are attempting to force arbitration agreements on their employees in an effort to blunt efforts by their employees to recover their rightful wages. However, most courts faced with such situations have invalidated these improperly obtained arbitration clauses, recognizing that employers are in a position to exert undue pressure on employees fearful for their jobs, and that such arbitration “agreements” are frequently anything but an agreement between two parties consenting to arbitration of their own will.
In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit was called upon to review one such decision by a district court (first discussed here) that held such a forced arbitration clause to be invalid, and affirmed the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to enforce arbitration under the agreements at issue.
Laying out the salient facts of the case, the court explained:
To support its order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration, the district court made the following findings of fact:
Citi Trends devised and implemented a new alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—after it was served with the complaint in this action on February 27, 2012, and after the district court set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. Weeks after the district court’s May 31, 2012 scheduling order, Citi Trends began to roll out its new ADR policy. The ADR policy included a mandatory agreement to arbitrate all disputes individually rather than collectively.
By June 30, 2012, Citi Trends sent its human resource representatives to meet with store managers to roll out the new ADR policy—but only to putative collective action members (i.e., store managers). Throughout the summer, Citi Trends’s human resource representatives met individually with all store managers across the country. Citi Trends had two employees in each ADR meeting: a human resources representative and a “witness.”
The human resources representative who met with the store managers advised Citi Trends in its employment decisions. Thus, the store managers reasonably believed the human resources representative had authority to make or influence employment decisions, including hiring and firing decisions.
Store managers were ordered to attend the ADR meetings by their supervisors. Citi Trends did not inform the store managers of the true purpose of the mandatory meetings. Instead of telling the store managers that the meetings concerned the company’s new ADR policy, Citi Trends told the store managers that the mandatory meetings concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook.
Typically, Citi Trends rolled out its new employee handbook in a group setting. The handbook was generally provided in printed form (i.e., not as a photocopy), and the employees were required to sign for the handbook. Here, however, Citi Trends did not follow any of its general procedures for rolling out the employee handbook. Instead, Citi Trends (1) held two-on-one private meetings with each store manager in a small, back room in Citi Trends retail stores—the same places where the store interrogated or investigated its employees, (2) discussed only the ADR policy and the fill-in-the-blank declarations related to the store managers’ job duties, (3) provided photocopied versions of the employee handbooks as the store managers left the meetings, and (4) did not require the store managers to sign for the photocopied employee handbook.FN6 The district court found that this rushed and atypical rollout of the employee handbook demonstrated that Citi Trends’s handbook rollout was “pretext for presenting the [arbitration] Agreement to the [store managers] to derail their participation in this lawsuit.”
When a store manager arrived at the back-room meetings, a human resources representative greeted the store manager. A second individual was also at each meeting; however, this person was not introduced to, or known by, the store managers.
At the meetings, Citi Trends’s human resources representative gave the store managers these documents: the arbitration agreement, a fill-in-the-blank declaration, and the store manager disclosure. The store managers were asked to sign each of these documents at the meeting.
Citi Trends informed the store managers that the arbitration agreement was a condition of continued employment. The store managers understood that they would be fired if they did not assent to the arbitration agreement or the new ADR policy. Thus, the store managers lacked meaningful choice in whether to sign the arbitration agreements or other documents. The district court found the setting of the back-room meetings to be a “highly coercive” and “interrogation-like.”
Opt-in plaintiffs testified that they signed the documents but felt intimidated by the human resources representative. They also felt pressured to sign the arbitration agreements to avoid losing their jobs. Even when specifically requested, Citi Trends did not give the store managers copies of the documents that the store managers signed.
The district court found that Citi Trends did not conceive or begin to institute its ADR policy until after the district court held a scheduling conference to determine when and how Billingsley must move for conditional certification. Citi Trends then rolled out its ADR policy in a “blitzkrieg fashion” and only required potential members of this collective action to agree to the ADR policy. The district court found that Citi Trend’s “ADR roll-out was a hurried reaction specifically targeted at curtailing this litigation.”
The district court found that the “purpose and effect” of the arbitration agreement was “to protect Citi Trends in this lawsuit.” The district court also found that the timing of the arbitration agreement’s rollout “was calculated to reduce or eliminate the number of collective action opt-in Plaintiffs in this case” and the rollout was “replete with deceit” and “designed to be[ ] intimidating and coercive.”
After a discussion of the FLSA, its remedial purpose and the broad discretion afforded to courts in managing collective actions, the Eleventh Circuit held that that the district court properly exercised its broad discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, because such a denial was in line with the court’s responsibilities to manage communications between the parties and putative class members. Specifically, the court reasoned:
Given the “broad authority” that the district court has to manage parties and counsel in an FLSA collective action, the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Citi Trends’s conduct in the summer of 2012 undermined the court’s authority to manage the collective action. Nor did the district abuse its discretion in determining that—to correct the effect of Citi Trends’s misconduct—it would allow putative collective action members to join the lawsuit notwithstanding their coerced signing of the arbitration agreements.
Whatever right Citi Trends may have had to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, the district court found that its effort in the summer of 2012 was confusing, misleading, coercive, and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its store managers to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this FLSA collective action. Since the arbitration agreements by their terms will directly affect this lawsuit, the district court had authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171, 110 S.Ct. at 486–87; see also Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (class action).
The district court simply did what other district courts routinely do: exercise discretion to correct the effects of pre-certification communications with potential FLSA collective action members after misleading, coercive, or improper communications are made. See, e.g., Balasanyan v. Nordstrom, Inc., No. 11–CV2609–JM–WMC, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2, 4 (S.D.Cal. Mar.8, 2012) (refusing to enforce individual arbitration agreement in an FLSA action because the defendant’s imposition of the agreement was an improper class communication); Williams v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 10–7181, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12 (E.D.Pa. July 13, 2011) (invalidating arbitration agreement imposed on the defendant’s employees during pre-certification stage of FLSA litigation and ordering corrective measures because the arbitration agreement was a “confusing and unfair communication” with the potential opt-in plaintiffs); Ojeda–Sanchez v. Bland Farms, 600 F.Supp.2d 1373, 1379–81 (S.D.Ga.2009) (granting a limited protective order in FLSA collective action where the defendants engaged in unsupervised, unsolicited, in-person interviews of the plaintiffs in an environment that encouraged speedy and uninformed decision-making); Longcrier v. HL–A Co., 595 F.Supp.2d 1218, 1229–30 (S.D.Ala.2008) (striking declarations obtained through the defendants’ abusive and misleading communications with prospective opt-in plaintiffs); Jones v. Casey’s Gen. Stores, 517 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1086, 1089 (S.D.Iowa 2007) (limiting the plaintiffs’ counsel from affirmatively soliciting potential opt-in plaintiffs to join the FLSA action and requiring counsel to modify their website to provide “only a factual, accurate, and balanced outline of the proceedings”); Maddox v. Knowledge Learning Corp., 499 F.Supp.2d 1338, 1342–44 (N.D.Ga.2007) (observing that district courts in § 216(b) actions rely on broad case management discretion by limiting misleading, pre-certification communications and exercising that discretion in the case before the court by ordering the plaintiffs to correct false, unbalanced, and misleading statements on their website); Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 299 F.Supp.2d 664, 667–70 (E.D.Tex.2003) (sanctioning the employer and enjoining the employer from communicating ex parte with potential class action members because the employer intentionally attempted to subvert the district court’s role in the FLSA collective action by unilaterally sending a misleading and coercive letter to potential plaintiffs that encouraged those persons not to join).
District courts’ corrective actions have included refusal to enforce arbitration agreements instituted through improper means and where the timing of the execution of those agreements was similar to the post-filing, pre-certification timing in this case. See, e.g., Balasanyan, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2; Williams, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12; see also In re Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litig., 361 F.Supp.2d at 252–54 (imposing similar corrective action in Rule 23 class action).
The district court did not abuse its discretion in correcting the effects of Citi Trends’s improper behavior in this case. The district court held an initial hearing, after which it denied Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration. The court then reconsidered its order, held an additional two-day evidentiary hearing, made specific and detailed findings of fact that were supported by the record, and took minimal action to correct the effects of Citi Trends’s conduct.
The district court limited its order temporally and substantively. The district court limited its order to those agreements signed under the coercive conditions used by Citi Trends in the summer of 2012. And, the district court limited its order to this particular FLSA action. The court specifically said that it was not ruling on the enforceability of the arbitration agreements as they relate to other cases or controversies. The district did not restrict Citi Trends from entering into new arbitration agreements with the store managers; nor did the court prevent store managers from electing to comply with the terms of the arbitration agreements that they signed in the summer of 2012.
The district court’s limited remedial action is not an abuse of its considerable discretion to manage this collective action. Accord Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (holding that a district court’s power to manage a class action included the power to prohibit a defendant from making “unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class”). That is especially true given the opt-in nature of FLSA collective actions. Because FLSA plaintiffs must opt-in, unsupervised, unilateral communications with those potential plaintiffs can sabotage the goal of the FLSA’s informed consent requirement by planting the slightest seed of doubt or worry through the one-sided, unrebutted presentation of “facts.” Because the damage from misstatements could well be irreparable, the district court must be able to exercise its discretion to attempt to correct the effects of such actions. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170, 110 S.Ct. at 486 (noting that court intervention in the collective action notice process may be necessary).
Because we affirm the district court’s decision to deny enforceability of the arbitration agreements in this case, we necessarily must affirm the district court’s order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration.
Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
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.
D.Minn.: Where Agreement Silent As to Collective Action, Case May Proceed on Collective Basis in Arbitration
Mork v. Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc.
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration on an individual basis. While, the parties were in agreement that the case should be remanded to arbitration, the salient issue before the court was whether the arbitration agreement- silent on the issue of collective/class proceedings- allowed for collective treatment of the case. The court held that the parties had agreed to collective treatment of claims by the agreement’s silence. Thus, the case was remanded to arbitration, but to be treated as a collective action.
Initially the court held that, based on the absence of clear authority one way or another from the Supreme Court, the court had the authority to decide whether the case could proceed on a collective basis. Having made this decision, it proceeded into its analysis.
Discussing the standard it would apply, the court explained:
“The scope of an arbitration agreement is determined with reference to the agreement of the parties as evidenced by the terms of “the arbitration agreement itself or [based on] some background principle of contract law that would affect its interpretation.” See AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1750 (2011). The Court must “give effect to the contractual rights and expectations of the parties.” Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1774 (citation omitted); see Mitsubishi Motors Corp. v. Soler Chrysler–Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 626 (1985) (“as with any other contract, the parties’ intentions control”). Imposition of a particular type of arbitration cannot be based solely “on policy judgments.” Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. at 1750. Like any contract dispute, however, ambiguities in the agreement must be construed against the drafter. See, e.g., Advantage Consulting Group, Ltd. v. ADT Sec. Sys., Inc., 306 F.3d 582, 588 (8th Cir.2002).
In facing the question of whether to compel collective versus individual arbitration, the Court must therefore determine what the parties agreed to in the Arbitration Clause. A mere agreement to arbitrate, without more, does not imply agreement to collective arbitration. Cf. Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1775. This approach is consistent with Eighth Circuit precedent in the context of class arbitrations, Dominium Austin Partners, L.L.C. v. Emerson, 248 F.3d 720, 728–29 (8th Cir.2001), and consolidation of individual arbitrations, Baesler v. Cont’l Grain Co., 900 F.2d 1193, 1195 (8th Cir.1990). In Emerson and Baesler, the Eighth Circuit held that an arbitration agreement must provide for the type of arbitration which is sought to be compelled by the Court.
Loram urges a restrictive reading of Baesler, Emerson, and Stolt–Nielsen which would require explicit reference to, and acceptance of, collective arbitration in order for Mork’s claim to proceed on a collective basis. Those cases do not stand for such a strict standard. In Stolt–Nielsen, the Supreme Court’s statement that an intention to authorize class arbitration cannot be “infer[red] solely from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate,” Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1775 (emphasis added), indicates that such an intention may be inferred and need not be explicitly stated. The majority in Stolt–Nielsen therefore “[did] not insist on express consent to class arbitration.” Id. at 1783 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting). Accordingly, “Stolt–Nielsen does not foreclose the possibility that parties may reach an ‘implicit’—rather than express—‘agreement to authorize class-action arbitration.’ “ Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 646 F.3d 113, 123 (2d Cir.2011); see Jones v. St. Paul Cos ., Inc., 495 F.3d 888, 893 (8th Cir.2007) (“[F]ederal courts are bound by the Supreme Court’s considered dicta almost as firmly as by the Court’s outright holdings, particularly when … [the dicta] is of recent vintage and not enfeebled by any [later] statement.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
In sum, the question before the Court is not whether the Arbitration Clause used the precise words “collective arbitration.” Rather, the Court must determine whether the Arbitration Clause evinces sufficient indicia of agreement between the parties that a claim within its scope may proceed on a collective basis. In doing so, the Court must keep in mind that Loram drafted the language of the Arbitration Clause and, therefore, that ambiguities must be construed against it. Advantage Consulting, 306 F.3d at 588.
The Court notes that the test from Stolt–Nielsen stated here may be more stringent that the appropriate test for contracts of adhesion. See Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1783 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (“[T]he Court apparently spares from its affirmative-authorization requirement contracts of adhesion presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”). Because the Court concludes that the Arbitration Clause does affirmatively authorize collective arbitration, there is no need to address whether the CAA was a contract of adhesion and therefore subject to a less stringent standard. The Court notes, however, that the parties here, unlike those in Stolt–Nielsen, are not both “sophisticated business entities” with comparable bargaining power, see id. at 1775, and the CAA appears to have been a “take-it-or-leave-it” boilerplate contract.”
The court then applied its standard and held that the silence of the parties on the collective issue demonstrated the indicia that the parties agreed to collective arbitration:
“While the parties distinguish between “express” and “implied” agreement to collective arbitration, as discussed above, the relevant question is whether there exists sufficient indicia that the parties agreed to undertake collective arbitration in the event of an employment dispute. While the Arbitration Clause does not refer explicitly to collective claims, the Court concludes that it does authorize such claims to proceed before an arbitrator.
To begin, the Arbitration Clause applies to “claims or disputes of any nature arising out of or relating to the employment relationship” and “statutory claims … arising out of or resulting from [Mork’s] employment with Loram.” (CAA ¶ 8 (emphasis added).) Mork’s claim that he and similarly situated coworkers were deprived of overtime pay is undisputedly related to “the employment relationship” and his FLSA claim is “statutory.” An action arising from FLSA violations “may be maintained against any employer … in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). Thus, Mork has a statutory right to bring a FLSA claim on behalf of himself and similarly situated Field Application Technicians, and such a claim arises out of his employment relationship with Loram.
Loram contends that Mork’s ability to bring a claim on behalf of similarly situated employees is foreclosed because the Arbitration Clause’s references to potential arbitral parties include only Loram and Mork. For example, the Arbitration Clause provides that the arbitrator will have “exclusive authority to resolve any dispute or claim relating to, arising out of, or resulting from my employment with Loram” and the “statutory claims” covered by the Arbitration Clause are those “arising out of or resulting from my employment with Loram or the formation or the termination of my employment with Loram.” (CAA ¶ 8 (emphasis added).) These statements, Loram argues, show that the Arbitration Clause does not authorize collective arbitrations.
The Court is not persuaded that the Arbitration Clause’s particular reference to disputes between Mork and Loram must be read to preclude a collective claim. Mork’s FLSA claim is no less a claim “arising out of [his] employment with Loram” because it implicates similarly situated employees. The FLSA claim remains “his.” Viewed in even the most charitable light, Loram’s argument only creates some amount of ambiguity in the Arbitration Clause—ambiguity that must be resolved in Mork’s favor. Advantage Consulting, 306 F.3d at 588.
The conclusion that the Arbitration Clause permits collective arbitration is also supported by the contrast between its broad delegation of “any claims and disputes” to arbitration and its exclusion of only “claims or disputes [arising out of the CAA], or the breach, termination or invalidity thereof.” (CAA ¶ 8.) By negative implication, collective arbitration—a type of arbitration not expressly excluded—can be presumed to be covered by the wide ranging terms of the Arbitration Clause, particularly in light of the factors already discussed.
The Court further notes that the Arbitration Clause provides that arbitration be conducted in accordance with model rules provided by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) “in force at the time of the claim or dispute” and that the AAA “shall administer any such arbitration.” (CAA ¶ 8.) The AAA’s “Policy on Class Arbitrations” states that the AAA will “administer demands for class arbitration … if (1) the underlying agreement specifies that disputes arising out of the parties’ agreement shall be resolved by arbitration in accordance with any of the Association’s rules, and (2) the agreement is silent with respect to class claims, consolidation or joinder of claims.” See American Arbitration Association, Policy on Class Arbitrations, July 14, 2005, available at http://www.adr.org/sp.asp?id=25967. Even as interpreted by Loram, the Arbitration Clause in this case satisfies both criteria.
While this AAA policy was promulgated after the execution of the Arbitration Clause, the parties here agreed to be bound by the AAA rules in force “at the time of the claim or dispute.” (CAA ¶ 8.) The parties thus intended to be bound by future iterations of those rules. Loram’s decision to follow and abide by AAA rules therefore lends further support to the Court’s conclusion that the Arbitration Clause authorizes collective arbitration.
It is important to note that Mork has not moved the Court to consolidate otherwise independent actions into a single proceeding as was the case in Baesler, 900 F.3d at 1194–95. Rather, Mork seeks to proceed with a single, statutorily prescribed collective claim. Consolidation is a method by which a Court may efficiently resolve otherwise legally independent claims which happen to share a common question of law or fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a). A FLSA collective action, in contrast, is a mechanism in which one claim can vindicate the rights of many. If Mork were seeking consolidated treatment of independent claims brought by employees, the Court would hesitate in considering those claims as “arising out of or resulting from [Mork’s] employment with Loram.” (See CAA ¶ 8.)
The Court also notes that some of the concerns raised by the Supreme Court about class arbitration are not present in the sort of collective arbitration sought by Mork. For one, a FLSA collective action is unlike a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because similarly situated employees must always “opt-in” to a FLSA action. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Worries about an arbitrator “adjudicat[ing] the rights of absent parties” without affording them the full panoply of protections provided in court are therefore greatly diminished. See Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1776.
Finally, while fully cognizant that policy judgments may not be dispositive in this legal analysis, see Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. at 1750, the Court would be remiss if it did not briefly address the consequences of adopting a rule that an arbitration agreement cannot allow for collective or class arbitration except where the agreement explicitly uses and ratifies those precise terms. Such a rule would lead to great uncertainty, calling into question the countless arbitration agreements that have been executed in the shadow of a less stringent rule. Moreover, the adoption of such a rule would likely prevent the vindication of workers’ basic rights under the FLSA. See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547, 553–54 (S.D.N.Y.2011).”
Click Mork v. Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum of Law and Order.
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.
M.D.Tenn.: Contractual Limitation of FLSA Claims to One Year SOL Unenforceable; Provision Severed and Arb Agreement Enforced
Pruiett v. West End Restaurants, LLC
Before the court in this putative collective action were the defendants’ motion to dismiss and remand the case to arbitration, as well as plaintiffs’ motion to conditionally certify the case as a collective action. As discussed here, the court held that the provision within the arbitration agreement purporting to reduce the applicable statute of limitations to one year (from either two or three years) was unenforceable. However, because the court further held that the unenforceable provision was severable, it severed the statute of limitations provision and otherwise held the arbitration agreement to be enforceable. Thus, it remanded the case to arbitration after striking the unenforceable provision.
After reviewing a history of applicable case law and determining that the enforceability of the provision in question was an issue of first impression, the court reasoned that allowing an employer to contractually shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims would unduly abridge the statutory rights granted under the FLSA. The court explained:
“The FLSA requires employers to pay their employees a statutory minimum wage and to pay overtime compensation at a rate not less than one and one-half times the employees’ regular rate of pay. 29 U.S.C. §§ 206 and 207 (2011). An employer who fails to comply with these provisions is liable for the unlawfully withheld compensation, as well as an additional equal amount of liquidated damages. Id. at § 216(b). These damages, including liquidated damages, are compensatory. Elwell v. Univ. Hosp. Home Care Servs., 276 F.3d 832, 840 (6th Cir.2002).
A plaintiff seeking to recover under the FLSA must file the claim within two years of accrual of the cause of action, or within three years of accrual for a willful violation. 29 U.S.C. § 255(a) (2011). Each paycheck that fails to include required wages constitutes a separate statutory violation. See Archer v. Sullivan Cnty., Nos. 95–5214, 95–5215, 129 F.3d 1263, 1997 WL 720406, at *2 (6th Cir.1997). The plaintiff may recover compensatory damages under § 216(b) as far back as the statute of limitations will reach—that is, the plaintiff may recover up to two years of compensatory damages if the violation was not willful, and up to three years of compensatory damages if the violation was willful, dating back from the date of the complaint. See, e.g., Campbell v. Kelly, No. 3:09–cv–435, 2011 WL 3862019, at *10 (S.D.Ohio Aug.31, 2011) (finding that, where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on November 16, 2009, the plaintiff could seek relief dating back to November 17, 2007 for a non-willful violation, or back to November 17, 2006 for a willful violation); Sisk v. Sara Lee Corp., 590 F.Supp.2d 1001, 1004 (W.D.Tenn.2008) (finding that where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on May 7, 2007, the “relevant time period” for willful violations began on May 7, 2004); Herman v. Palo Grp. Foster Home, Inc., 976 F.Supp. 696, 700, 705–06 (W.D.Mich.1997) (finding that defendant willfully violated FLSA and awarding back wages and liquidated damages for period of three years prior to filing of complaint), aff’d, 183 F.3d 468 (6th Cir.1999) (upholding damages award). Thus, under the FLSA, a plaintiff’s substantive right to full compensation is determined by the statute of limitations. As a consequence, unlike the federal statutory claims at issue in Morrison, Daimler–Chrysler, and Ray, shortening the statute of limitations for an FLSA claim necessarily precludes a successful plaintiff from receiving full compensatory recovery under the statute.
Indeed, BrickTop’s does not dispute that enforcing the contractual limitations provision would limit the Plaintiffs to one year of compensatory damages recovery, even though the FLSA entitles Plaintiffs to more. Thus, Defendants concede that the provision prevents plaintiffs from recovering the “full panoply” of compensatory remedies to which the FLSA entitles them. That is not a permissible result. Plaintiffs’ substantive right to full compensation under the FLSA may not be bargained away. Accordingly, the contractual limitations provision is unenforceable as to FLSA claims.
In reaching this holding, the court has undertaken the necessary statute-specific analysis that neither the Boaz court nor the Wineman court conducted. In Wineman, which was issued before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Penn Plaza limited Barrentine to its facts, the district court found that a six-month contractual limitations provision in an employment agreement was not enforceable as to FLSA claims. Wineman, 352 F.Supp.2d at 821–23. The defendant had argued, as BrickTop’s does here, that waiver of the FLSA statute of limitations constituted waiver of a procedural right, not a substantive right. Id. at 922. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that, “in light of the public policy implications, … that is a distinction without a difference.” Id. In support of this reasoning, the court relied on Barrentine for the proposition that even FLSA procedural rights, including the right to the judicial forum, could not be abridged, compromised, or waived by private agreement. Id. at 823. Thus, the court characterized the shortened limitations period as “a compromise of employees’ rights under the FLSA” in violation of public policy. Id. at 822–23. It did not analyze whether the shortened statute of limitations affected FLSA remedies, likely based on its assumption that Barrentine rendered that inquiry irrelevant.
In Boaz, the district court enforced a six-month contractual limitation on FLSA claims, but, like Wineman, did not analyze whether that limitation affected FLSA remedies. In Boaz, the plaintiff had asserted claims under Title VII for race and gender discrimination, as well as FLSA claims for pay discrimination and failure to pay overtime compensation. Id. at 932. At the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff, relying on Wineman, contended that her FLSA claims were not time-barred by a six-month limitations provision in her employment agreement. The court declined to follow Wineman, reasoning that the subsequent Penn Plaza decision limited Barrentine to its facts, and found that federal statutory procedural rights may be abridged. Id. The court observed that several courts had found that limitations provisions were enforceable as to other federal statutes, including discrimination claims under § 1981, ERISA claims, and FMLA claims. Id. at 933. It is also noted that, as a general matter, statutes of limitations are procedural, not substantive. Id. However, without any analysis specific to the FLSA, the court summarily concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations is procedural and, therefore, waivable.
Thus, although Boaz and Wineman reached differing conclusions about the enforceability of a contractual limitation on FLSA claims, neither reached the crucial inquiry presented here. In particular, the reasoning in Boaz is flawed for two reasons. First, the Boaz court misinterpreted Penn Plaza, which merely held that statutory claims may be arbitrated, but did not address whether the statute of limitations for any federal statute—let alone the FLSA—constituted a waivable right. Second, the court should not have concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations was purely “procedural” without assessing whether enforcing a shortened limitation on FLSA claims prevented successful plaintiffs from vindicating their substantive right to full compensation.”
Click Pruiett v. West End Restaurants, LLC to read the entire Memorandum and Order.
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.N.Y.: Where Agreement to Arbitrate Is Silent As To Class Arbitration, Arbitrator Not Court to Decide Class Arbitrability Issue
Guida v. Home Savings of America, Inc.
Plaintiffs brought this putative class action on behalf of themselves, and on behalf of individuals similarly situated, against Defendants, asserting claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et. seq., and related New York state wage and labor laws. Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ complaint, and compel arbitration on an individual basis pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 et. seq. While Plaintiffs agreed to arbitrate the dispute, they argued that the arbitrator should decide whether the arbitration can proceed on a class basis, because the arbitration agreement was silent on the issue of class arbitration. The court agreed and held that while the parties were required to arbitrate the dispute, the determination of whether or not the arbitration should proceed on a class basis is for the arbitrator to make in the first instance.
Discussing the relevant provisions of the agreement(s) to arbitrate, the court explained:
“The terms of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreement are identical for all of the plaintiffs. The following are relevant portions from the Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreements:
I understand that Home Savings of America makes available arbitration for resolution of employment disputes that are not otherwise resolved by internal policies or procedures.
I agree that if I am unable to resolve any dispute through the internal policies and procedures of Home Savings … I will arbitrate … any legal claim that I might have against Home Savings … or its employees, in connection with my employment or termination of employment … whether arising out of issues or matters occurring before the date of this Agreement or after such date.
I agree to abide by and accept the final decisions of the arbitration panel as ultimate resolution of any disputes or issues for any and all events that arise out of employment or termination of employment.
I agree that the Employee Dispute Resolution Rules of the American Arbitration Association will apply to any resolution of any such matters. In exchange for the benefits of arbitration, I agree that the arbitrator will only have the power to grant those remedies available in court, under applicable law.”
In light of the silence as to class arbitration, the court held that the issue was one for the arbitrator, not the court to decide. The court reasoned that Supreme Court jurisprudence supported this holding, because the issue was one of substantive interpretation of the contract language and not merely a procedural issue:
“This Court concludes, in light of StoltNielsen and Bazzle, that the ability of a class to arbitrate a dispute where the parties contest whether the agreement to arbitrate is silent or ambiguous on the issue is a procedural question that is for the arbitrator to decide. Even though Bazzle does not have the full weight of Supreme Court precedent, it is nevertheless instructive. See, e.g., Barbour v. Haley, 471 F.3d 1222, 1229 (11 th Cir.2006) (“Plurality opinions are not binding on this court; however, they are persuasive authority.”); Galli v. N.J. Meadowlands Comm’n, 490 F.3d 265, 274 (3d Cir.2007) (concluding that dicta in Supreme Court opinions has persuasive value). The Second Circuit found Bazzle persuasive, as have other courts prior to Stolt–Nielsen. See Vaughn v. Leeds, Morelli & Brown, P.C., 315 F. App’x 327, 329 (2d Cir.2009) (concluding that the district court “properly compelled arbitration on the question of the arbitrability of class claims under the Settlement Agreement[,]” citing Bazzle and Howsam); JSC Surgutneftegaz v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, 04 Civ. 6069(RMB), 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79161, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 11, 2007) (citing Bazzle for the proposition that “arbitrators are well situated to answer the question whether contracts forbid[ ] class arbitration” (quotation marks omitted)); Scout. com, LLC v. Bucknuts, LLC, No. C07–1444 RSM, 2007 WL 4143229, at *5 (W.D.Wa. Nov.16, 2007) (concluding that, in light of Bazzle, it was for the arbitrator to decide the procedural question of whether the plaintiffs can arbitrate as a class (collecting cases)). Furthermore, many courts since Stolt–Nielsen have continued to follow Bazzle’s conclusion that the ability to arbitrate on a class basis is a procedural question left for the arbitrator to decide. This Court finds the Third Circuit’s opinion in Vilches v. The Travelers Companies, Incorporated, No. 10–2888, 2011 U.S.App. LEXIS 2551 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2011), particularly instructive. In Vilches, the Third Circuit reconciled Bazzle and StoltNielsen as follows:
Although contractual silence [on the issue of arbitration on a class basis] has often been treated by arbitrators as authorizing class arbitration, Stolt–Nielsen suggests a return to the pre-Bazzle line of reasoning on contractual silence, albeit decided by an arbitrator, because it focuses on what the parties agreed to—expressly or by implication.
Id. at *12–13 n. 3. The Third Circuit concluded that the ability of the plaintiffs to proceed on a class basis in arbitration was essentially a question of “what kind of arbitration proceeding the parties agreed to [,]” id. at *10 (emphasis in original) (citing Bazzle), and went on to conclude that “[w]here 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.” Id. at *11 (quotation marks omitted) (citing StoltNielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1771–72, describing the plurality opinion in Bazzle). In Vilches, the agreement in question “did not expressly reference class or collective arbitration or any waiver of the same.” Id. at *3. The parties debated whether a revised arbitration policy including a class arbitration waiver applied to plaintiffs but agreed that plaintiffs’ causes of action alleged in the complaint otherwise fell under the purview of the arbitration agreement. Id. at *3–6, *9–10. The court in Vilches referred the “questions of whether class arbitration was agreed upon to the arbitrator.” Id. This Court similarly concludes that Stolt–Nielsen and Bazzle are reconcilable and that arbitrating on a class basis is a procedural question that is for the arbitrators to decide in accordance with the Supreme Court’s analysis in Stolt–Nielsen, which provides a framework for the arbitrator’s analysis of the issue.
Nor is Vilches alone in its conclusion. There are a number of cases in addition to Vilches in which courts have concluded, subsequent to Stolt–Nielsen, that the ability of plaintiffs to arbitrate on a class basis is an issue to be determined by the arbitrator. See, e.g., Aracri v. Dillard’s Inc., No. 1:10cv253, 2011 WL 1388613, at * 4 (S.D.Ohio Mar.29, 2011) (concluding that “it is not for this Court, but for an arbitrator to decide whether class arbitration is forbidden under the Arbitration Agreement and Dillard’s Rules of Arbitration” where the arbitration agreement did not explicitly mention class arbitration but the parties contested whether Dillard’s Rules, to which all arbitration claims were subject, provided for class arbitration); Smith v. The Cheesecake Factory Restaurants, Inc., No. 3:06–00829, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121930, at *7 (M.D.Tenn. Nov. 16, 2010) (concluding that “whether the parties agreed to class arbitration is to be resolved by the arbitrator[,]” citing Stolt–Nielsen and Bazzle); Fisher v. General Steel Domestic Sales, LLC, No. 10–cv–1509–WYD–BNB, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108223, at *6–7 (D.Col. Sept. 22, 2010) (where parties agreed that plaintiffs’ claims were subject to arbitration but were contesting whether the agreement in question permitted class arbitration, “based on the plain language of Stolt–Nielsen, it is clear that an arbitrator may, as a threshold matter, appropriately determine whether the applicable arbitration clause permits the arbitration to proceed on behalf of or against a class” (quotation marks omitted)). See also Clark v. Goldline Int’l, Inc., No. 6:10–cv–01884 (JMC), 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126192, at *21–22 (D.S.C. Nov. 30, 2010) (“[T]he court notes that whether a class is appropriately certified in this case or otherwise is yet to be determined. Second, whether the Account Agreement precludes any putative classmember from bringing a claim has no bearing on the validity or enforceability of the arbitration provisions. Such issues raised by Plaintiffs must be determined by an arbitrator, not this court.” (citing Bazzle)). But see Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., No. 10 Civ. 6950(LBS)(JCF), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46994, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 28, 2011) (concluding that the ability to arbitrate on a class basis requires a “determination of the scope and enforceability of the arbitration clause, and therefore the issue is appropriately characterized as a dispute over arbitrability[,]” further noting that this question “fits into the narrow circumstances where contracting parties would likely have expected a court to have decided the gateway matter[,]” relying on Stolt–Nielsen’s emphasis that Bazzle was solely a plurality opinion).”
Interestingly, the court also addressed and rejected Defendants’ argument that the Supreme Court’s recent holding in AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion stood for the proposition that the issue of whether or not to arbitrate on a class basis is not a procedural issue, which would have allowed the court to decide the issue.
Click Guida v. Home Savings of America, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.
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).
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.