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D.Idaho: Collective Action Waiver Unenforceable Under Section 7, Because It Would Prevent Employees “from Asserting a Substantive Right Critical to National Labor Policy”
Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc.
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the plaintiffs operative (second amended) complaint. Of significance, joining several recent courts, the court considered the effect of the NLRA’s Section 7, as it relates to a purported waiver of employees’ rights to proceed under the FLSA’s collective action mechanism. Reasoning that a waiver of the right to proceed as a collective action basis, “bars [plaintiff] from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy,” the court held that same was unenforceable.
Discussing prior precedent and explaining that same failed to consider the argument that the NLRA forbids such a waiver the court explained:
Several Circuits have cited the dicta in Gilmer to uphold waivers of the FLSA’s collective action rights—these Circuits hold that the waiver affects only the employee’s procedural right to bring a collective action, not his substantive right to seek recovery under the FLSA for himself, and thus the waiver is valid. Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1378 (11th Cir.2005); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Industries, Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 298 (5th Cir.2004); Adkins v. Labor Ready, Inc., 303 F.3d 496, 503 (4th Cir.2002). The Ninth Circuit has reached the same result but in an unpublished decision that cannot be cited for any purpose.
These cases did not address, however, the issue of whether a waiver of FLSA collective action rights violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 7 of the NLRA vests in employees the right “to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. The right to engage in concerted action for “mutual aid or protection” includes employees’ efforts to “improve terms and conditions of employment or otherwise improve their lot as employees through channels outside the immediate employee-employer relationship.” Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 565–566, 98 S.Ct. 2505, 57 L.Ed.2d 428 (1978). Those “channels’ include lawsuits. See Brady v. National Football League, 644 F.3d 661, 673 (8th Cir.2011) (holding that “a lawsuit filed in good faith by a group of employees to achieve more favorable terms or conditions of employment is ‘concerted activity’ under 29 U.S.C. § 157“).
The National Labor Relations Board has recently held that an employee’s lawsuit seeking a collective action under the FLSA is “concerted action” protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. In re D.R. Horton, Inc., 2012 WL 36274 (N.L.R.B. Jan.3, 2012). Although some Section 7 rights can be waived by a union acting on behalf of employees, see Metro. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 460 U.S. 693, 707–08, 103 S.Ct. 1467, 75 L.Ed.2d 387 (1983), it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995). That is precisely what Brown alleges happened here.
Under Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984), the Court must defer to the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA if its interpretation is rational and consistent with the Act. Local Joint Executive Bd. of Las Vegas v. NLRB, 657 F.3d 865, 870 (9th Cir.2011). The Board’s interpretation in Horton of Section 7 of the NLRA is rational and consistent with the Act: A collective action seeking recovery of wages for off-the-clock work falls easily within the language of Section 7 protecting “concerted action” brought for the “mutual aid and protection” of the employees.
Holding that it had the power to invalidate the waiver, and doing so, the court reasoned:
Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement waives Brown’s Section 7 rights to bring an FLSA collective action. As discussed, an arbitration agreement may, by the terms of the FAA, be declared unenforceable “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” See 9 U.S.C. § 2. Do legal grounds exist to revoke an agreement to waive Section 7 rights?
Section 7 rights are protected “not for their own sake but as an instrument of the national labor policy.” Emporium Capwell Co. v. W. Addition Cmty. Org., 420 U.S. 50, 62, 95 S.Ct. 977, 43 L.Ed.2d 12 (1975). Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement does more than merely waive Brown’s right to a procedural remedy; it bars her from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy. A contract that violates public policy must not be enforced. See United Paperworkers Int’l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 42, 108 S.Ct. 364, 98 L.Ed.2d 286 (1987) (citing the “general doctrine, rooted in the common law, that a court may refuse to enforce contracts that violate law or public policy”). Moreover, it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995).
For these reasons, the Court finds that under the FAA, there are legal grounds to revoke the arbitration agreement’s waiver of Brown’s right to bring a collective action under the FLSA and a class action under the IWCA. Accordingly, the Court will deny Citicorp’s motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss Brown’s claims.
Given the lack of clarity on this issue (see, e.g., here), and the fact that courts continue to come down on opposite sides of it, this issue is likely to end up at the Supreme Court at some point in the relatively near future. However, this case was certainly a win for employees in the ongoing battle. Stay tuned for further developments.
Click Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.