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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.
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.
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.
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.