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6th Cir.: Collective Action Waivers in Employees’ Separation Agreements Did Not Validly Waive Employees’ Rights to Participate in Collective Action Under FLSA, Absent Valid Arbitration Provision
Although this one is not exactly breaking news, we are discussing it because of its importance in the general landscape of FLSA jurisprudence. As discussed here, this case was before the Sixth Circuit on Plaintiffs’ appeal, regarding an issue of first impression. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit was asked to decide whether an agreement by employees to waive their rights to participate in a collective action under the FLSA can be enforceable in the absence of an agreement to arbitrate their FLSA claims. Reversing the district court, the Sixth Circuit held that such agreements are unenforceable, absent an agreement to arbitrate the claims in an alternative forum, because in such a situation there is no congressional interest that weighs against the remedial goals of the FLSA.
In this case, former employees of the Defendant brought putative collective action against their former employer to recover overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The district court determined that collective-action waiver in certain employees’ separation agreements was enforceable, despite the fact that the separation agreements contained no agreement to arbitrate their FLSA claims. The employees appealed, and the Sixth Circuit reversed.
Framing the parties’ respective positions, the Sixth Circuit explained:
This brings us to the merits regarding the validity of the unmodified collective-action waivers. The plaintiffs argue that this court’s decision in Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services, Inc., 725 F.3d 603 (6th Cir.2013), controls because it holds that an employee will not be bound by a contract entered into with his employer that has the effect of limiting his rights under the FLSA. In response, KeHE argues that cases upholding agreements that require employees to submit to arbitration on an individual basis are more on point. No court of appeals appears to have squarely addressed this issue outside of the arbitration context.
Given its recent related decision in Boaz, the Sixth Circuit began by discussing that case’s implications on the issue presented in this case:
This court’s decision in Boaz provides the relevant framework for the issue before us. In Boaz, the plaintiff-employee signed an employment agreement that contained a provision requiring her to bring any legal action against the defendant-employer within “6 months from the date of the event forming the basis of [the] lawsuit.” Id. at 605. When the plaintiff filed an FLSA lawsuit after the six-month time period had elapsed, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that her claims were untimely under the employment agreement.
This court disagreed. It first noted that “[s]hortly after the FLSA was enacted, the Supreme Court expressed concern that an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights … to minimum wages, overtime, or liquidated damages.” Id. at 605–06. The Boaz court concluded that because the waiver of the statutory-limitations period would have deprived the plaintiff of her FLSA rights, the provision was invalid. Id. at 606. It also rejected the defendant’s argument that a plaintiff may waive procedural rights under the FLSA, just not substantive ones. Id. Finally, the court distinguished cases enforcing an employee’s agreement to arbitrate his or her claims on an individual basis due to the strong federal presumption in favor of arbitration. Id. at 606–07 (distinguishing Floss v. Ryan’s Family Steak Houses Inc., 211 F.3d 306 (6th Cir.2000), on that basis).
Following its own reasoning from the Boaz decision, the Sixth Circuit concluded that normally a plaintiff’s right to participate in a collective action under 29 U.S.C. 216(b) cannot be waived:
Boaz therefore implies that a plaintiff’s right to participate in a collective action cannot normally be waived. The court clearly said that “[a]n employment agreement cannot be utilized to deprive employees of their statutory [FLSA] rights.” Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). And “Congress has stated its policy that ADEA plaintiffs [and thus FLSA plaintiffs because the statutory language is identical] should have the opportunity to proceed collectively.” Hoffmann–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). We have little reason to think that the right to participate in a collective action should be treated any differently than the right to sue within the full time period allowed by the FLSA. The concern, Boaz explained, is that “an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights under the Act.” 725 F.3d at 605.
Conscious of the body of law that has permitted collective action waivers when they are contained in agreements containing arbitration clauses, the court was careful to distinguish such cases:
We are aware, of course, that the considerations change when an arbitration clause is involved. Boaz explained that “an employee can waive his right to a judicial forum only if the alternative forum allow[s] for the effective vindication of [the employee’s] claim.” Id. at 606–07 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Arbitration, it noted, is such a forum. Id. at 606. But this line of precedents is of only minimal relevance here because the plaintiffs’ collective-action waivers in this case contained no arbitration clause. And, in any event, none of our precedents permitting arbitration of FLSA claims has addressed employees’ collective-action rights.
KeHE nonetheless points to cases from other circuits enforcing agreements to arbitrate FLSA claims on an individual basis. As KeHE notes, the Eleventh Circuit recently addressed the jurisprudence of the courts of appeals on collective-action waivers in the arbitration context in Walthour v. Chipio Windshield Repair, LLC, 745 F.3d 1326 (11th Cir.2014). It determined that
all of the circuits to address this issue have concluded that § 16(b) does not provide for a non-waivable, substantive right to bring a collective action. See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290, 296–97 & n. 6 (2d Cir.2013) (determining that the FLSA does not contain a “contrary congressional command” that prevents an employee from waiving his or her ability to proceed collectively and that the FLSA collective action right is a waivable procedural mechanism); Owen [v. Bristol Care, Inc.], 702 F.3d [1050,] 1052–53 [ (8th Cir.2013) ] (determining that the FLSA did not set forth a “contrary congressional command” showing “that a right to engage in class actions overrides the mandate of the FAA in favor of arbitration”); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Indus., Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 298 (5th Cir.2004) (rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim that their inability to proceed collectively deprived them of a substantive right to proceed under the FLSA because, in Gilmer [v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 111 S.Ct. 1647, 114 L.Ed.2d 26 (1991) ], the Supreme Court rejected similar arguments regarding the ADEA); Adkins [v. Labor Ready, Inc.], 303 F.3d [496,] 503 [ (4th Cir.2002) ] (determining that a plaintiff failed to point to any “suggestion in the text, legislative history, or purpose of the FLSA that Congress intended to confer a non-waivable right to a class action under that statute” and that the plaintiff’s “inability to bring a class action, therefore, cannot by itself suffice to defeat the strong congressional preference for an arbitral forum”); cf. D.R. Horton [v. NLRB ], 737 F.3d [344,] 362 [ (5th Cir.2013) ] (determining that the National Labor Relations Act does not contain a contrary congressional command overriding the application of the FAA).
Id. at 1336. The Eleventh Circuit then joined this emerging consensus. Id. Crucially, however, the respective waiver agreements in all of the above-cited cases included provisions subjecting the employees to arbitration. See Walthour, 745 F.3d at 1330 (noting the existence of an arbitration*592 agreement between the parties); Sutherland, 726 F.3d at 296 (same); Owen, 702 F.3d at 1052 (same); Carter, 362 F.3d at 298 (same); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 498 (same).
These circuit decisions, in turn, rely on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 35, 111 S.Ct. 1647 (“We conclude that Gilmer has not met his burden of showing that Congress, in enacting the ADEA, intended to preclude arbitration of claims under that Act.”), and American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2304, 2309, 186 L.Ed.2d 417 (2013) (holding that “[n]o contrary congressional command requires us to reject the waiver of class arbitration here”). See Walthour, 745 F.3d at 1331 (citing Gilmer and Italian Colors); Sutherland, 726 F.3d at 296 (quoting Italian Colors ); Carter, 362 F.3d at 298 (citing Gilmer); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 502 (citing Gilmer ). Accordingly, none of the foregoing authorities speak to the validity of a collective-action waiver outside of the arbitration context.
Thus, the Sixth Circuit concluded that, in the absence of a valid arbitration agreement, a collective action waiver is unenforceable because there is no countervailing federal policy (i.e. the FAA) that outweighs the remedial policy articulated in the FLSA:
Because no arbitration agreement is present in the case before us, we find no countervailing federal policy that outweighs the policy articulated in the FLSA. The rationale of Boaz is therefore controlling. Boaz is based on the general principle of striking down restrictions on the employees’ FLSA rights that would have the effect of granting their employer an unfair advantage over its competitors. Requiring an employee to litigate on an individual basis grants the employer the same type of competitive advantage as did shortening the period to bring a claim in Boaz. And in cases where each individual claim is small, having to litigate on an individual basis would likely discourage the employee from bringing a claim for overtime wages. Boaz therefore controls the result here where arbitration is not a part of the waiver provision.
Click Killion v. KeHE Distributors, LLC to read the Sixth Circuit’s decision.