Reprinted with permission from the June 25th, 2018 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2018 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
The Supreme Court settled a disputed question regarding arbitration clauses as they apply to class and collective actions in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 584 U.S. ___, (2018). The matter before the Court included three disputes that raised the same issue, but the Court focused on the facts of Ernst &Young LLP v. Morris, a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), in its opinion. Justice Gorsuch’s opinion for the 5-4 majority professes to focus only on the law, and the opinion chides Justice Ginsberg, writing for the minority, for a focus on policy over precedent. However, both the majority and dissenting opinions reflect a policy dispute: the preference in the law to enforce arbitration clauses versus the historic view of certain employment-related statutes as remedial in nature. One need only reflect that this Court, in Encino Motorcars LLC v. Navarro, rejected the notion that remedial statutes such as the FLSA are subject to any special treatment to know where the Court would land on this particular policy dispute. The Court’s holding that arbitration clauses in employment agreements are enforceable even if they result in a waiver of the right to bring a class or collective action is a blow to employee’s rights under the FLSA. The case also provides a drafting lesson for practitioners.
Morris was an employee of Ernst & Young, and entered into an employment agreement that included an arbitration provision. The arbitration provision stated that it applied to any disputes that might arise between employer and employee; that the arbitrator, chosen by the employee, could grant any relief that could be granted by a court; and that disputes pertaining to different employees would be heard in separate arbitration proceedings.
After his employment ended, Morris sued Ernst & Young, claiming a violation of the FLSA. Specifically, Morris claimed that Ernst & Young misclassified him as exempt under the professional exemption, and that he was therefore owed overtime pay. Morris also sought to state his claim as a “collective action” under the FLSA, as permitted by 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Predictably, Ernst & Young filed a Motion to Compel Arbitration, and the motion was granted. The Ninth Circuit reversed, and Morris appealed to the Supreme Court.
At issue in the appeal are three statutory schemes: the FLSA “collective action” provision; the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. (“NLRA”); and the Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 2. The FLSA permits a “collective action” for violations of the Act. An aggrieved employee may file the action on behalf of himself, and “other employees similarly situated,” provided those other employees provide and file their consent to join the action. The NLRA, relevant to this matter, prohibits an employer from barring employees from engaging in “concerted activity”, as that term is defined in the statute. 29 U.S.C. § 157. The Arbitration Act requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements as written, but, relevant to this matter, includes a “savings clause.” 9 U.S.C. § 2. The savings clause permits a court to refuse to enforce an agreement to arbitrate upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract. Morris argued that the court could not enforce the arbitration agreement under the savings clause of the Arbitration Act. The argument goes that, when applied to this FLSA collective action, the agreement to arbitrate violates the NLRA because it bars the concerted action of pursing claims as a collective action. More generally, the employees argued that the enforcement of an arbitration provision in this context results in a waiver of the right to bring a class or collective action.
Some background informed the Supreme Court’s treatment of these three disputes: in 2010, the National Labor Relations Board expressed the opinion that the validity of agreements to arbitrate “did not involve consideration of the policies of the NLRA.” In 2012, the NLRB expressed a different view, arguing that the NLRA “nullifies” the Arbitration Act in these types of cases. Thereafter, some circuits followed the NLRA’s 2012 view, while the Solicitor General took an opposite view in these cases before the Court. The Supreme Court granted certiori “to clear the confusion.”
However, the Supreme Court’s opinion, authored by Judge Gorsuch for the majority, recognizes little confusion on the issue. The Court held that the Arbitration Act’s savings clause does not permit a court to refuse to enforce an agreement to arbitrate, and that there is no conflict between the NLRA, the FLSA and the Arbitration Act. Indeed, the Court noted that the problem with the employees’ argument was “fundamental”: the savings clause applies only to defenses that apply to any contract, and not to defenses that apply only to arbitration. Morris’ argument was not that his entire employment agreement required revocation on grounds of illegality or unconscionability, but that the arbitration provision required revocation. Because Morris’ gripe was with the arbitration clause itself, and not the entire agreement, says the Supreme Court, the savings clause does not apply.
The Supreme Court also rejected Morris’ argument on the basis that, when confronted with two federal statutes addressing the same topic, the Court is not “at liberty to pick and choose” between them, and must find a way for the statutes to live together. The NLRA, the Court noted, does not mention class or collective actions, and does not refer to the Arbitration Act at all, which was enacted prior to the NLRA.
Judge Gorsuch notes that the employees’ choice not to argue that the FLSA’s “collective action” provisions require the application of the Arbitration Act’s savings clause demonstrates the flaw in the employees’ position. Judge Gorsuch notes that the Supreme Court has already held that the FLSA collective action provisions do not prohibit individualized arbitrations, and that every circuit to consider the question has agreed.
The Court does not stop there: it offers arguments under the predecessor to the NLRA, takes on the issue of deference to agency determinations, and chides the dissent for its focus on policy over precedent. Justice Ginsberg notes in a dissent that the majority’s decision is “egregiously wrong.” In short, neither side recognizes any confusion in the issue, and they arrive at completely different conclusions based on a policy preference. And, practically speaking, both sides are correct about the stakes for employees. As Justice Ginsberg notes: “individually their claims are small and scarcely of a size warranting the expense of seeking redress alone.” For employees, collective actions provide a way to address FLSA violations in a meaningful and cost-effective way. For employers, such actions are expensive and disruptive. The threat of such claims is an incentive to comply scrupulously with the FLSA. The case thus includes a simple but important lesson for those of us who prepare and review employment agreements. The arbitration agreement at issue in the Morris case, for example, included a requirement that disputes pertaining to different employees would be heard in separate arbitration proceedings. Given the Supreme Court’s clear approval of such arrangements, this becomes a powerful clause in an employment agreement. An agreement that eliminates that risk is valuable to employers, a blow to employees’ rights under the FLSA, and now, unquestionably enforceable.
Patricia Collins is a Partner with Antheil Maslow & MacMinn, LLP, based in Doylestown, PA. Her practice focuses primarily on employment, commercial litigation and health care law. To learn more about the firm or Patricia Collins, visit www.ammlaw.com.