Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘employment contracts’

Supreme Court opens its new term with a direct attack on workers’ rights

Monday, September 25th, 2017

The Supreme Court returns next Monday from its summer vacation for the first full term where Neil Gorsuch will occupy a seat at the far end of the Court’s bench. And the Court will open this term with a trio of cases that are very likely to immunize many employers from consequences for their illegal actions.

The three cases — National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USAErnst & Young LLP v. Morris, and Epic Systems v. Lewis — all involve employment contracts cutting off employee’s rights to sue their employer for legal violations.

In at least one case, employees were required to sign the contract as a condition of beginning work. In another, employees were forced to give up their rights as a condition of keeping their job. These contracts contained two restrictions on the employees: 1) a “forced arbitration” provision, which requires any legal disputes between the employer and the employee to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system; and 2) a provision prohibiting employees from bringing class actions or other collective suits against their employers.

Requiring private arbitration favors employers over employees. As an Economic Policy Institute study determined, employees are less likely to prevail before an arbitrator than before a court, and they typically receive less money from an arbitrator when they do prevail.

Banning class action suits, meanwhile, effectively permits employers to violate the law with impunity, so long as they do not do too much harm to any individual employee.

If an employer cheats one employee out of $300,000 worth of wages, for example, that employee is likely to be able to find a lawyer who will take his case on a contingency basis — meaning that the lawyer gets a percentage of what the employee collects from the employer if they win. If the same employer cheats 10,000 employees out of $30 each, however, no lawyer is going to represent any one of these workers on a contingency basis. Plus, few employees are likely to bother with a $30 suit. It’s too much hassle, and too expensive to hire a lawyer who won’t work on contingency. The solution to this problem is a class action suit, which allows the 10,000 employees to join together in a single case litigated by a single legal team.

Banning such class actions effectively leaves these employees without remedy. As one federal judge explained, “the realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.”

The employer’s claim that they can combine a forced arbitration clause with a class action ban arises out of two previous Supreme Court cases that took an extraordinarily creative view of a nearly 100-year-old law.

In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act to allow, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once explained, “merchants with relatively equal bargaining power” to agree to resolve their disputes through arbitration. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the Court started to read this law expansively to permit forced arbitration between businesses and relatively powerless consumers and employees.

Then, the Court got even more aggressive. By its own terms, the Federal Arbitration Act exempts “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Nevertheless, in its 5-4 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court held that the Act applies to most workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce. Thus, forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts were given special protected status, even though the federal law governing these clauses says otherwise.

Similarly, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a 5-4 Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion that the Federal Arbitration Act has penumbras, formed by emanations from its guarantees that give it life and substance. The right of businesses to insert class action bans, Scalia claimed, is one of these penumbras contained in the 1925 law. And so businesses gained the power to add no class action clauses to their forced arbitration agreements, even if a ban on class actions violates state law — and despite the fact that the Federal Arbitration Act says nothing about class actions.

Nevertheless, the employees in Murphy Oil and its companion cases hope that another provision of law will protect them from signing away their right to join a class action.

A provision of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Several lower courts have held that an employee’s right to engage in “concerted activities” protects their right to join class actions, and they cite multiple previous Supreme Court decisions which lend credibility to this claim.

In a world governed by the text of the law, employees would have a strong case that they cannot be forced to give up their right to bring class action litigation. But we live in a world governed by Circuit City and Concepcion — both of which demonstrate the Supreme Court’s willingness to take liberties with the law in forced arbitration cases.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

D.R. Horton Rising: The Ninth Circuit Sides with the Seventh Circuit and the National Labor Relations Board on Class Action Waivers, in Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016
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Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit took sides in a major split within the U.S. Courts of Appeals over the enforceability of class arbitration waivers. In Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, No. 13-16599, Slip. Op. (9th Cir. Aug. 22, 2016), the Ninth Circuit held that employers violate Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) by requiring employees covered by the NLRA to waive, as a condition of their employment, participation in “concerted activities” such as class and collective actions. (Slip Op. at 1.)

By this holding, the Ninth Circuit joins the Seventh Circuit, which in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016) adopted the National Labor Relations Board (“The Board”) position in D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012). Under this line of authority, the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) does not mandate enforcement of a contract that waives the substantive federal right to engage in concerted action established in Section 7 of the NLRA. (Slip Op. at p. 18-19.) Bryan Schwartz Law blogged in detail about the Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp. decision, here.

In Morris, two employees filed a class and collective action alleging that their employer had misclassified workers as exempt and deprived them of overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and California labor laws. As a condition of employment, the employees were required to sign contracts containing a “concerted action wavier” that obligated them (1) to pursue legal claims against their employer exclusively through arbitration and (2) to arbitrate individually in “separate proceedings.” Based on these agreements, the employer moved to compel the employees to arbitrate their claims individually. The U.S. District Court granted the employer’s motion. (Slip Op. at p. 4-5.)

The Ninth Circuit reversed, reviewing the decision to compel arbitration de novo. Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas explained in the opinion:

This case turns on a well-established principal: employees have the right to pursue work-related legal claims together. 29 U.S.C. § 157; Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 566 (1978). Concerted activity – the right of employees to act together – is the essential substantive right established by the NLRA. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Ernst & Young interfered with that right by requiring its employees to resolve all of their legal claims in “separate proceedings.” Accordingly the concerted action waiver violates the NLRA and cannot be enforced.

(Id. at p. 6.)

The Ninth Circuit explained that the FAA does not dictate a contrary result. (Id. at 14.) While the FAA creates a “federal policy favoring arbitration” clause enforcement, the Act contains a savings clause that prohibits enforcement of arbitration agreements that defeat substantive federal rights, including the right to engage in concerted activity under the NLRA. (Id. at 15, 26.) In Morris, employees’ waiver was illegal not because it required the employees to pursue their claims in arbitration, but rather, because they could not do so in concert. (Id. at p. 16.)

Other circuit courts have taken a contrary position, enforcing employers concerted action waivers under the FAA. See Cellular Sales of Missouri, LLC v. N.L.R.B., 824 F.3d 772, 776 (8th Cir. June 2, 2016); Murphy Oil USA, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015); Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050, 1053-54 (8th Cir. 2013); D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, 737 F.3d 344, 361 (5th Cir. 2013); Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290, 297 n.8 (2d Cir. 2013).

As more circuits choose sides on whether class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable, Supreme Court review becomes an inevitability.

The High Court would also be wise to resolve a disagreement between the Ninth and Seventh Circuits regarding such waivers. In the Seventh Circuit, any “[c]ontracts that stipulate away employees’ Section 7 rights . . . are unenforceable.” Epic, 823 F.3d. at 1155. The Ninth Circuit precedent is narrower, making such contracts enforceable if employment is not conditioned on agreeing to the clause. (Slip. Op. 11, n. 4.) For example, if an employee has the opportunity to opt-out of a class action waiver and keep his or her job, but chooses not to, that waiver would be enforceable by the employer in the Ninth Circuit. (Id. (citing Johnmohammadi v. Bloomingdale’s, Inc., 755 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2014))). The Seventh Circuit provides a clearer rule, one that better comports with the purposes of the NLRA, and one that the Supreme Court should adopt.

For now, workers in the Ninth and Seventh Circuits, as well as their advocates, should take note that employers cannot force employees to sign class action waivers as a condition of employment, because Epic and Morris tell us that the NLRA provides employees with the right to vindicate their employment rights collectively.

This blog appeared on Bryan Schwartz Law on August 23, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Rachel Terp is an associate at Bryan Schwartz Law, where she focuses on employment discrimination, whistleblower, and wage and hour claims. Previously, Ms. Terp was a Bridge Fellow with the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), where she specialized in consumer litigation.

 Bryan Schwartz Law is an Oakland, California-based law firm dedicated to helping employees protect their rights in the workplace. Mr. Schwartz and his firm have fought to prohibit discrimination, retaliation, and harassment obtained reasonable accommodation for disabled employees, vindicated whistleblowers’ rights and ensured that corporations pay workers all wages they are owed. Bryan Schwartz Law has successfully litigated individual and class action complaints nationwide, helping to recover millions of dollars for thousands of employees, forcing corporations and Government agencies to change their practices and punish wrongdoers. Bryan Schwartz Law is also one of the few Bay Area-based law firms with extensive experience representing Federal employees in their unique Merit Systems Protection Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.

 

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