Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Holds Employers Cannot Require Employees to Individually Arbitrate Claims By Way of “Separate Proceedings.”
In late August 2016, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that employers cannot require employees to individually arbitrate their claims by way of “separate proceedings,” even if executing a class action waiver in an employee arbitration agreement. Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, No. 13-16599 (9th Cir. Aug. 22, 20016). The decision deepens a Circuit split and will likely have significant consequences for employers.
The Ninth Circuit joined the National Relations Board (“NLRB”) and the Seventh Circuit by holding that requiring employees to sign an agreement bringing concerted legal claims violates § 7 and § 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). By contrast, the Fifth, Second, and Eighth Circuits previously rejected the NLRB’s interpretation and allow enforcement of class and collective action waivers in employee arbitration agreements. E.g. Murphy Oil USA v. NLRB, No. 14-60800 (5th Cir., October 26, 2015); D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, 737 F. 3d. 344 (5th Cir. 2013).
As a condition of employment, Ernst & Young required its employees to execute agreements hat legal claims had to be brought through arbitration, and in “separate proceedings.” After signing this agreement, two plaintiffs brought a wage and hour class and collective action in federal court against Ernst & Young. Invoking the employee arbitration agreement, Ernst & Young filed a motion to compel arbitration, which the district court granted.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the order compelling arbitration, holding that the NLRA § 7’s “mutual aid or protection clause” provides a substantive right to collectively “seek to improve working conditions through resort to administrative and judicial forums.” The court rejected defendant’s argument that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) mandates a different result, holding that the FAA’s savings clause prevents enforcement of an arbitration contract’s waiver of a substantive federal right. Critically, the Court left open the possibility that the FAA can prevent enforcement of procedural federal rights but exempted enforcement of arbitration provisions from its ambit by deeming the “[t]he rights established in § 7 of the NLRA — including the right of employees to pursue legal claims together” to be substantive. The Ninth Circuit explained that these rights are “central, fundamental protections of the act, so the FAA does not mandate the enforcement of a contract that alleges their waiver.”
The panel also remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the “separate proceedings” clause was severable from the remainder of the contract.
The majority emphasized that the contract’s requirement of aribration did not, alone, cause problems. Rather, the problem with the contract was not that it required arbitration, but that it precluded concerted action, stating:
The illegality of the “separate proceeding” term here has nothing to do with arbitration as a forum. It would equally violate the NLRA for Ernst & Young to require its employees to sign a contract requiring the resolution of all work-related disputes in court and in separate proceedings. The same infirmity would exist if the contract required disputes to be resolved through casting lots, coin toss, duel, trial by ordeal, or any other dispute resolution mechanism, if the contract (1) limited resolution to that mechanism and (2) required separate individual proceedings. The problem with the contract at issue is not that it requires arbitration; it is that the contract term defeats a substantive federal right to pursue concerted worked-related legal claims. (emphasis added).
In her dissent, Judge Sandra S. Ikuta criticized the decision as “breathtaking in its scope and in its error,” writing that the majority had joined “the wrong side of a circuit split.” She reasoned that “when a party claims that a federal statute makes an arbitration agreement unenforceable … the Supreme Court requires a showing that such a federal statute includes an express “contrary congressional command.” Finding no such express congressional command within the NLRA, she concluded it could not override the FAA.
Judge Ikuta also disagreed that §§ 7 or 8 of the NLRA create a substantive right to the availability of classwide claims, stating that “[w]hile the NLRA protects concerted activity, it does not give employees an unwaivable right to proceed as a group to arbitrate or litigate disputes.” Finally, Judge Ikuta asserted that “[t]o the extent the Supreme Court has held that class actions are inconsistent with arbitration … the majority effectively cripples the ability of the employers and employees to enter into binding agreements to arbitrate.”
The decision deepens an existing Circuit splits and leaves the enforceability of agreements which mandate arbitration by way of separate proceedings and preclude class and/or collective actions in the employment context uncertain.
As a protective measure, employers should consider amending their arbitration agreements to provide that the entire agreement is rendered null and void and that the class or collective waiver is not to be severed from the remainder of the agreement if found unenforceable. This approach is advisable because defending against class or collective action certification in arbitration is generally more difficult in arbitration than federal court. Ernst & Young faces the possibility it may have to do just that depending on the district court’s decision on remand, but other employers can minimize this possibility through effective drafting of arbitration agreements.
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