In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis  (a companion case to NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA and Ernst & Young v. Morris), the U.S. Supreme Court finally and decisively put to rest the Obama-era NLRB’s aggressive contention that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prevented class action waiver in employees arbitration agreements, finding such waivers are both protected by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and not prohibited by the NLRA. In its 5-4 decision, the Court explained that the NLRB’s interpretation of the FAA was not entitled to deference because it is not the agency charged by Congress with the interpretation and enforcement of that statute.

The Supreme Court started with two questions:

Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration? Or do employees have a right to always bring their claims in class or collective actions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?

The Court first answered these questions plainly, noting that though as a matter of policy there could be a debate as to what the answer should be, “as a matter of the law the answer is clear” that class action waivers are legal under the NLRA and enforceable under the FAA, going on to systematically dismantle the arguments made by former NLRB General Counsel Richard Griffin, Jr. and related labor union and plaintiffs’ attorneys in amici briefs filed with the Court.

The Court’s majority opinion authored by Justice Gorsuch started with some history, noting that for the first 77 years of the NLRA there had been no argument by the Board that class action waivers violated the NLRA and that the FAA and the NLRA coexisted perfectly without conflict. As recently as 2010 the NLRB’s General Counsel took the position that class action waivers did not violate the NLRA. It was not until the Obama-era NLRB’s decision in the D.R. Horton that the NLRB took the then novel position that the NLRA’s “other concerted activities” protections created a substantive right to class action procedures. The Court then recited decades of precedent rejecting the relatively newly found aggressive NLRB position.

With respect to the FAA the Court reinforced that the courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements by their terms. The Court soundly rejected the NLRB’s argument that the FAA’s savings clause supported the NLRB’s position, explaining that the savings clause only applies to defenses applicable to any contract disputes, such as fraud, duress and unconscionably. In what could be helpful to arguments that other attempts to limit arbitration which are found in or being proposed in various state and local laws such as prohibiting arbitration of harassment claims or wage and hour claims under California’s Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) should be found valid notwithstanding the clear language of the FAA, the Court pointed out that the purpose of the FAA was to combat historic opposition to arbitration and, citing AT&T Mobility v. Conception’s validation of class action waivers generally, warned that the courts must guard against attempts to pervert the purposes of the FAA:

Just as judicial antagonism toward arbitration before the Arbitration Act’s enactment “manifested itself in a great variety of devices and formulas declaring arbitration against public policy,” Concepcion teaches that we must be alert to new devices and formulas that would achieve much the same result today.

With respect to the NLRA the Court, in addition to noting the historic context of both enforcement of arbitration agreements and the statute’s coexistence with the FAA, the Court observed that the NLRA’s protection of “other concerted activities” applies to subjects related to the right to organize, be represented by a union and bargain collectively, as well as other similar efforts of employees to freely associate with their coworkers in the workplace. Though not directly addressed by the Court, the language of the Opinion implies a much narrower reading of Section 7 rights under the NLRA than has historically been exposed by the Board and courts.

Finally, the Court addressed the fundamental underlying reality of the issue that the Board and the plaintiff employees’ position is an attempt to squeeze an elephant through a mouse hole by trying to use a novel interpretation of the NLRA to enforce FLSA rights in a manner which circumvents decades of established precedence. Ultimately, the Court ruled that in an employee can agree to arbitrate their FLSA rights under the FLSA, certainly nothing in the NLRA operates to prohibit such agreements.

Steven M. Swirsky
Steven M. Swirsky

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago has now sided with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) in its decision in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corporation, and found that an employer’s arbitration agreement that it required all of its workers to sign, requiring them to bring any wage and hour claims that they have against the company in individual arbitrations “violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and is unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act FAA).”

In writing for a three judge panel in Lewis v. Epic Systems, Chief Judge Wood found that the views of the NLRB, expressed in its decision in Murphy Oil, D.R. Horton, and other decisions finding employers’ attempts to require their employees to arbitrate any and all wage and hour and similar claims individually and not in class action lawsuits, were entitled to deference, under the Chevron doctrine.  He held that the NLRB’s view that mandatory arbitration interferes with employees’ rights under Section 7 of the NLRA, was, at a minimum, “a sensible way to understand the statutory language” of Section 7 of the Act and, for that reason, “we must follow it.”

Judge Wood agreed with the Board that the right to pursue claims on a class or collective basis is a substantive right, “not merely a procedural one,” as Epic Systems contended.  It was, he concluded, “the core substantive right protected by the NLRA” and the “foundation on which the (NLRA) and Federal labor law rest.”

While the Seventh Circuit sided with the Board, other federal appeals courts that have considered the question of whether the Act prohibits employers from requiring their employees who are not represented by a union or covered by a collective bargaining agreement to arbitrate their claims individually have reached an opposite conclusion.  These include Courts for the Second, Fifth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits.  These courts have concluded that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) with its mandate to support arbitration, dictated the finding that an employer could require individual arbitration of employment disputes, and that such restrictions impacted procedural, not substantive rights.  Further, in a case fully briefed and currently pending oral argument before the Second Circuit, the argument has been squarely presented whether issue is resolved by the second part of Section 7 of the NLRA, which grants to employees the right to refrain from engaging in any and all “concerted protected activities,” along with the right to engage in such activities.  This Section 7 language, employers argue, blesses an employee’s right to give up the right to litigate employment claims (including wage and hour claims) in class actions and to resolve all such issues in single, individual arbitration proceedings.

The decision of the Seventh Circuit, finding that the Board’s view was not inconsistent with the FAA, sets the ground for continued uncertainty as employers wrestle with the issue.  Clearly, the question is one that is likely to remain open until such time as the Supreme Court agrees to consider the divergent views, or the Board, assuming a new majority appointed by a different President, reevaluates its own position.