In a 5-4 decision along ideological lines, the Supreme Court has upheld a controversial tool used by employers to stop class action lawsuits before they start: contractual provisions requiring employees to bring individual arbitration proceedings rather than class actions in court.
In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis and its sister cases, the majority of the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) requires employees to be able to bring class actions. Instead, Justice Gorsuch wrote for the majority, “[i]n the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), Congress has instructed federal courts to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms—including terms providing for individualized proceedings.” In the view of the majority, neither the FAA nor the NLRA create any exception for employment contracts.
The issue of class action waivers in employment contracts has taken on new prominence in recent years as the use of arbitration agreements has increased. Though both statutes at issue here are approaching their centennial anniversaries, there was relatively little litigation on their interplay until recent years. In 2012, the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that the NLRA invalidates any employer-imposed contracts that bar group litigation, including arbitration agreements that limit employees to individual actions. Subsequently, the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits deferred to the NLRB’s interpretation, while the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits rejected it.
Last year, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split. In each of the three cases that were consolidated, employees brought Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) class or collective action claims in federal court. The employees argued that the NLRA renders class action waivers illegal and that their individual arbitration agreements were therefore unenforceable. The NLRB supported the employees’ positions. But in a move that caused the court to describe the executive branch as “of two minds,” the Solicitor General argued against the NLRB’s position and in favor of the employers’ interpretation of the FAA.
In the end, Justice Gorsuch’s opinion took a decidedly textual approach, as is his habit. The majority found that the FAA explicitly requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms. The employees sought refuge in a savings clause that allows courts to refuse to enforce arbitration agreements where grounds “exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” The employees argued that the arbitration agreements were illegal under the NLRA, a proper ground for revocation of a contract. But the Court returned to its 2011 decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, where it found that the FAA savings clause does not apply to defenses that can apply only to arbitration. Because the employees sought to attack only the individualized nature of arbitration and that characteristic is one of arbitration’s fundamental attributes, the savings clause did not apply.
The majority also rejected an argument that the NLRA overrides the FAA’s presumption in favor of arbitration. The employees argued that Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees workers the right to take collective action. But the majority found that “Section 7 focuses on the right to organize unions and bargain collectively.” Because the statute was silent on arbitration and class actions, the Court found that the NLRA could not overcome the FAA’s strong preference for enforcing arbitration provisions. Instead, Justice Gorsuch wrote, the FAA and NLRA should be construed in harmony, with the NLRA protecting collective bargaining and the FAA protecting arbitration agreements.
The Court further noted that it would be inappropriate to apply Chevron deference to the NLRB’s interpretation of the NLRA as invalidating arbitration clauses. After applying the interpretative canons, the Court was not left with any ambiguity in the statutory language itself. The Court also noted that the NLRB’s interpretation advanced its own statutory mission at the expense of another statute in which it has no expertise. As such, courts were not required to defer to the NLRB.
Writing for the four-person dissent, Justice Ginsburg described the decision as “egregiously wrong,” lamenting that the majority “subordinates employee-protective legislation to the Arbitration Act.” Justice Ginsburg’s dissent claimed that class actions are the only way that employees can afford to litigate claims for small underpayments. Though the majority found that the NLRB’s protection for “concerted activities . . . for the purpose of mutual aid or protection” was limited by the specific bargaining-related examples that preceded it, the dissent argued that group litigation is consistent with legislative intent. In particular, Justice Ginsburg urged, the NLRB has long held that the NLRA protects employees from employer interference when they bring class actions.
The Court’s decision in this case has been closely watched and is likely to greatly affect the landscape of employment relationships. Of clearest importance, the Court’s decision allows employers to include arbitration agreements waiving class actions in employment contracts without fear of invalidation. In the wake of this decision, we expect employers’ use of such agreements to increase. The Court’s disregard of the NLRB’s purported expertise in this matter may also suggest that litigants could have success in challenging NLRB rulings on procedural, legislative and regulatory issues that are not employment-specific in the future.
But the decision also offers insight into the Court’s broader attitudes towards arbitration and class actions. In the absence of a clear congressional directive, the Court declined to make a policy decision to give employees the unfettered ability to sue their employers in a class setting. In the eyes of the Court, given the simple, clear breadth of the FAA, if any such policy choice is to be made, it must be made explicitly by Congress rather than being implied by Congress or a regulator. This philosophy suggests that had Congress not nullified the CFPB’s proposed anti-class waiver rule for arbitration clauses, the Supreme Court likely would have.
The same philosophy also suggests the answer to a question that the Court has recently decided to hear next year: whether the FAA forecloses a state-law imposition of class procedures into an arbitration agreement that does not clearly, explicitly, and unambiguously provide for any. The Court’s opinion in Epic Systems reinforces our conclusion that the Court is unlikely allow defendants to be forced into class arbitration without clear express consent.