Tag Archives: Federal Arbitration Act

UPDATE: Supreme Court Rules For Workers On FAA “Transportation” Exemption

Contributed by Brian Wacker, January 15, 2019 

Last month, this blog discussed New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, a then-pending case before the Supreme Court that presented the question of whether arbitration agreements between trucking companies and independent contractor drivers fall within the “transportation” exemption to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”).   

This morning, the Court unanimously ruled in favor of Mr. Oliveira, affirming the First Circuit and holding that his independent contractor agreement with New Prime is a “contract of employment” under the FAA.  The Court disregarded the characterization of his relationship with New Prime as an independent contractor (as opposed to an “employee”) and found that the FAA’s exemption for “contracts of employment” refers to any “agreements to perform work.” Therefore, Mr. Oliveira’s agreement fell within the FAA’s exemption and his claims were not properly subject to compelled arbitration.  

This is a significant victory for workers, especially considering the unanimity of the Court’s decision, authored by one of its more conservative jurists, Justice Gorsuch. Employers with independent contractors in the transportation field should take note: existing arbitration provisions in independent contractor agreements can no longer be used to shield businesses from the risks, expenses and uncertainty of litigation in court.

Are Independent Contractor Transportation Workers Exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act?

Contributed by Brian Wacker, December 10, 2018

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments on an issue which will have lasting implications on the arbitrability of claims between employers and certain independent contractors. Where the Court lands will have significant impact on employers moving forward, not only with regard to the form of contracts employers offer, but also with regard to how they classify workers in the transportation field.

Currently, the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”) authorizes transportation employers to include mandatory arbitration provisions in employment contracts, which can require employees to arbitrate workplace disputes in lieu of going to court, and limit them to bringing those claims individually. This is obviously a strong tool for employers seeking to minimize the uncertainty and costs of litigation.

SupremeCourtBuilding

Supreme Court Building

However, as employers with workers engaged in transportation should know, an exception is made in Section 1 of the FAA, exempting “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” 9 U.S.C. §1. This has become known as the “transportation” exemption. Historically, Congress included this exemption, in part, because transportation workers were subject to separate federal dispute resolutions statutes already in effect.

In New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, Sup. Ct. Case. No. 17-340, the Court considered the “transportation” exemption in the FAA – specifically two issues: (1) whether disputes over its applicability should be resolved by an arbitrator or a judge and (2) whether the exemption applies to independent contractors as well as employees.

The scope of the “transportation” exemption has been wrangled over for years, culminating in the 2001 landmark decision in Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, where the Court plainly read the exemption, holding that it did not apply to any workers outside of the delineated transportation industries. In other words, non-transportation workers could no longer try to seek the benefit of the exemption.

Despite this precedent, workers have continued to try to expand its application with New Prime being just the latest example – this time to independent contractors working in the transportation field. Following submissions and several amicus briefs in support of both sides, the issue and positions of the parties were clear. When defining the exemption’s scope, it uses the term “contracts of employment.” New Prime, the Petitioner, has asked the Court to interpret this term narrowly, arguing it should mean only those contracts that establish a common-law employment relationship. Oliveira, the Respondent, argued the term should refer to all agreements to perform work, regardless of form, which would necessarily include independent contract agreements.

The Court heard oral argument on October 3, 2018. Because the case was submitted prior to new Associate Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the case was only heard by eight justices. So if the justices split along ideological lines 4-4, Oliveira will prevail and the First Circuit’s ruling that the independent-contractor agreement at issue was a “contract of employment” for purposes of the exemption.

The Court is not expected to rule until early 2019. This blog will update as soon as the Court’s opinion is issued.

Are Mandatory Arbitration Agreements Headed for the Supreme Court?

Contributed by Carlos Arévalo, October 25, 2016

This past June, our blog reported on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016), which found that the Federal Arbitration Act does not require enforcement of an arbitration agreement based on the employee’s right under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to engage in protected concerted activity. Specifically, in Lewis the Seventh Circuit held that employment arbitration agreements that include class action waivers violate the NLRA and cannot be enforced. This was the first time that a circuit court had adopted the NLRB’s position in D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB 184 (January 3, 2012).

Gavel2A couple of months later, the Ninth Circuit, in Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, (9th Cir. (Cal.) August 22, 2016), followed suit and also found that an arbitration agreement that required employees to bring claims in “separate proceedings,” thereby prohibiting class and collective actions, violated the employees’ right to engage in concerted activity under the NLRAJust like in Lewis, the employees in Morris had to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of employment. Stephen Morris subsequently filed a class and collective action against the company, alleging he and others had been misclassified as employees exempt from overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act and California state law. In response, the employer filed a motion to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreements the employees had signed. The district court ordered individual arbitration for each and dismissed the complaint. The Ninth Circuit, however, reversed and held that such agreements interfere with the employees’ rights under Sections 7 and 8 of the NLRA regarding concerted activity.

Back in 2013, three circuit courts ruled that the NLRA does not prohibit class waivers. First, the Eighth Circuit ruled that class waivers were appropriate in Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050 (8th Cir. 2013). The Second Circuit did likewise in Sutherland v. Ernst & Young, 726 F.3d 290 (2nd Cir. 2013).  Finally, the Fifth Circuit reversed the NLRB’s decision that such agreements were unenforceable in D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013). Then, in 2014 the Eleventh Circuit arrived at the same conclusion and upheld class waivers in Walthour v. Chipio Windshield Repair, LLC, 745 F.3d 1326 (11th Cir. 2014).

Certainly, this split among circuits makes it more likely that the Supreme Court will soon address whether employees will be able to waive their right to participate in collective actions if they choose to sign arbitration agreements. Indeed, petitions for writs of certiorari seeking review by the Supreme Court were filed in Lewis on September 2nd and in Morris on September 8th. How this issue is ultimately resolved, of course, depends largely on the outcome of the 2016 election.

Irrespective of who fills the vacancy left as a result of Justice Scalia’s passing, employers should still seek labor and employment counsel’s guidance with respect to arbitration agreements to determine if they are enforceable and/or if necessary revisions and amendments are required. Similarly, employers, with counsel’s assistance, should develop new strategies in light of potential changes that may be in the offing.

Federal Appeals Court Overrules NLRB: Employers Can Adopt Class Action Waivers Through Arbitration Agreements

Contributed by Jeffrey A. Risch

As previously reported, in January 2012 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that a nationwide home builder committed an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by implementing a mandatory arbitration agreement that waived the rights of employees to participate in class or collective actions through court action.  See D.R. Horton Inc. and Michael Cuda, (357 NLRB 184).  In short, the NLRB held that employers may not compel employees to waive their right to collectively pursue litigation of employment related claims.  On December 3, 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the NLRB’s finding and concluded that the NLRB “did not give proper weight to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).”

Michael Cuda, a superintendent for Horton, claimed that he and other similar superintendents for the company were prevented from pursuing a wage and hour class action/collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA); alleging that they were misclassified as exempt employees.  Horton required Cuda and other employees to execute an arbitration agreement whereby they individually agreed to forego class action relief of all types relating to any employee dispute.

The NLRB found that the mandatory arbitration procedure violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA because it interfered with the statutory right of employees to engage in “protected concerted activity for their mutual benefit.”  However, according to the Court, an otherwise valid arbitration agreement (including those in the employment context) must be enforced in accordance with its terms under the FAA.   Additionally, the Court held that absent specific statutory language in the NLRA to override arbitration, an arbitration agreement entered into between two parties should be enforced.  The Court also pointed out that other federal circuits have likewise upheld arbitration agreements containing class action waivers.  See Richards v. Ernst & Young LLP, (9th Cir. 2013); Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, (2d Cir. 2013); and Owen v. Bristol Care Inc., (8th Cir. 2013).

The Court, however, did note that the underlying arbitration agreement could reasonably be understood by employees as precluding them from filing unfair labor practice charges at the NLRB.  It therefore enforced the NLRB’s order that Horton revise the document to allow employees the ability to file administrative charges.

As we have consistently advised clients, an employer may legally compel arbitration (including those that contain class action waivers) through a properly drafted arbitration agreement; but it may not prohibit its employees from filing a charge with the NLRB.  Employers looking to implement or revise employment arbitration agreements should consult with experienced labor and employment law counsel.

California Court Flat Out Rejects the NLRB’s Holding in Horton and Enforces a Class Action Waiver

Contributed by Jill Cheskes

It was only a matter of time before a court was faced with a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement following the conflicting rulings on the issue by the US Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and the NLRB in Horton.  In the Supreme Court Concepcion case, the court found class action waivers in arbitration agreements to be valid under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).  On the other hand, in Horton, the NLRB ruled that such class action prohibitions violated the NLRA and were, therefore, unenforceable notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision in Concepcion.

California was perhaps not the location that was expected to side with the US Supreme Court, and yet that has come to pass in the case of Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles LLC.  The California Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision to require a California driver to arbitrate his wage and hour claims and its dismissal of his class claims against his employer based on the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion case. 

Iskanian worked for CLS as a limousine driver and, during his employment, signed an agreement to arbitrate “any and all claims” arising out of his employment and a waiver of class claims.  Nevertheless, Iskanian filed a lawsuit and, after a long procedural history, the trial court found that the Concepcion case required that the class claims be dismissed and the case be arbitrated. 

While this case was on appeal, the Horton case was decided by the NLRB. The California appeals court decision stated that “If Horton only involved application of the NLRA, we would most likely defer to it,” but the court noted that Horton went “well beyond an analysis of the relevant sections of the NLRA.” 

Further, the court held that since the “FAA is not a statute the NLRB is charged with interpreting; we are under no obligation to defer to the NLRB’s analysis.” The court also pointed to the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court issued another ruling enforcing arbitration agreements a week after Horton was decided, holding that arbitration agreements should be enforced under the FAA absent a showing that this mandate was “overridden by a contrary congressional command”  (CompuCredit v. Greenwood, 132 S. Ct. 665).

Noting that the NLRB’s decision did not identify any such congressional command, the California Court of Appeals found that the NLRB elevated “its interpretation of federal labor law over the FAA.” In short, the court found that Horton did not “withstand scrutiny” in light of the Supreme Court’s decisions and upheld the trial court’s decision.

Time will tell how other courts view this conflict but the California court certainly limits the precedential value of Horton to NLRB cases only.

Pro-Union NLRB Contradicts U.S. Supreme Court: Declares Employee Class-Action Waivers Violate Labor Law

Contributed by Jeff Risch

On January 3, 2012, the NLRB held that a nationwide home builder committed an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by implementing a mandatory arbitration agreement that waived the rights of employees to participate in class or collective actions (D.R. Horton Inc. and Michael Cuda, 357 NLRB 184, 1/3/11). In short, the NLRB held that employers may not compel employees to waive their right to collectively pursue litigation of employment claims in all forums, arbital and judicial.

Michael Cuda, a superintendent for Horton, claimed that he and other similar superintendents for the company were prevented from pursuing a wage and hour class-action/collective-action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA); alleging that they were misclassified as exempt employees.  Horton required Cuda and other employees to execute an arbitration agreement whereby they individually agreed to forego class-action relief of all types relating to any employee dispute.  NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce (D) and Member Craig Becker (D) found that this mandatory arbitration procedure violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA because it interfered with the statutory right of employees to engage in “protected concerted activity for their mutual benefit.”

In so holding, the NLRB took issue with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, U.S., No. 09-893, 4/27/11.  In Concepcion, the court, in a 5-4 decision, enforced AT&T’s customer cellular telephone contract that provided for mandatory arbitration on an individual basis and prohibited class action proceedings despite conflicting California state law.  The court essentially held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts state laws that prohibit contracts from preventing class-action lawsuits.  In judicial decisions that have since followed Concepcion, courts throughout the U.S. have concluded that employees may waive class-action rights by agreeing to individualized arbitration through employment arbitration agreements.  

In distinguishing Concepcion, the NLRB held that employment arbitration agreements (unlike consumer contracts) cannot prevent employees from waiving their rights protected by the NLRA (i.e. collectively pursue wage/hour claims and/or disputes over terms and conditions of employment). The NLRB also reasoned that Concepcion involved a conflict between the FAA and a California state law, which implicated the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause; whereas in D.R. Horton the Supremacy Clause was not called into question as the issues involved purely federal statutes (FAA vs. the NLRA).