Arbitration Agreements

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis that employers may lawfully require employees to sign arbitration agreements that include a waiver of the right to participate in an employee class action lawsuit or arbitration. Below, we discuss the significance of this decision and highlight issues that employers may wish to consider in the wake of it.

Epic Systems—a Pivotal Win for Employers

The NLRB planted the seed for Epic Systems in 2012, when it first took the position that Section 7 of the National Labor relations Act (“NLRA”)—which affords employees the right to self-organize, bargain collectively, and “engage in other concerted activities”—precludes enforcement of employee class action waivers. The federal Circuit Courts of Appeal split on the NLRB’s position in the ensuing years. Deepening the divide, the DOJ under the current administration broke with the NLRB.

In Epic Systems the Supreme Court rejected the notion that class actions are “concerted activities” inviolable under Section 7 of the NLRA, opining that the term is not a broad catchall. The Court observed that, while the NLRA includes many specific procedural rules, rules relating to class or collective actions are not among them. Absent clear Congressional intent, the Court reasoned that the NLRA could not “displace” the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and its edict promoting the enforceability of arbitration agreements.

Further, even if the employees could show that “the NLRA actually renders class and collective action waivers illegal[,]” the Court stated that the employees still could not properly invoke the FAA’s “saving” clause, which permits annulment of arbitration agreements “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” The Court characterized this as an “‘equal-treatment’ rule for arbitration contracts”—i.e., an arbitration contract (including a class action waiver) will be nullified only if it suffers from an elemental flaw in its formation, such as fraud.

In sum, Epic Systems represents a continuation of the Supreme Court’s recent trend of favoring arbitration agreements.

What Employers Should Consider Next

Though Epic Systems marks a resonant victory for employers, issues around the scope and effectiveness of class action waivers remain. Financial services employers may wish to consider:

Can our firm implement a class action waiver?

In implementing waivers, the financial services sector must be mindful of FINRA’s regulatory authority. Though any doubt about the lawfulness of consumer class action waivers was erased in 2011, FINRA has since said that a member firm’s use of waivers in customer contracts violates FINRA’s rules “intended to preserve investor access to . . . judicial class actions[.]”

FINRA has not, however, announced a parallel prohibition on waivers in employment agreements. Indeed, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 held that FINRA’s arbitral rules—though they preclude arbitration of claims subject to class actions and certain types of collective actions—do not bar employers from enforcing employee waivers.

Should our firm implement a class action waiver?

Although Epic Systems confirms that employers may require employees to waive the right to participate in a class actions, employers still must consider the practical implications. The environment around arbitration agreements and class action waivers is politically-charged, and firms implementing a class action waiver may receive backlash from employees and advocacy groups. Accordingly, any program rollout should be given due consideration.

What is the appropriate vehicle for the waiver?

A class action waiver may be included in an employment policy made available to—and acknowledged indirectly by—employees, or it could be included in a specific agreement that itself requires an employee’s signature.   The former may be an easier rollout, but the latter could be less susceptible to a claim that the employee(s) never agreed to the waiver.

Employers also should note that, although Epic Systems addressed class action waivers in the context of arbitration agreements, a class action waiver could also appear in an agreement that permits the parties to choose litigation instead of arbitration, if that is the preference.

To whom will the waiver apply?

Employers should consider whether a waiver will apply to all or some employees. Conditioning a new hire’s employment on a waiver could be fairly straightforward, but rolling out a new requirement to current employees might be more difficult from a practical and legal perspective. As noted in Epic Systems, arbitration agreements (and concomitant waivers) may be nullified under the FAA on fundamental grounds—including, potentially, a lack of “consideration” given in exchange for the waiver. Hence, employers might consider presenting existing employees with waivers in connection with a raise, bonus, promotion, etc.

What form should the waiver take?

Class action waivers should be as simple and concise as possible. Ambiguity may open the door to an adverse interpretation by a court or arbitral panel skeptical of waivers as a general matter. Epic Systems does not offer much guidance in this regard, but various trial and appellate court opinions do.

Might any class or collection actions be outside the scope of even a well-drafted a waiver?

Lastly, even a well-crafted class action waiver may not fully insulate employers. In this vein, the financial services sector—with its nucleus in New York—should keep an eye on a bill introduced in the New York State legislature, the “Empowering People in Rights Enforcement (EMPIRE) Worker Protection Act” (“EWPA”). It would amend New York’s Labor Law such that complainant employee(s) could step into NYSDOL’s shoes and pursue civil penalties “on behalf of . . . other current or former employees” and “allege multiple violations that have affected different employees.” If passed, employees could attempt to use the EWPA as an end-run around class action waivers. Employees may contend that, as NYSDOL itself is not bound by a contractual waiver, employee(s) cloaked with NYSDOL’s authority likewise would be unhindered by that waiver. Employees have made essentially that argument, with success thus far, in relation to California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”), after which the EWPA is modeled.

Our colleague Lauri F. Rasnick put together “Five Documents That Financial Services Employers Should Revisit Now” in this month’s Take 5 newsletter.  Below is an excerpt:

With summer here, including its long days and blazing heat, many thoughts may turn to beaches, sunshine, and lazy afternoons. The summer may also be a good time for employers—especially those in the financial services sector—to take stock of some of their more important employment documents. In light of recent developments, this month’s Take 5 discusses five employment documents worth checking:

  1. Separation Agreements
  2. Promissory Notes
  3. Non-Solicitation Agreements
  4. Arbitration Agreements
  5. Reasonable Accommodation Policies

Read the full newsletter here.

By Marisa S. Ratinoff and Amy B. Messigian

One of the main battlegrounds between employers and employees relates to the ability of employers to preclude class actions by way of arbitration agreements containing class action waivers. In California, the seminal case of Gentry v. Superior Court (“Gentry”) has had the practical effect of invalidating class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements since 2007. Gentry held that an employment class action waiver was unenforceable as a matter of California public policy if the class action waiver would “undermine the vindication of the employees’ unwaivable statutory rights” under the Labor Code. Thus, California financial services employers and national financial services employers with a business presence in California have found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce class action waivers in their employment arbitration agreements over the past seven years and have seen scores of California wage and hour cases proceed in court under the harsh hand of Gentry.

The landscape changed drastically in 2010 when the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion (“Concepcion”). There, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempts state laws or policies that deem arbitration agreements unconscionable and unenforceable on the basis that they preclude class actions. While the Concepcion case related to a consumer arbitration agreement, many have questioned whether its impact extended to employment arbitration agreements, such as the ones invalidated on public policy grounds under Gentry.

Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC is the first case to test this issue before the California Supreme Court. The decision takes one step forward and one step back. First, the Court held that Gentry has been abrogated by Concepcion. As such, courts may not refuse to enforce an employment arbitration agreement simply because it contains a class action waiver. The Court further rejected the argument that a class action waiver is unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act.

However, the Court also found that an employee’s right to bring a representative action under Private Attorney General Act (“PAGA”) is nonwaivable. Under PAGA, an employee may bring a civil action personally and on behalf of other current or former employees to recover civil penalties for Labor Code violations. Of the civil penalties recovered, 75 percent goes to the State of California and the remaining 25 percent go to the “aggrieved employees.” The Court held that “an arbitration agreement requiring an employee as a condition of employment to give up the right to bring representative PAGA actions in any forum is contrary to public policy.” The Court also found that “the FAA’s goal of promoting arbitration as a means of private dispute resolution does not preclude [California’s] Legislature from deputizing employees to prosecute Labor Code violations on the state’s behalf.” The Court explained that PAGA waivers do not frustrate the FAA’s objectives because the FAA aims to ensure an efficient forum for the resolution of private disputes, whereas a PAGA action is a dispute between an employer and the State, which is being brought in a representative capacity by the employee. Because the State derives the majority of the benefit of the claim and any judgment is binding on the government, it is the “real party in interest,” making a PAGA claim more akin to a law enforcement action than a private dispute. Because of this, it is within California’s police powers to enact PAGA and prevent the waiver of representative PAGA claims.

The practical effect is that even if a class action waiver is enforceable, any purported waiver of a representative PAGA action will be unenforceable. As a result, a complaint filed in court that includes a PAGA cause of action will arguably remain with the court unless the claims are bifurcated. As for Iskanian and his former employer, the Court left these questions to the parties to resolve. While it is possible that Iskanian will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court for guidance, at least for the foreseeable future employers should expect plaintiffs’ counsel to include PAGA causes of action in order to frustrate employer efforts to move wage and hour claims to arbitration.

Going forward, financial services employers may want to consider adopting agreements with their California employees that expressly permit representative PAGA claims to be brought in arbitration while waiving all other class claims to the extent allowed by law. Alternatively, employers may revise their agreements to allow for bifurcation of claims or expressly exclude PAGA claims from the scope of the agreement. In either case, employers should use this opportunity to review the terms of their arbitration agreements and put new agreements in place with California employees, if necessary.

Our colleague Frank C. Morris, Jr., at Epstein Becker Green wrote the December issue of Take 5, with five key action items for employers in 2014.  Following is an excerpt:

It’s December, and human resources professionals and law departments are reflecting on the issues addressed in 2013 and giving thanks for incident-free holiday parties. But the big question is this: What issues should get priority attention for 2014 as part of a proactive approach to workplace issues and limiting potential employment and labor law claims? This month’s Take 5 provides a “Top 5” list of action items to maximize the use of your time and resources for optimum results in 2014. …

  1. Consider Whether Your Organization Should Adopt Mandatory Arbitration Agreements and Seek to Bar Class/Collective Actions in 2014
  2. Enhance the Accessibility of Your Organization’s Website to Individuals with Disabilities
  3. Ensure That Proper Exempt/Nonexempt and Independent Contractor/Employee Determinations and Updated Job Descriptions Are in Place in 2014
  4. Update Confidentiality and Non-Compete Agreements to Better Protect Intellectual Property and Human Capital Assets in a High-Technology, BYOD, Mobile World
  5. Consider Key Employer ACA Issues for 2014

Read the full newsletter here.

By:  John F. Fullerton III

The Second Circuit has given class action waivers another shot in the arm.  In Parisi v. Goldman, Sachs & Co. (pdf), plaintiff argued that because she had agreed to arbitrate statutory employment discrimination claims against her employer, but could not proceed in a class-wide arbitration, she must be permitted to pursue her Title VII pattern-or-practice sex discrimination claim as a class action plaintiff in court; otherwise, her arbitration agreement would constitute an impermissible waiver of a substantive statutory right.   The Court firmly rejected this argument, holding that there is no substantive statutory right to pursue a pattern-or-practice claim in court.  The Court reversed the lower court’s ruling that had refused to compel arbitration of plaintiff’s claim individually.

When plaintiff was promoted to managing director, she signed an agreement that included a mandatory arbitration clause.  She was required to pursue “any dispute, controversy or claim arising out of or based upon or relating to Employment Related Matters,” which included Title VII discrimination claims, before NYSE or NASD (the predecessors of FINRA Dispute Resolution), or, if they declined to administer the case, before the American Arbitration Association.  The agreement was silent, however, regarding the possibility of proceeding in a class-wide arbitration.  Because the Supreme Court subsequently held in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., (pdf) that a party cannot be compelled to arbitrate on a class-wide basis unless it has expressly agreed to do so, and the arbitration provision in question was silent on that issue, plaintiff argued, and the lower court agreed, that “the agreement’s preclusion of class arbitration would make it impossible for Paris to arbitrate a Title VII pattern-or-practice claim, and that consequently, the clause effectively operated as a waiver of a substantive right under Title VII.”

The Second Circuit reversed.  Relying on previous Second Circuit case law, the Court noted that “in Title VII jurisprudence ‘pattern-or-practice’ simply refers to a method of proof and does not constitute a ‘freestanding cause of action.’”  Further, because Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, which governs federal class actions, is only a procedural vehicle “ancillary to the litigation of substantive claims,” the undisputed fact that private, non-governmental plaintiffs do not have a substantive a right to bring individual pattern-or-practice claims in court means that there is “no entitlement to the ancillary class action procedural mechanism.”

The decision is another great outcome in favor of class action waivers.  (We recently reported here, for example, that a FINRA disciplinary hearing panel permitted Charles Schwab & Company, Inc. to maintain its predispute arbitration provision in its customer agreement that includes a class action waiver).   It also sets the stage for the Supreme Court’s pending decision in American Express Company v. Italian Colors Restaurant, which, reviewing another Second Circuit decision, will decide whether the Federal Arbitration Act permits courts, invoking the “federal substantive law of arbitrability,” to invalidate arbitration agreements on the ground that they do not permit class arbitration of a federal law claim.  Depending on the outcome of that decision, expected before the end of the current term in June, we could see a dramatic increase in the use of class action waivers in both the employment and consumer context.

Before the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd Frank”) was enacted, whistleblower claims by registered representatives, including those arising pursuant to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”) were subject to mandatory arbitration at FINRA.  See FINRA Notice 12-21 (PDF).  Dodd Frank changed that.  Dodd Frank specifically amended SOX to provide that “[n]o dispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable, if the agreement requires arbitration of a dispute arising under this section.”  In addition, SOX was also amended to provide that rights and remedies provided for in the statute cannot be waived, including by having a predispute arbitration agreement.  In order to be consistent with SOX and to make it clear that FINRA will not require the arbitration of other similar statutory claims, as of May 21, 2012, FINRA amended Rule 13201 of the Code of Arbitration Procedure for Industry Disputes (the “FINRA Code”) to address the arbitrability of statutory whistleblower claims.

Prior to the amendment, Rule 13201 made it clear that statutory employment discrimination claims were not subject to mandatory arbitration unless the parties to the dispute specifically agreed to arbitrate such claims.  See FINRA Rules 13201 and 13802: Arbitrating Statutory Employment Discrimination Claims.

In that regard, Rule 13201 of the FINRA Code (PDF) provided:

A claim alleging employment discrimination, including sexual harassment, in violation of a statute, is not required to be arbitrated under the Code. Such a claim may be arbitrated only if the parties have agreed to arbitrate it, either before or after the dispute arose. If the parties agree to arbitrate such a claim, the claim will be administered under Rule 13802.

Rule 13201 has now been supplemented with regard to statutory whistleblower claims:   “a dispute arising under a whistleblower statute that prohibits the use of predispute arbitration agreements is not required to be arbitrated under the Code. Such a dispute may be arbitrated only if the parties have agreed to arbitrate it after the dispute arose.”

It should be noted that unlike Rule 13201’s provision regarding statutory discrimination claims, FINRA’s new provision regarding whistleblower statutes only covers claims arising under those whistleblower statutes that prohibit the use of predispute arbitration.  Accordingly, whistleblower claims that arise under laws with no such limitations may still be subject to mandatory arbitration before FINRA.  In addition, unlike statutory discrimination claims which parties can agree to arbitrate before or after a dispute arises, covered whistleblower claims may only be arbitrated if the parties agree after the dispute arises.

Together with the change to Rule 13201, FINRA revised the disclosure requirement for registered representatives signing new or amended Form U4s.  See FINRA Rule 2263 (PDF).  FINRA’s new disclosure form explicitly sets forth that certain statutory whistleblower claims are not required to be arbitrated.

What employers should do now? 

  • Review arbitration agreements. Employers should make sure that their current or proposed arbitration agreements do not include SOX claims or claims under other whistleblower laws that prohibit predispute arbitration.  Employers should keep in mind, however, that predispute arbitration agreements may still require the arbitration of statutory employment discrimination claims.  While there are pros and cons of arbitration, employers who wish to require it for employment discrimination claims should make sure to draft the inclusion of such claims into an arbitration agreement specifically.
  • Use the New Disclosure Form.  When registered representatives sign new or amended Form U4s, they should be given the revised FINRA disclosure form pursuant to Rule 2263.
  • Review policies and employment agreements. Employers should review their written policies and outstanding employment agreements to determine whether any policy or contract is too broadly drafted and could be interpreted to include the prohibited whistleblower claims.