Cooperate or Pay: Recovering Attorneys’ Fees to Get to ArbitrationDoes your arbitration agreement allow you to recover attorneys’ fees if the employee rebels against arbitration and you have to compel it? Maybe it should. In Aralar v. Scott McRea Automotive Group, a court in Florida recently affirmed an arbitrator’s award of nearly $20,000 in attorney’s fees for the defendant’s hassle of moving for arbitration. Employers with arbitration agreements should be encouraged that the fees incurred for moving for arbitration (when it should be clear cut) may be recoverable with the contract clause.

The Facts and the Arbitration Clause

Aralar worked in the McRea auto service center and filed a lawsuit in court under the FLSA for unpaid overtime and back wages. Pursuant to an arbitration agreement Aralar signed as a condition of employment, McRea notified Aralar’s counsel multiple times that he could not pursue the matter in court — it had to go to arbitration.

The arbitration clause provided that if one of the parties filed an action in court that was subject to arbitration, the other party would provide notice of the arbitration requirement and request to have the case dismissed. If the party who filed the court action did not dismiss the case within 10 days and the case ultimately ended up in arbitration following a motion, the moving party could recover reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred “because of the filing of the complaint.”

Aralar did not respond, and McRae filed a motion to dismiss the case and compel arbitration. Yet again Aralar failed to respond, although he eventually agreed to the arbitration forum about six weeks after it was filed. The court then compelled the matter to arbitration and stayed the case pending the results. Aralar did not end up filing his request for arbitration for another six months after the court’s ruling.

About a year later, the arbitrator granted McRae’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that Aralar’s job as a service advisor was exempt from FLSA requirements. A few months later, the arbitrator awarded McRae the fees and costs incurred up through the time the case was stayed by the court, a sum totaling $19,291.58. The fees and costs awarded were about half of the amount requested.

After no further response was received from Aralar, McRae filed a motion with the court to confirm the arbitration award. Aralar finally woke up and filed to vacate the attorneys’ fee award.

The Court’s Decision

In his ruling, the judge conveyed that any party seeking to vacate an arbitrator’s findings must clear a high hurdle because federal courts defer to an arbitrator’s decisions whenever possible. Then the judge said the same standard applies for award of attorneys’ fees. Aralar contended that (1) fees should only be awarded as a sanction, and (2) that because his FLSA claim was not frivolous, the awarding of fees was inappropriate based on rulings in civil rights cases. The judge rejected those contentions and found that because the parties contractually agreed to the arbitration agreement’s fee shifting provision and Aralar did not withdraw his lawsuit within 10 days of notice, McRae was entitled to enforce the contract terms and recover the fees incurred to get the matter into arbitration.

Takeaways

The decision makes sense and these fee shifting clauses could be a useful tool to avoid fights about arbitration. Where the employer has to have its attorneys compel a matter into arbitration when the employee should have agreed to it, that unnecessary expense should come out of the plaintiff’s pocket. Employers should find some small encouragement that fee recovery provisions will be enforced. At the very least, the Aralar decision provides leverage towards peaceful agreements into arbitration rather than a fight. No plaintiff wants to pay a former employer—especially when they filed a lawsuit to try and get money.

The Supreme Court Says Yes to Arbitration and Class Action Waivers

With its 5-4 ruling in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court delivered a seemingly big win for employers. The Supreme Court held that employees’ waiver of their rights to bring collective or class actions, as a term of an arbitration agreement, is valid and enforceable. This ruling rejected the NLRB’s position that such waivers are invalid given the NLRA’s grant to employees of “the right . . . to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for . . . mutual aid and protection.” A blog post on Declassified provided a legal analysis of the Epic Systems opinion from a class action—as opposed to employment—standpoint. The Supreme Court has now definitively resolved that employers can use arbitration agreements to prevent employees from bringing a collective action.

But Corporate America Is Conflicted

Does This Arbitration Agreement Make Me Look Sexist? <i>The Moving Target of Using Arbitration Clauses</i>Ironically, at the very moment the Supreme Court has made it easier for employers to double down on arbitration agreements, some businesses are making headlines by curtailing arbitration terms for certain claims. It’s safe to say that the #MeToo movement has something to do with it.

Last week, after months of scrutiny and negative publicity, Uber announced that it would “no longer require mandatory arbitration for individual claims of sexual assault or sexual harassment by Uber riders, drivers or employees.” As NPR reported, Uber’s new policy does not apply to claims brought as class actions.

Uber wasn’t the first to take this step. In December 2017, Microsoft publically endorsed legislation that would protect sexual harassment victims’ ability to bring a case in court instead of in arbitration where they could be prohibited from speaking of the incident. In the same statement, Microsoft announced its own new policy and waived its contractual requirements for arbitration of sexual harassment claims.

Even some law firms have had to adapt their employment agreements in the wake of #MeToo. Posts of Munger Tolles & Olson’s summer employment contract, which effectively mandated arbitration for harassment claims, garnered unwanted attention on social media. In response, the firm released its own tweet statement that it would “no longer require any employees, including summer associates, to sign any mandatory arbitration agreements.”

#arbitrationwhatnow?  

While employers have weighed the costs of arbitration versus litigation for decades, the current environment requires new considerations. Are the cost savings of an arbitration agreement (including the ability to maintain confidentiality and prevention of class claims) worth the risk of a social media firestorm? Should you carve out individual harassment claims from mandatory arbitration (ala Uber) or risk class treatment, and carve out all harassment claims (ala MicroSoft)? In the throes of #MeToo, it’s important to consider these new costs and benefits. A simple test: If you wouldn’t want it to go viral on Twitter, reconsider.

Can you prevent employees from pursuing class actions if you have the right employment agreement? Employment agreements routinely include arbitration clauses that require employees to waive their right to pursue work-related claims through collective or class actions. Instead, employees agree to resolve disputes through individual arbitration. But the validity of these arbitration clauses is unclear and is now before the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard oral argument earlier this week in National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil, USA, Inc. and two other consolidated cases about whether such clauses violate the National Labor Relations Act (which governs employer-employee relations) or whether the Federal Arbitration Act (which governs arbitration agreements) trumps the NLRA.

The cases that the Supreme Court is reviewing come out of the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal. The Fifth Circuit held that an employer lawfully enforced an arbitration clause in its employment agreement and did not violate the NLRA. The Seventh and Ninth Circuits held the opposite—finding similar arbitration clauses unenforceable because the NLRA prohibits class waivers in employment agreements.

Employment contract arbitration clauses are currently enforceable in the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits (shown in green below) and unenforceable in the Seventh and Ninth Circuits (shown in red below).

Murphy’s Law: Will the Supreme Court End Employment Contract Arbitration Clauses?

Why Murphy Oil Matters

The Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy Oil is worth watching. If the Supreme Court holds that these arbitration clauses do not violate the NLRA (or that the FAA overrides the NLRA), employees who have signed such clauses will be required to litigate employment-related disputes on an individual basis before an arbitrator. Conversely, if the Supreme Court finds that these clauses violate the NLRA, employees can pursue lawsuits on a collective or class basis, notwithstanding an employment agreement that purportedly waives such rights.

How Best to Structure Arbitration Clauses

Employers can likely avoid these issues entirely with careful drafting of their employment agreements. In particular, if an employment agreement gives an employee the opportunity to “opt out” of the agreement (thus making the agreement voluntary, not mandatory), an arbitration clause and class action waiver is likely enforceable. An opt-out clause should clearly inform the employee of their right to opt out of arbitration and also require the employee to affirmatively notify their employer of their desire to opt out. Ironically, allowing employees the option to resolve employment-related disputes in arbitration may help defend a later challenge to the enforceability of the arbitration agreement if the employee had the option to “opt out” but chose not to do so.