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.

The NLRB/EEOC Landmine – When Does Offensive Speech Amount to Protected Activity?Employers need to be on the lookout for instances of offensive employee speech, which may put them between a rock and a hard place as they navigate potential claims under either anti-discrimination laws or federal labor laws.

You have probably heard that Google terminated an employee earlier this month for saying (among other things) that gender inequality in the technology field resulted from biological differences. After James Damore (now former employee) circulated a lengthy written critique on the company’s diversity efforts, Google ended his employment. Google’s CEO sent a company-wide email announcing that Google terminated Damore because his statements violated the company’s code of conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Google’s response to the memo is not surprising. Over the last several years, the tech industry has faced increased scrutiny about gender inequality in the workforce. We have seen a handful of claims (both in and out of court) alleging sex discrimination and harassment in Silicon Valley. Ignoring for the moment the optics, workforce morale, and company culture potentially affected by Damore’s manifesto, the company acted to minimize its exposure under anti-discrimination laws. For example, if a female employee later sues Google for sex discrimination, Google can point to its hardline response as evidence that it is committed to the equal treatment of women in the workplace and does not tolerate attitudes to the contrary.

What Google may have failed to consider, however, are Damore’s potential claims under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects employees’ rights to act together to improve pay and working conditions.

The day he was terminated, Damore filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), apparently claiming that his manifesto was protected activity and the company was trying to silence him by threatening his employment. (The actual complaint is not yet publicly available, but Damore has spoken out about it, and the NLRB site describes the nature of the complaint as “coercive statements.”) The day after Damore filed his NLRB complaint, the Eighth Circuit agreed with another NLRB order reinstating an employee terminated for making racial slurs to a group of African-American workers. Because that employee made the slurs during a nonviolent company strike, the Eighth Circuit held that he was participating in protected collective activity. Damore will likely point to the new Eighth Circuit opinion to support his NLRB complaint.

Whether offensive speech constitutes harassment is very fact-specific, as is whether an employee’s conduct amounts to protected concerted activity under the NLRA. Employers should always address instances of unprofessional or offensive comments, but they also need to be on the lookout for potential NLRB claims if the employee’s remarks reach a larger group of people (whether in person, in writing, or via social media).