For the last several years, employers have been operating under a cloud of confusion regarding whether provisions in employment agreements that require employees to engage in individual arbitration proceedings, as opposed to class proceedings, are enforceable. Finally, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, has given us an answer, and the answer is yes, such provisions are enforceable!
In 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) took the stance that class waivers violated workers’ rights to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Although the Fifth Circuit rejected that stance in D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil and held that such provisions were valid and enforceable, the NLRB continued to litigate the issue, claiming that such provisions were not legal. In the intervening years, the Second and Eighth Circuits have agreed with the Fifth Circuit, while the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have agreed with the NLRB.
On Monday, in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court finally settled the dispute. In examining the issue, the Court considered two issues: (1) whether the “savings clause” of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) required enforcement of the arbitration agreements as written if the agreement violated another federal law, and (2) whether the arbitration agreements that waived collective rights violated the NLRA.
In looking at the first issue, the majority found that the FAA required courts to enforce arbitration agreements and, therefore, favored arbitration agreements. Although it acknowledged the general FAA “savings clause,” such clause only applies when certain contract defenses apply. In examining the case at hand, the majority found that no such contract defenses were applicable and that it could not override the established policy of enforcing arbitration agreements.
The Court also considered whether the NLRA’s protection of employees’ collective rights displaced the FAA’s favored enforcement of arbitration agreement. The majority held that, although the NLRA guarantees employees the right to bargain collectively, it neither guarantees the right to collective action nor manifests intent to displace the FAA. Because the NLRA was enacted after the FAA, if Congress had intended the NLRA to override the FAA’s protections for arbitration agreements, such intent would have needed to be clear. Because it was not clear, the Court found that there was no such intent and that the NLRA’s protection of collective rights could not override the FAA’s policy of enforcing arbitration agreements as written.
Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Epic, employers are now free to include arbitration agreements that include a waiver of class and collective actions in their employment contracts. Although Congress could amend the law to clearly state that the NLRA, or some other federal law, does not allow for waiver of class or collective actions by employees, such legislative action is unlikely at this point in time. Employers may find arbitration agreements useful as arbitration may be less expensive, faster, and more flexible than traditional litigation.