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Posts Tagged ‘arbitration agreements’

The Supreme Court Weighs in on Arbitrability, But Questions Remain

Posted on: January 31st, 2019

By: Ted Peters

As reflected in a prior article, the United States Supreme Court recently agreed to take another look at the issue of arbitrability. In the case of Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., the Fifth Circuit concluded that the court, and not an arbitrator, had the power to decide the threshold issue of arbitrability. In its ruling, the circuit court embraced the “wholly groundless” argument, concluding that submission of the dispute to the arbitrator was unnecessary because the assertion of arbitrability was “wholly groundless.” This decision underscored the ongoing split of authority among the lower courts wherein some courts, but not all, recognize the “wholly groundless” exception. On appeal, the appellants sought to have the Supreme Court reject the exception as inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), the purpose of which is “to ensure that private agreements to arbitrate are enforced according to their terms.”

On January 8, 2019, newly appointed Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the court vacating and remanding the Firth Circuit’s decision. Writing for a unanimous court, Kavanaugh determined that the “wholly groundless” exception to the general rule that courts must enforce contracts that delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator is inconsistent with the FAA and Supreme Court precedent. Not surprisingly, the opinion revisited a number of prior cases in which the Court repeatedly held that the “agreement to arbitrate a gateway issue is simply an additional… agreement the party seeking arbitration asks the federal court to enforce, and the [FAA] operates on this additional arbitration agreement just as it does on any other.” (Opinion at p. 4, quoting Rent-A-Center, 561 U.S. 63, 70 (2010)). Kavanaugh noted that the Court had frequently rejected the argument that a claim of frivolity can derail the parties’ agreement to vest questions of arbitrability with an arbitrator and not a court. Citing Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564, 568 (1960), Kavanaugh stated: “A court has ‘no business weighing the merits of the grievance’ because the ‘agreement is to submit all grievances to arbitration, not merely those which the court will deem meritorious.’”

On January 15, 2019, the Court issued a ruling in yet another case involving arbitration, New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira. Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court. In an 8-0 decision (Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration or decision of the case), the high court affirmed the First Circuit’s determination that a court should determine whether the Federal Arbitration Act’s Section 1 exclusion for disputes involving the “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers applies before ordering arbitration. Unlike Henry Schein, which addressed the delegation of “gateway” questions of arbitrability, New Prime Inc. involved the judicial assessment of a statutorily based objection to arbitration.

But wait… there’s (one) more: Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, Dkt. No. 17-988. That case, argued on October 29, 2018, addresses whether the FAA forecloses a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements. An opinion is expected at any time.

Coming full circle, it is fairly clear that the high court seems to remain firm in its embrace of arbitration agreements without permitting judicial meddling, provided there is “clear and unmistakable evidence” that the parties affirmatively agree to delegate the decision of arbitrability to the arbitrator. (Henry Schein at p. 6, citing First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944). Yet, at the same time, the Justices appear receptive to judicial involvement as long as there is a reasonable statutory basis for it.

The takeaway? Parties to arbitration agreements should rest confident in their ability to affirmatively delegate disputes to arbitration provided that the statutory framework upon which arbitration is based leaves no basis for judicial tinkering. This may provide solace for some, but for many it leaves unanswered questions along with the risks and costs associated with uncertainty.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].

High Court OKs Employers’ Use of Class Waivers

Posted on: May 23rd, 2018

By: Paul Derrick

Class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), says the U.S. Supreme Court in a much-anticipated decision.

The Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision resolves a circuit split on whether class or collective action waivers contained in employment arbitration agreements violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). By a 5-4 margin, the Court ruled that, under the FAA, arbitration agreements providing for individualized proceedings, rather than class or collective actions, are enforceable.

Arbitration agreements that require employees to pursue work-related claims in arbitration, rather than in court, have long been enforced pursuant to the FAA. Six years ago, however, the National Labor Relations Board decided that employers violate the NLRA when they require employees, as a condition of employment, to agree that they will resolve workplace disputes individually pursuant to an arbitration provision containing a class or collective action waiver.

The Supreme Court’s opinion makes it clear that the Board and various courts were wrong in believing that the NLRA trumps the FAA.  It noted that that nothing in a class or collective action waiver interferes with an employee’s right to participate in a union or engage in collective bargaining.

So, what does the Court’s ruling mean for employers right now?

First, they should look at their arbitration agreements and consider modifying them to include class action waivers if they are not already included.

Second, they should consider including an arbitration agreement and class waiver provision as part of their onboarding paperwork (but remember such clauses should not be included within the text of an employee handbook).

Finally, employers should expect that there is more litigation yet to come as employees and unions angle for ways to get around the Supreme Court’s decision.  Especially in states such California, there are other avenues by which employees can still maintain class and collective actions as a means of redressing their workplace disputes.  Despite these anticipated end-run attempts, employers should rest better knowing that the Supreme Court has explicitly approved the use of class action waivers in arbitration agreements.

If you have any questions or would like more information about this or any other labor law issue, please contact Paul Derrick at [email protected].