CLOSE X
RSS Feed LinkedIn Instagram Twitter Facebook
Search:
FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘arbitration’

Arbitration Clauses in Legal Engagements Are Not Per Se Void

Posted on: September 17th, 2020

By: Dana Maine

Joining with most other jurisdictions, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a Court of Appeals decision finding that arbitration clauses in attorney engagement agreements are not against public policy and clarified the burden of persuasion for demonstrating procedural unconscionability in Innovative Images, LLC v. James Darren Summerville, et al., (Sept. 8, 2020).  In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court disregarded the question of whether the attorney violated Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct 1.4(b), which is identical to ABA Model Rule of Professional conduct 1.4(b).  This rule states, “A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”  ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has issued a formal opinion (02-425) which requires the attorney to fully apprise his/her client of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration before asking the client to enter into an agreement requiring arbitration.  

The issue of violation of Rule 1.4(b) is a separate issue from whether the clause is enforceable, according to the Georgia Supreme Court.  Simply put, arbitration is favored in the State of Georgia and is not void as against public policy.  For the same reason, mandatory arbitration is not substantively unconscionable, leaving only the question of whether it is procedurally unconscionable.

In order for the clause to be procedurally unconscionable, it must be one “‘no sane [person] not acting under a delusion would make and that no honest [person] would take advantage of’ and ‘one where one of the parties takes a fraudulent advantage of the other.’” (Quoting NEC Technologies, Inc. v. Nelson, 267 Ga. 390 (1996)). Under the facts in the case, the only “evidence” to support unconscionability was the fact that defendants had not demonstrated that plaintiff was a sophisticated client.  The Georgia Supreme Court found error with the trial court’s shifting of the burden in this regard from plaintiff to defendant.  Thus, according to the Georgia Supreme Court, plaintiff had not met its burden and the arbitration clause was enforceable.

While the Georgia Supreme Court invited the State Bar to issue an advisory opinion on the topic, it made it unequivocally clear that any opinion would have no impact on the enforceability of an arbitration clause, and the clause would be enforced as long as the procedure for entering into the agreement was appropriate.  A practitioner should keep in mind the general rules that the client must be fully informed about the scope and effect of the arbitration clause, and the lawyer’s liability cannot be limited by referral of the dispute to arbitration.  In the end, arbitration can benefit both parties by bringing any dispute to a speedy and cost-effective conclusion.   

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Dana Maine at [email protected], or any other member of our Lawyers Professional Liability Practice Group, a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.

9th Circuit Holds Amazon’s Last-Mile Delivery Drivers are Exempt from Arbitration

Posted on: August 21st, 2020

By: Josue Aparicio[1]

On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Amazon’s delivery drivers are exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) because they are transportation workers “engaged in interstate commerce.”

The decision is a huge loss for e-commerce giant, Amazon.com, who is facing several class action lawsuits arising from its “Amazon Flex” program; a delivery service platform in which Amazon contracts with a fleet of on-demand, gig economy workers to perform “last mile” deliveries of Amazon packages. Like many gig workers, Amazon’s so-called “flex drivers” are classified as independent contractors, perform deliveries using their personal vehicles, and follow assigned delivery routes provided by the Amazon Flex smartphone application.

In a 2-1 decision, a divided Ninth Circuit panel affirmed the lower court’s ruling that denied Amazon’s motion to compel arbitration of its flex drivers’ wage and hour class action.[2] Contrary to Amazon’s contentions, the court found the flex drivers did not have to physically cross state lines to be “engaged in interstate commerce” or to fall within the FAA’s so-called “transportation workers” exemption. In the court’s view, since Amazon is “one of the world’s largest online retailers” in the business of shipping goods worldwide, its delivery drivers are “engaged in interstate commerce” through their participation in delivering packages that travel through the “stream of interstate commerce.”

Rittmann v. Amazon.Com, Inc.

In 2016, flex drivers filed a nationwide class and collective action against Amazon.com, alleging the company misclassified them as independent contractors thereby denying them the benefits and protections of state and federal labor laws.

In response, Amazon moved to compel arbitration of the plaintiffs’ individual claims based on an arbitration provision within the terms of service of the Amazon Flex mobile app, which flex drivers must agree to before they can sign up for the Amazon Flex program. Importantly, the terms of service expressly state that the agreement is governed by the laws of the state of Washington, except for the arbitration provision which is governed exclusively by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”).

In April 2019, Judge Coughenour of the U.S. Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington denied Amazon’s motion and concluded that flex drivers fall within the “transportation worker” exemption to the FAA because they deliver goods shipped from across the country.[3] Consequently, since the FAA did not apply and the parties expressly contracted that Washington law could not apply, the district court invalidated the arbitration agreement because it was unclear what law would apply or if the parties even intended to arbitrate disputes in the event the FAA did not apply. Amazon appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit’s Interpretation of the Transportation Worker Exemption

While the FAA applies broadly to arbitration agreements and reflects a liberal policy favoring arbitration, Section 1 of the statute renders its enforcement provisions inapplicable to “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”[4] The U.S. Supreme Court in its 2001 landmark decision, Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, construed the language in Section 1 narrowly to apply exclusively to “transportation workers.”[5] However, the Court never defined the term “transportation worker,” and since then, state and federal courts have struggled to determine which “class of workers” fall within the ambit of the exemption.

On appeal, Amazon challenged the district court’s ruling by asserting that its flex drivers are exclusively “engaged in local, intrastate activities” because they do not cross state lines when performing deliveries. According to Amazon, a worker must physically cross state lines in the course of making deliveries to be “engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” for the exemption to apply.

The Ninth Circuit majority disagreed and held that crossing state lines is not a necessary condition for the application of the transportation worker exemption. In the court’s view, an interstate transaction between Amazon and a customer does not conclude until the package reaches its intended destination. Accordingly, when an Amazon package travels interstate and is held locally in an Amazon warehouse, the interstate journey of the package does not “come to rest” until it is delivered to the intended recipient. Therefore, even though flex drivers only pick up packages from local Amazon warehouses and deliver them “purely intrastate” to a customer’s home, the driver is “engaged in interstate commerce” by performing the last leg or “last mile” of the interstate journey. Based on this reasoning, the Ninth Circuit held that flex drivers are exempt from the FAA under the transportation worker exemption.

In affirming the lower court’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit also agreed that since the FAA does not apply and the contract terms state Washington law cannot apply to the arbitration provision, there is no valid arbitration agreement between the parties.

However, in a 36-page dissenting opinion, Judge Daniel Bress criticized the majority opinion for creating further uncertainty around the interpretation of the “transportation worker” exemption, “as well as inequities among delivery workers who are similarly situated.” In his view, to be “engaged in interstate commerce” the delivery driver “must belong to a ‘class of workers’ that crosses state lines in the course of making deliveries,” otherwise what should be a narrow exemption “could broadly include anyone who delivers goods between any two locations.”

This ruling comes just a month after the First Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected Amazon’s motion to compel arbitration in a lawsuit involving a putative class of flex drivers from Massachusetts who similarly allege Amazon misclassified them as independent contractors.[6]

Employer Takeaways

Recent federal appellate court decisions have certainly expanded the “class of workers” exempt from the FAA. In addition to the Ninth and First Circuit’s inclusion of “last-mile” delivery drivers, the Third Circuit recently expanded the exemption to include workers who transport passengers, such as ride sharing companies, Uber and Lyft.[7]

On the other hand, the Ninth Circuit’s Rittmann decision made clear that individuals delivering food or meals for companies like DoorDash, GrubHub and Postmates are not “engaged in interstate commerce.” In the court’s view, there is an important distinction between making local deliveries of goods that have arrived at a local restaurant and whose continuous interstate journey is broken, as opposed to the packages delivered by Amazon’s flex drivers, which are often shipped from out of state and do not end their interstate journey until they reach the intended consumer.

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


[1] Josue Aparicio is an Attorney with Freeman, Mathis & Gary LLP who specializes in worker misclassification claims under California law. (https://www.fmglaw.com/attorney_bio.php?id=408)

[2] Rittmann v. Amazon.com, Inc. (9th Cir. 2020), Case No. 19-35381.

[3] Rittmann v. Amazon.com, Inc. (W.D.Wash. 2019) 383 F. Supp. 3d 1196.

[4] 9 U.S.C. § 1 (emphasis added).

[5] Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams (2001) 532 U.S. 105, 118-119.

[6] Waithaka v. Amazon.com, Inc. (1st Cir. 2020) 966 F.3d 10.

[7] Singh v. Uber Techs., Inc. (3d Cir. 2019) 939 F.3d 210, 219; Cunningham v. Lyft, Inc. (D.Mass. March 27, 2020) Case No. 1:19-cv-11974.

FINRA Amends Rules to Incentivize Timely Payment of Arbitration Awards

Posted on: June 17th, 2020

By: Kathleen Cusack and Kirsten Patzer

On May 21, 2020, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced that effective September 14, 2020, its Membership Application Program (MAP) rules will be amended to further incentivize the timely payment of arbitration awards. The amendment to MAP will seek to do so by preventing an individual from switching firms and prevent firms from transferring assets to avoid the payment of arbitration awards. Specifically, the amendments will: (1) require members to seek a materiality consultation for changes in ownership, control, or business operations; (2) create a rebuttable presumption to deny an application for membership if the applicant is the subject of an existing claim; (3) require that a member demonstrate the ability to satisfy unpaid or pending arbitration awards; and (4) require that an applicant notify FINRA of any arbitration claim involving the applicant. 

Unpaid arbitration awards have plagued FINRA’s dispute resolution division for years. In 2018 FINRA conducted a study showing that between 2012 and 2016 more than a quarter of all arbitration awards went unpaid.

FINRA’s new MAP rules will adversely impact any financial advisor with a pending arbitration matter seeking to change firms. The rules fail to address the idiosyncrasies of the FINRA arbitration process, which allows any investor to file an arbitration matter without the vetting of their claims. With limited ability to dismiss arbitrations without going to a full hearing, an advisor could be a part of a pending arbitration for years.

The Public Investors Advocate Bar Association (PIABA) has long advocated for an industry funded pool of money to remedy the unpaid award problem and now argue that the new MAP rules do not go far enough. Samuel Edwards, partner at Shepard Smith Edwards & Kantas and president of PIABA said in an interview said that the amended rules should instead “flat-out kick [members who attempt to skirt arbitration awards] out.”

FINRA rules already require that firms and brokers who do not pay their arbitration awards be barred from the industry.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Kirsten Patzer at [email protected] or Kathleen Cusack at [email protected]

Additional Information:

FMG has formed a Coronavirus Task Force to provide up-to-the-minute information, strategic advice, and practical solutions for our clients. Our group is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys who can address the multitude of legal issues arising out of the coronavirus pandemic, including issues related to Healthcare, Product Liability, Tort Liability, Data Privacy, and Cyber and Local Governments. For more information about the Task Force, click here.

You can also contact your FMG relationship partner or email the team with any questions at [email protected].

**DISCLAIMER: The attorneys at Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP (“FMG”) have been working hard to produce educational content to address issues arising from the concern over COVID-19. The webinars and our written material have produced many questions. Some we have been able to answer, but many we cannot without a specific legal engagement. We can only give legal advice to clients.  Please be aware that your attendance at one of our webinars or receipt of our written material does not establish an attorney-client relationship between you and FMG. An attorney-client relationship will not exist unless and until an FMG partner expressly and explicitly states IN WRITING that FMG will undertake an attorney-client relationship with you, after ascertaining that the firm does not have any legal conflicts of interest.  As a result, you should not transmit any personal or confidential information to FMG unless we have entered into a formal written agreement with you. We will continue to produce education content for the public, but we must point out that none of our webinars, articles, blog posts, or other similar material constitutes legal advice, does not create an attorney client relationship and you cannot rely on it as such. We hope you will continue to take advantage of the conferences and materials that may pertain to your work or interests.**

Massachusetts Joins Jurisdictions Prohibiting Class-Wide Arbitration of Wage Claims Absent Agreement Expressly Permitting Class Actions

Posted on: May 18th, 2020

By: Kevin Kenneally, Janet Barringer and William Gildea

In a further blow to class action claimants and lawyers, a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge recently ruled a car salesman could not arbitrate Wage Act claims on behalf of coworkers absent an express provision in the employment agreement permitting such a class action.   In Grieco Enterprises, Inc. v. McNamara, the employer sought a declaratory judgment ruling that an employee could not arbitrate wage claims on behalf of a putative class of employees even if his employment contract was silent on the issue and did not expressly prohibit or allow for such a class action. This favorable outcome for employers and insurers follows a similar 2019 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States holding an ambiguous employment agreement cannot be the basis to compel class-wide arbitration.

In the Massachusetts state court arbitration matter, the employee claimed his employer failed to pay him—and others—required overtime and Sunday-hours premium in violation of state wage laws.  He demanded arbitration on behalf of himself and other similarly-situated commission-only salespeople.  In response, the employer filed the declaratory judgment action in Massachusetts state court seeking determination whether a class action in this instance is permissible.  The Massachusetts Superior Court held class action arbitration is not permissible because the parties’ employment agreement did not expressly permit employees to arbitrate class actions.  The Court held the employee may proceed to arbitration solely on an individual basis. 

The decision in McNamara is garnering attention due to the state’s decision last year concerning commission-based salespeople, Sullivan v. Sleepy’s LLC.  In Sleepy’s, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held commission-paid retail salespeople are entitled to “time-and-a-half” overtime compensation based on the statutory minimum wage — even when their commissions always met or exceeded the state minimum.  Sleepy’s specifically held the overtime and Sunday premium wage statutes applied to commission-paid sales staff.  The McNamara claimant sought to apply this ruling to an entire class of workers rather than having each worker bring an individual claim.  The employment agreement at issue contained a general statement in the agreement it was “in conformity with” Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure—which claimant contended includes procedural rules for class actions, thus tacitly subjecting the employer to class arbitration.  The Superior Court rejected the argument and held the parties to the contract did not expressly agree to engage in class action arbitration.  The judge in McNamara held that if she were to permit the application of an unclear provision to authorize class actions, “unrepresented employees could be bound by an arbitration that he or she did not individually consent to participate in.  Such a result is contrary to the legal underpinnings for arbitration, specifically that it is a consensual contractual matter.”

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407, 587 US __, 203 L. Ed. 2d 636  (2019), which was seen as a setback to workers’ ability to join or aggregate the individual claims of other workers who had agreed in their employment contracts to an arbitration forum.  Lamps Plus held in claims subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) an ambiguous agreement cannot be the necessary contractually-agreed basis to force an employer to submit to class-wide arbitration.  The high court agreed with the employer there simply was no foundational agreement to arbitrate the class action and the lower court acted contrary to the primary purpose of the FAA.  Lamps Plus held a lower court may not compel arbitration on a class-wide basis when an agreement is “silent” on the availability of such arbitration and “that private agreements to arbitrate are enforced according to their terms.”  

Employers who incorporate arbitration provisions in their employment agreements for individual basis only will benefit by the uniform application of law in both state and federal courts.  Employers in Massachusetts have certainty absent a specific provision – or even in the face of a vague arbitration provision – class-wide arbitration will not be available to employees whether the claims are based on federal or state law.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Kevin Kenneally at [email protected], Janet Barringer at [email protected] or William Gildea at [email protected].

Arbitration and Class Action Waivers Upheld in ERISA Plans, but an Industry Shift Toward Arbitration Remains to be Seen

Posted on: September 26th, 2019

By: Justin Boron

The judicial trend in favor of arbitration and class action waivers continues—this time in employee benefit plans.

Last month, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel validated an arbitration and class action waiver agreement contained in an employee retirement plan, and in doing so, it overturned a 1984 precedent holding that fiduciary claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) could not be arbitrated.

In a pair of opinions issued in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp.,[1] the panel found that the reasoning in Amaro v. Continental Can Company,[2] was irreconcilable with recent opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court, including American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., which had endorsed an arbitrator’s competence to interpret and apply federal statutes.[3]

The Dorman decision arose from a plan participant’s class action alleging a breach of fiduciary duty that resulted from the inclusion of Schwab affiliated investment funds in the 401k plan.  As yet another affirmation of arbitration and class action waiver agreements, it is sure to attract the attention of plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries.

But it might not necessarily be the game changer that previous class action waiver decisions have proven to be in the consumer and employment context, where companies have rushed to fold class action waivers into sales and employment agreements.

For one, several other circuit courts of appeal had already upheld arbitration agreements in plan documents.[4]  So at least in these circuits, plan sponsors have already been free to include arbitration agreements in employee benefit and retirement plans like the 401k plan at issue in Dorman.  Plaintiff also requested en banc rehearing earlier this month, so Amaro could still be revived.

Other reasons are more practical.  Including class action waivers in arbitration agreements might stave off a class action asserted in federal court.  But in contrast to their effect on wage-and-hour and consumer-protection class actions, class action waivers might not necessarily limit exposure on fiduciary claims under ERISA, which are themselves a kind of representative action brought on behalf of the plan for monetary relief.[5]  The Dorman and other appellate decisions have not expressly addressed whether a plan’s arbitration agreement could confine the action to individual monetary relief as opposed to plan-wide relief.  As a result, any judgment might benefit the plan and plan participants as a whole regardless of whether the action is styled as a class action.

Additionally, the cost savings attributed to arbitration of employment and consumer claims might not be present in ERISA claims, which are often decided on the papers in federal court. In contrast, arbitration likely requires the same amount of attorney time as in federal court, with the added costs of the arbitrator(s) and an arbitration hearing.  Combine the added costs with a limited standard of review, and it might not net a more favorable result than proceeding in federal court in a class action.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Justin Boron at [email protected].

[1] Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24735 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24791 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019).
[2] 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984).
[3] 570 U.S. 228, 233 (2013).
[4] See, e.g., Williams v. Imhoff, 203 F.3d 758 (10th Cir. 2000); Kramer v. Smith Barney, 80 F.3d 1080 (5th Cir. 1996); Pritzker v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, 7 F.3d 1110 (3d Cir. 1993); Bird v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, 926 F.2d 116 (2d Cir. 1991); Arnulfo P. Sulit, Inc. v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 847 F.2d 475 (8th Cir. 1988).
[5] 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(2); 29 U.S.C. § 1109.