Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis (pdf). Here is a piece that my colleague and I wrote for SCOTUSblog about the Court’s decision and its implications.
The anti-arbitration rule issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in July is now just one short step away from elimination.
The Senate tonight voted 51-50 (with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote) to invalidate the CFPB’s rule under the Congressional Review Act (“CRA”). That vote follows the House of Representatives’ disapproval of the rule in July.
The last remaining step is the President’s signature on the legislation, which seems highly likely given the Administration’s statement today (pdf) urging the Senate to invalidate the rule.
The President’s approval will trigger two provisions of the CRA.
First, the rule “shall not take effect (or continue)” (5 U.S.C. § 801(b)(1)). In other words, the rule no longer has the force of law and businesses are no longer required to comply with its terms.
Second, the CFPB may neither re-issue the rule “in substantially the same form” nor issue a new rule that is “substantially the same” as the invalidated rule—unless Congress enacts new legislation “specifically authoriz[ing]” such a rule (5 U.S.C. § 801(b)(2)). The scope of this “substantially the same” standard has not been addressed by the courts, but it seems clear that at the very minimum the Bureau cannot issue (a) a new rule banning class action waivers; (b) an express ban of pre-dispute arbitration clauses; (c) a rule that has the practical effect of eliminating pre-dispute arbitration clauses; or (d) any other rule that imposes similar burdens on the use of arbitration.
Invalidation of the rule under the CRA also will moot the pending broad-based industry lawsuit against the CFPB challenging the legality of the regulation. (Mayer Brown represents the plaintiffs in the litigation).
The Supreme Court kicked off its October 2017 Term yesterday with a spirited oral argument in the three cases involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements in employment contracts.
As we have explained, these cases—Epic Systems v. Lewis, Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, and NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA—present the question whether an arbitration agreement in an employment contract that requires bilateral arbitration, and prohibits class procedures, is invalidated by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gives employees the right “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” According to the National Labor Relations Board, Section 7 protects employees’ right to seek relief on a class-wide basis, and therefore renders unenforceable arbitration agreements that bar class procedures—even though the Supreme Court has twice held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) protects the enforceability of such agreements, in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) and American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (2013).
The four Justices who dissented in either Concepcion or Italian Colors (or both) aggressively defended the NLRB’s determination. When the dust settled, however, it was not at all clear that they will be able to attract a fifth Justice to their position.
As many of our readers know, the Supreme Court will hear arguments next term in a trio of cases examining whether class waivers in employment arbitration agreements are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. Many observers—including the two of us—believed that the issue had been settled by the Supreme Court’s decisions in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) and American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (2013). But—as detailed on our blog—in 2012 the National Labor Relations Board concluded in the D.R. Horton case that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects the ability of employees to engage in “concerted activities” (for example, union organizing), supersedes Concepcion (and by extension, American Express) and requires that employees be allowed to bring class actions (either in court or in arbitration).
Over the past several years, a circuit split has developed over whether the Board’s approach in D.R. Horton rests on correct interpretations of the FAA and NLRA, with the majority of courts rejecting the Board’s position. In January, the Supreme Court granted review in three cases—NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, and Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris—to resolve the split. Briefing on the merits is now underway. We filed our amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Chamber last Friday, and—while we believe our brief makes compelling arguments (which we discuss below)—the big development in these cases was the amicus brief that the United States filed on Friday.
Significantly, the United States has changed its position since last October, when the DOJ represented the NLRB in filing the petition for certiorari in Murphy Oil. That petition was a full-throated defense of the D.R. Horton rule, consistent with efforts by a number of federal agencies during the Obama Administration to circumvent Concepcion by banning class waivers or banning predispute arbitration entirely. Last Friday, however, the United States broke with the Board’s position, filing an amicus brief in support of Murphy Oil and the other two companies.
As the government explained in its brief on Friday, the Solicitor General’s office has concluded that its earlier briefs got the issue wrong:
In Murphy Oil, this Office previously filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on behalf of the NLRB, defending the Board’s view that agreements of the sort at issue here are unenforceable. After the change in administration, the Office reconsidered the issue and has reached the opposite conclusion. Although the Board’s interpretation of ambiguous NLRA language is ordinarily entitled to judicial deference, courts do not defer to the Board’s conclusion as to the interplay between the NLRA and other federal statutes. We do not believe that the Board in its prior unfair-labor-practice proceedings, or the government’s certiorari petition in Murphy Oil, gave adequate weight to the congressional policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements that is reflected in the FAA.
As we’ve noted in this space before, one of the most persistent efforts to undermine the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion—which held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) generally requires enforcing arbitration agreements that waive class or collective proceedings—has been spearheaded by the National Labor Relations Board. In 2012, the Board concluded in the D.R. Horton case (pdf) that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects the ability of employees to engage in “concerted activities” (for example, union organizing), supersedes the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the FAA in Concepcion and its progeny and requires that employees be allowed to bring class actions (either in court or in arbitration).
Until recently, the D.R. Horton rule had been rejected by every appellate court to consider it—the Second Circuit, Fifth Circuit, and Eighth Circuit as well as the California and Nevada Supreme Courts—not to mention numerous federal district courts. But last year, the Seventh Circuit and Ninth Circuit parted ways with this consensus, agreeing with the Board and concluding that (at least in some circumstances) agreements between employers and employees to arbitrate their disputes on an individual basis are unenforceable.
This circuit split all but guaranteed that the Supreme Court would need to step in, and sure enough, last Friday, the Court granted certiorari in three cases involving the validity of the D.R. Horton rule. (We drafted amicus briefs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in each case). One case, NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., arises out of a Board decision finding that an employer had engaged in an unfair labor practice by entering into arbitration agreements with its employees, and the other two, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis and Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, are private-party disputes in which employees invoked D.R. Horton to challenge their arbitration agreements.
The rule (pdf) just proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to regulate arbitration agreements is not a surprise: the Bureau has said for months that it was developing such a rule.
This post examines the details of the proposal—how it would regulate arbitration, its scope, and its effective date. We also discuss the course of the rulemaking process, including potential judicial review of any final rule. In a future post, we’ll evaluate the CFPB’s purported justifications for the regulation.
The bottom line: The CFPB’s proposal is effectively a blanket ban on the use of arbitration by companies in the consumer financial services arena. It is an attempt to overrule by regulation the Supreme Court’s landmark decision five years ago in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (in which we represented AT&T). Businesses that are concerned about the ramifications of this proposal will have 90 days from the date the proposal is published in the Federal Register to submit comments to the agency, and if a rule is adopted in the present form of the proposal, parties are certain to seek judicial review.
A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit has held Del Webb Communities, Inc. v. Carlson that the question whether an arbitration agreement authorizes class-wide arbitration is for the courts, not an arbitrator, to decide—unless the agreement clearly and unmistakably delegates that issue to the arbitrator. In so holding, the Fourth Circuit aligned itself with decisions of the Third and Sixth Circuits. As we discuss below, the decision benefits businesses that seek to enforce individual arbitration when the arbitration agreement does not expressly authorize class arbitration: If the important question of the availability of class-wide arbitration was assigned to an arbitrator, meaningful judicial review of that decision would not be available.
In AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempts state-law rules barring enforcement of an arbitration agreement if the agreement does not permit the parties to utilize class procedures in arbitration or in court. Before Concepcion, the law of California included that limitation on the enforceability of arbitration agreements, but Concepcion declared that rule invalid as a matter of federal law. Yesterday, in DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia (pdf), the Supreme Court held that Section 2 preempts a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement based on a legal rule that the state’s courts had applied only in the arbitration context, concluding that the state-law ruling “does not rest ‘upon such grounds as exist . . . for the revocation of any contract.’”
(We filed an amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in support of DTV.)
The California Supreme Court has a reputation for hostility to arbitration, especially in the consumers and employment context. Much of the arbitration docket of the United States Supreme Court over the past 30 years has involved reversals of California Supreme Court decisions refusing to enforce arbitration agreements, most recently (and perhaps most notably) in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (in which the authors were counsel). Even when seemingly compelled to enforce an arbitration provision in the face of recent U.S. Supreme Court authority, the California court has often found a way to carve out some exception to arbitration in the particular case or to offer suggestions to plaintiffs seeking to avoid arbitration in a future case. A prime example is the 2014 decision in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation, which exempted from arbitration all wage-and-hour civil-penalty claims under the Private Attorney General Act.
The decision in Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co. (pdf) represents a welcome break from this pattern, upholding an arbitration agreement against an array of unconscionability challenges without finding it necessary to sever even a single clause to render the agreement enforceable. Although every point decided in Sanchez is consistent with recent U.S. Supreme Court authority applying the Federal Arbitration Act, however, the opinion’s emphasis on the specific factual setting may seed further efforts to evade arbitration agreements . As so often is the case, the devil is often in the details.
As readers of this blog know, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, the California Supreme Court (and a number of other state courts) had declared that waivers of class-wide arbitration were unenforceable as a matter of state law. But in Concepcion, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempts state-law rules requiring the availability of class-wide arbitration.
How do the FAA and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution affect the interpretation of arbitration clauses written prior to Concepcion? The Supreme Court may provide further guidance on that issue in DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, No. 14-462, in which it granted certiorari today. (We have previously blogged about Imburgia.)
At issue in Imburgia is whether an arbitration provision that specifies that it is inapplicable if its ban on class-wide procedures is unenforceable under “the law of [the customer’s] state” is (a) governed by state law without reference to FAA preemption, or (b) by state law taking into account the preemptive effect of the FAA. Stated another way, did the parties contract out of the FAA’s coverage?
Respondent Imburgia, a customer of petitioner DIRECTV, Inc. (“DTV”), filed a class action in California state court against DTV in 2007, alleging that DTV improperly charged early termination fees to its customers. DTV’s Customer Agreement contained an arbitration clause that specified that it was governed by the FAA and that arbitration would take place on an individual rather than class-wide basis. That arbitration clause also stated that “[i]f … the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class action procedures unenforceable, then this entire Section [i.e., the arbitration clause] … is unenforceable.”
In Discover Bank v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court declared that consumer arbitration agreements are unconscionable under California law unless they allow for class arbitration. In light of Discover Bank, DTV did not invoke the arbitration provision when the lawsuit was filed. Shortly after the Supreme Court decided Concepcion—and held Discover Bank to be preempted by the FAA—DTV moved to compel arbitration. The trial court denied DTV’s motion.
The California Court of Appeal affirmed. The Court of Appeal held that the reference in the arbitration provision to “the law of [the customer’s] state” was ambiguous and could mean either (1) the state’s law without regard to federal law; or (2) the state’s law, as superseded by federal law (such as the FAA). The court adopted the first interpretation—i.e., that the preemptive effect of federal law does not bear on the meaning of “the law of [the customer’s] state.” Under that interpretation, the California Court of Appeal declared, the law of California is that agreements to dispense with class action procedures are unenforceable, and accordingly DTV’s arbitration clause is unenforceable. The California Supreme Court denied review. (We filed an amicus letter (pdf) in the case urging that the California Supreme Court grant review.)
Interpreting the same DTV arbitration provision, the Ninth Circuit in Murphy v. DIRECTV, Inc., 724 F.3d 1218 (9th Cir. 2013), reached the opposite conclusion. In Murphy, the Ninth Circuit held that “Section 2 of the FAA, which under Concepcion requires the enforcement of arbitration agreements that ban class procedures, is the law of California and of every other state. The Customer Agreement’s reference to state law does not signify the inapplicability of federal law,” because under the Supremacy Clause, “the Constitution [and] laws . . . of the United States are as much a part of the law of every State as its own local laws and Constitution.” Id. at 1226 (citation omitted). As a result, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the reasoning later adopted by the California court—that “the parties intended state law to govern the enforceability of the arbitration clause, even if the state law in question contravened federal law”—“is nonsensical.” Id.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Imburgia should help clarify whether a company’s good-faith effort to include in an arbitration provision language designed to comply with existing state law risks can have the unintended effect of jettisoning the protections of the FAA. The case will likely be briefed over the next several months and argued in the fall.