Am. Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest.

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.


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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.


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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.


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At its conference on January 10, the Supreme Court can get serious about fixing consumer class actions. The Justices should take up that challenge, because it will consider two certiorari petitions that seek review of class certifications—involving alleged “moldy odors” in high-tech front loading washing machines—that are prime examples of what has gone wrong with

We have frequently chronicled the ongoing efforts of the plaintiffs’ bar to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, which held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) requires the enforcement of parties’ agreements to resolve their disputes through individual arbitration rather than class or collective proceedings. One of the most prominent efforts to evade Concepcion has been the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in D.R. Horton (pdf), which declared that the right of employees to engage in “concerted activities” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) trumps the FAA and requires that employees be allowed to bring class actions (either in court or arbitration). The Board also pointed to the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which provides that employees “shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers” in “concerted activities.” In the NLRB’s view, any business subject to the Board’s jurisdiction (and that includes most private-sector businesses) that requires its employees to agree to resolve disputes through individual arbitration has engaged in an unfair labor practice and faces the threat of agency action.

Numerous plaintiffs seeking to invalidate arbitration provisions in employment agreements have claimed that the Labor Board’s D.R. Horton decision establishes the invalidity of arbitration provisions that include a class waiver, but virtually every court to consider the question has declined to follow the NLRB’s lead. Yesterday, in an important decision for employers nationwide, the Fifth Circuit invalidated the Board’s decision, holding in DR Horton, Inc. v. NLRB (pdf) that the NLRB’s position is inconsistent with the FAA. In overturning the Board’s order, the Fifth Circuit noted its agreement with “[e]very one of our sister circuits to consider the issue,” each of which “has either suggested or expressly stated that they would not defer to the NLRB’s rationale, and held arbitration agreements containing class waivers enforceable.” Slip op. at 25 (citing Richards v. Ernst & Young, LLP (9th Cir.), Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP (2d Cir.), and Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc. (8th Cir.)). (Our colleague Andy Pincus will be arguing this issue in the Ninth Circuit later this week in Johnmohammadi v. Bloomingdale’s, Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; a PDF of our amicus brief in that case is available here.)


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