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.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Considers Class Waivers in Employment Arbitration Agreements

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.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Will Review NLRB’s Anti-Arbitration D.R. Horton Rule

Today is Halloween, an occasion when our thoughts turn to jack o’lanterns, ghosts, and zombies.  We are particularly fascinated by zombies—the dead returned to life. But we’re not the only ones.  In a decision earlier this week, a majority of the National Labor Relations Board voted to reanimate the dead.

The Board’s zombie of choice?  Its decision nearly three years ago in D.R. Horton (pdf), in which the Board sought to push back on arbitration agreements that require individual arbitration rather than class or collective actions.  As our readers know by now, most courts have accepted the Supreme Court’s clear and emphatic message that the Federal Arbitration Act protects the right of contracting parties to agree to resolve any disputes through arbitration on an individual basis.  But the NLRB, which hears complaints alleging unfair labor practices, came to a different conclusion in D.R. Horton, concluding that individual arbitration interferes with the right of employees to engage in “concerted activities” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act— and that its interpretation of the NLRA trumps the FAA.  Yet, for reasons we—along with many other critics—have discussed, that approach gets it exactly backward.  The Supreme Court has held that the FAA takes precedence in the absence of a contrary congressional command.  Nothing in the NLRA itself (as opposed to the Board’s own policy views) evinces a clear congressional command to override the FAA.  And the Board itself cannot override a congressional enactment like the FAA.

For these reasons, the Board’s D.R. Horton ruling has been rejected by almost every court to consider it: by the Fifth Circuit (on direct review), by the Second Circuit, by the Eighth Circuit, by more than a dozen federal district courts, and— most recently— by the California Supreme Court.

But the Board, rather than acquiescing in the face of this avalanche of judicial authority, has sought to resurrect it.  Earlier this week, by a 3–2 vote, the Board issued its decision in Murphy Oil USA (pdf), reaffirming D.R. Horton and rejecting the views of the courts.  The Board dismissed most of the contrary authority in cavalier fashion—disparaging the Second and Eighth Circuit’s decisions for their “abbreviated” analysis, and refusing to engage with the California Supreme Court’s decision or any federal district court decision because those courts don’t typically exercise direct review over Board decisions.

As for the Fifth Circuit’s decision, the Board complained that the court gave “too little weight to [Board] policy” and that “[t]he costs to Federal labor policy imposed by the Fifth Circuit’s decision would be very high.”  But this assessment simply underscores the error in the Board’s ways:  An agency’s general policy views, no matter how strongly felt, cannot override the powerful congressional mandate favoring the enforcement of arbitration agreements that is embodied in the FAA.  And even though the Board has authority to set policy under the NLRA, the Board’s view of what the FAA requires is not entitled to any weight at all, because Congress has never given the agency authority to interpret or administer that statute.

In response to the Fifth Circuit’s legal analysis, the Board did little more in Murphy Oil than repeat its view— resting on nothing more than the Board’s say so in D.R. Horton— that the right to engage in “concerted activities” under Section 7 includes an unwaivable substantive right to class-action procedures.  But nothing in the text of the NLRA commands or even suggests that result.  Although the Board purported to find an “inherent conflict” between the NLRA and the FAA, the purported conflict in fact arises only from the Board’s questionable interpretation of the NLRA, not from anything inherent in the statute itself.  At bottom, the Board’s position rests on its own view of federal labor policy, not any congressional command, and an agency’s views cannot override what Congress enacted in the FAA.  (Moreover, as the Fifth Circuit pointed out, the agency’s insistence that the purported right to class-action procedures is a nonwaivable substantive right under the NLRA is questionable even on its own terms.)

The Board’s decision will not be the last word on this matter.  As in D.R. Horton, this latest decision is subject to direct review by a federal court of appeals, which will be free to reject the Board’s position and deny enforcement of its order.  Given the weight of judicial authority rejecting D.R. Horton and the Board’s failure to respond to that authority in a convincing manner, the Board’s position will likely continue to be met with skepticism in the courts.  For now, however, employers that use arbitration agreements with their employees may face possible challenges from the Board or from employees seeking to pursue class or collective actions.  In short, the D.R. Horton zombie will continue to stalk the land for the immediate future.

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.)

Continue Reading Fifth Circuit Overturns NLRB’s Anti-Arbitration D.R. Horton Ruling

We’ve been reporting on the constitutional challenge to President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, which has serious implications for the recess appointment of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray. Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted the government’s unopposed petition for a writ of certiorari from the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB.

The Court granted review of three questions:

  • Whether the President’s recess-appointment power may be exercised during a recess that occurs within a session of the Senate, or is instead limited to recesses that occur between enumerated sessions of the Senate.
  • Whether the President’s recess-appointment power may be exercised to fill vacancies that exist during a recess, or is instead limited to vacancies that first arose during that recess.
  • Whether the President’s recess-appointment power may be exercised when the Senate is convening every three days in pro forma sessions.

The government’s certiorari petition had raised the first two questions; the third was suggested by the respondent.

We’ve blogged about the D.C. Circuit’s ruling in Noel Canning v. NLRB (pdf) that President Obama’s three 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board are unconstitutional. The consequence of that decision was to invalidate the NLRB decision against Noel Canning for lack of a quorum of NLRB members. The decision also cast a dark cloud over many other NLRB decisions, as well as the recess appointment of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray.

As we mentioned, the Solicitor General already filed a petition for certiorari in Noel Canning. The National Chamber Litigation Center has just filed a brief in response—the first time that Chamber lawyers have ever directly represented a member company before the Supreme Court.

The Chamber’s brief (pdf) agrees that the D.C. Circuit’s decision is worthy of Supreme Court review, and explains why the D.C. Circuit’s decision should be upheld.

Under the current schedule, the Supreme Court will consider the petition during the June 20, 2013 conference and possibly act on it in the orders list on June 24. If the Solicitor General waives the right to file a reply brief, however, the petition could be resolved a week earlier, on June 17.

In related news, in another case, the Third Circuit agreed with the D.C. Circuit’s conclusion that the Constitution permits recess appointments only during “intersession breaks”—that is, during periods between sessions of the Senate. As with the 2012 recess appointments at issue in Noel Canning, the 2010 recess appointment at issue in the Third Circuit case, NLRB v. New Vista Nursing & Rehabilitation (pdf), was made during a break in the middle of a session. Judge Smith wrote the decision, which Judge Van Antwerpen joined. Judge Greenaway dissented. Presumably, the Solicitor General will file a petition for certiorari in New Vista asking that the case be held pending the outcome of Noel Canning.

In the wake of AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, the California Supreme Court granted review in three cases involving significant arbitration issues, including key questions about whether the Federal Arbitration Act preempts California law concerning the enforceability of arbitration agreements.

My colleagues and I have filed amicus briefs on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States in all three cases, the most recent of which is Iskanian v. CLS Transportation, No. S204032.

In Iskanian, the Second District of the California Court of Appeal had affirmed an order compelling individual arbitration in a putative class/representative action alleging, among other things, that the defendant had failed to pay overtime and provide required meal and rest breaks. For more background on the grant of review and the decision below, please see our prior blog post here.

The Chamber’s amicus brief (pdf) to the California Supreme Court explains why the court of appeal was correct.

Continue Reading U.S. Chamber of Commerce Files Amicus Brief On Arbitration Issues In Key California Supreme Court Case

We’ve previously written about the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB, which held that President Obama’s three recess appointments in 2012 to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are unconstitutional. The Solicitor General has just filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the D.C. Circuit’s decision.

The Obama administration’s decision to seek Supreme Court in Noel Canning is unsurprising. By invalidating the recess appointments to the NLRB, the D.C. Circuit’s decision undermines every action by the NLRB since those appointments were made on January 4, 2012. The decision also casts a dark shadow over actions since that date by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), because the CFPB’s director (Richard Cordray) received a recess appointment at the same time as the three NLRB members whose appointments are at issue in Noel Canning. For more details, please see our report on the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Noel Canning.

Barring extensions, the opposition to the certiorari petition is due May 28, 2013. Because of the timing of the filing of the petition, the Supreme Court ordinarily would not consider whether to grant review until after the summer recess, during the Court’s first conference in late September 2013. It is possible that the response to the petition could be filed early, however, in order to enable the Court to make the certiorari decision before its summer break.

UPDATE (4/29/13):  According to an article in Reuters, Noel Canning won’t oppose Supreme Court review:

Gary Lofland, the Seattle attorney representing Noel Canning, said they would encourage the court to take the case.
“We believe that it’s important that the court resolve this issue because it provides a better certainty to the business community,” Lofland said in an interview.

Hat tip: Volokh Conspiracy.

 

On January 25, 2013, the D.C. Circuit held in Noel Canning v. NLRB (pdf) that President Obama’s three recess appointments last year to the NLRB are unconstitutional.  The decision casts a shadow over every action taken by the NLRB since those appointments were made on January 4, 2012.  Moreover, because Richard Cordray received a recess appointment to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) on the same day, the DC Circuit’s decision provides grounds for challenging certain CFPB actions.  Please see our report on the DC Circuit’s decision and the implications for challenges by companies to agency actions.