A recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis upheld employers’ use of class-action waivers in arbitration agreements. No. 16-285, 2018 WL 2292444, at *1 (U.S. May 21, 2018). Based on this ruling, employees that have signed such agreements are no longer able to join together to sue employers and instead must use arbitration to individually resolve any issues. This decision will likely make it harder for employees to sue employers now that collective bargaining is off the table. Class actions offered employees a chance to seek damages from employers when individual lawsuits were too costly, potential damages were too low, or when employees feared retaliation if they sued employers individually.
Epic Systems Corp. consolidated three separate cases involving three different employers: Epic Systems, Ernst & Young, and Murphy Oil. In each of these cases, an employer and employee entered into a contract providing for individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve employment disputes between the parties. However, each employee later sought to litigate Fair Labor Standards Act and related state law claims through class or collective actions in federal court.
The Arbitration Act requires courts to enforce agreements to arbitrate, including the terms of arbitration agreed to by the parties. The Arbitration Act also includes a savings clause, which allows courts to refuse to enforce arbitration agreements “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” The employees here argued that the savings clause applied to the waivers prohibiting class actions, creating a “ground” upon which the court may refuse to enforce the arbitration agreements. The employees relied on the National Labor Relations Board’s interpretation that the National Labor Relations Act overrides the Arbitration Act. However, the court found that the savings clause was not applicable to the employees’ arbitration agreements.
The Supreme Court noted where two acts discuss the same issue “Congress will specifically address preexisting law before suspending the law’s normal operations in a later statute.” The court stressed that “the absence of any specific statutory discussion of arbitration or class actions is an important and telling clue that Congress has not displaced the Arbitration Act.” The court summed up by stating: “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written. While Congress is of course always free to amend this judgment, we see nothing suggesting it did so in the NLRA.”
The court’s finding that collective bargaining law does not supersede the federal law that established the arbitration process and that the class-action waivers in employment contracts are valid, may lead more employers to include such provisions in their employment agreements. Employers are likely to see the court’s decision as a big win, while employees may second-guess decisions to initiate actions against employers, knowing arbitration is the only option.
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Whether you’re an employer or employee wondering how this decision might affect you, attorneys at General Counsel PC can help. Our attorneys are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William. Call General Counsel PC at 703-556-0411 today to see how we can help you.