By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Yesterday’s blog closely examined pivotal rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, which was the first trend of the 15th Annual Workplace Class Action Report (WCAR).  Today, we begin the WCAR video series with author Jerry Maatman’s analysis of the Supreme Court’s significant rulings in 2018.  In addition to providing an overview of a groundbreaking year at the Supreme Court, Jerry also previews what employers should expect from the Court in 2019.  Watch our video in the link below!

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The first key trend from our 15th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report involves rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Over the past few years, the Supreme Court has issued a number of rulings that impacted the prosecution and defense of class actions in significant ways. Today, we provide readers with an outline of the most important workplace rulings issued by the Supreme Court in 2018, as well as which upcoming decisions employers should watch for in 2019.  Read the full breakdown below!

Over the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts increasingly has shaped the contours of complex litigation exposures through its rulings on class action and governmental enforcement litigation issues. Many of these decisions have elucidated the requirements for pursuing employment-related class actions under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and the 2013 decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend are the two most significant examples. Those rulings are at the core of class certification issues under Rule 23.

This year saw another signal ruling in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, which marks a gateway device to block prosecution of class actions in the judicial system and forces adjudication of claims on an individual, bi-lateral basis in arbitration.

To that end, federal and state courts cited Wal-Mart in 608 rulings in 2018; they cited Comcast in 235 cases in 2018; and despite its issuance in May of 2018, they cited Epic Systems in 119 decisions by year’s end.

The past year also saw a change in the composition of the Supreme Court in April of 2018, with Justice Neil Gorsuch assuming the seat of Antonin Scalia after his passing in 2016, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh taking the seat of Anthony Kennedy in October 2018, after Kennedy’s retirement and a bruising Senate confirmation battle.

Given the age of some of the other sitting Justices, President Trump may have the opportunity to fill additional seats on the Supreme Court in 2019 and beyond, and thereby influence a shift in the ideology of the Supreme Court toward a more conservative and strict constructionist jurisprudence. In turn, this is apt to change legal precedents that shape and define the playing field for workplace class action litigation.

Rulings In 2018

In terms of decisions by the Supreme Court impacting workplace class actions, this past year was no exception. In 2018, the Supreme Court decided seven cases four employment-related cases and three class action cases that will influence complex employment-related litigation in the coming years.

The employment-related rulings included two wage & hour collective actions and two union cases, and in class actions that involved securities and human rights. A rough scorecard of the decisions reflects one distinct plaintiff/worker-side victory, and defense-oriented rulings in six cases.

Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018) – Decided on May 21, 2018, this employment case involved the interpretation of mandatory workplace arbitration agreements between employers and employees and whether class action waivers within such agreements – which require workers to arbitrate any claims on an individual, bi-lateral basis (and waive the ability to bring or participate in a class action or collective action) – violate employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in “concerted activities” in pursuit. In a 5 to 4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that class action waivers in arbitration agreements are valid. The decision is likely to have far-reaching implications for litigation of class actions and collective actions.

Cyan, Inc., et al. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, 138 S. Ct. 1061 (2018) – Decided on March 20, 2018, this class action case posed the issue of whether federal law bars state courts from hearing certain securities class actions. The case turned on interpretation of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“SLUSA”) – which imposes tougher standards on securities class actions brought in federal courts – and whether it mandated that state courts can no longer hear class actions based on the Securities Act of 1933. In a 9 to 0 decision, the Supreme Court held that SLUSA did not strip state courts of jurisdiction over class actions alleging violations of securities laws and that defendants cannot remove such lawsuits from federal court to state court. In this regard, it did not spell the end of what many have viewed as a “cottage industry” of state court-based class action filings in states such as California where class action lawyers target public companies with securities claims over drops in stock process.

Encino Motors, LLC v. Navarro, et al., 138 S. Ct. 1134 (2018) – Decided on April 2, 2018, in this wage & hour case the Supreme Court examined whether service advisors at car dealerships are exempt under 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A) from the overtime pay provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The Supreme Court held 5 to 4 that service advisors are exempt under the FLSA. The ruling is apt to have far-reaching implications on the legal tests for interpretation of statutory exemptions under the FLSA, as the broader reading of the exemption potentially could reduce the number of workers allowed to assert wage & hour claims against their employers.

CNH Industrial N.V. v. Reese, et al., 138 S. Ct. 761 (2018) – Decided on February 20, 2018, in this employment case the Supreme Court held in a per curium opinion that collective bargaining agreements are to be interpreted according to ordinary principles of contract law, including the rule that a contract is not ambiguous unless it is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation. The case involved a collective bargaining agreement, which provided health care benefits under a group benefit plan to certain employees who retired under the pension plan. The agreement expired by its terms in May 2004. At that time, a class of CNH retirees and surviving spouses filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that their health care benefits vested for life. In reversing lower court rulings that determined that the collective bargaining agreement was ambiguous and they therefore could rely on extrinsic evidence in interpreting the contract to favor the claims of the union members, the Supreme Court held that the “only reasonable interpretation of the 1998 agreement was that the health care benefits expired when the collective bargaining agreement expired in 2004.

Janus, et al. v. AFSCME, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018) – Decided on June 27, 2018, in this employment case the Supreme Court considered whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), should be overruled and public-sector “agency shop” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment so as to prevent public-sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from non-members. In ruling 5 to 4, the Supreme Court held that the application of a mandatory public sector union fee requirement is a violation of the First Amendment, thereby overruling Abood. This ruling had an immediate impact on millions of workers in 22 states that do not have right-to-work laws. Since many workers are apt to cease paying union dues with the abolishment of the fair share fee payments requirement, the decision will have a significant impact on the ability of public-sector unions to conduct their business.

China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh, et al., 138 S. Ct. 1800 (2018) – Decided on June 11, 2018, in this class action case the Supreme Court examined whether the tolling rule for class actions established in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974), tolled the statute of limitations to permit a previously absent class member to bring a subsequent class action outside the applicable limitations period. American Pipe had held that the filing of a class action tolls the running of the statute of limitations for all putative members of the class who make timely motions to intervene after the lawsuit is deemed inappropriate for class action status. The Supreme Court interpreted American Pipe more narrowly, and held that it does not permit the maintenance of a follow-on class action past the expiration of the statute of limitations. In essence, the ruling limits the tolling rule in American Pipe to apply only to subsequent individual claims.

Jesner, et al. v. Arab Bank, PLC, 138 S. Ct. 1386 (2018) – Decided on April 24, 2018, this class action posed the issue of whether foreign-based corporations can be sued in U.S. courts for alleged violations of the Alien Tort Statute. The Supreme Court decided 5 to 4 that Plaintiffs may not do so. The end result will be to bring a halt to class actions brought to hold foreign-based corporations responsible in U.S. courts for alleged human rights violations committed overseas.

The decisions in Epic Systems, Beaver County, Navarro, Reese, Janus, China Agritech, and Jesner are sure to shape and influence workplace class action litigation in a profound manner.

These cases will impact rules on American Pipe tolling and application of statute of limitations in class actions; the ability of foreign-based claimants to prosecute class actions based on overseas labor and human rights abuses; the obligations of corporations to fund lifetime retiree benefits under collective bargaining agreements; the scope of exemptions in wage & hour litigation; union fee litigation and membership rights; securities fraud class action litigation in state courts; and defenses to workplace class actions based on class waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements.

In addition, Epic Systems may turn out to be one of the most important workplace class action decisions over the last several decades in terms of its ultimate impact on litigation dynamics.

Rulings Expected In 2019

Equally important for the coming year, the Supreme Court accepted five additional cases for review in 2018 that will be decided in 2019 that also will impact and shape class action litigation and government enforcement lawsuits faced by employers.

Those cases include two employment lawsuits and three class action cases.

The Supreme Court undertook oral arguments on four of these cases in 2018; the other case underwent oral argument in early 2019.

Frank, et al. v. Gaos, No. 17-961 – Argued on October 31, 2018, this case concerns whether and in what circumstances a cy pres award in a class action – that supplies no direct relief to class members – nonetheless comports with the Rule 23 requirement that a settlement binding class members must be fair, reasonable, and adequate. The ultimate ruling by the Supreme Court likely will determine the legality of cy pres awards, and if approved, create guidelines for the appropriateness of cy pres awards in class action settlements.

Home Depot U.S.A. v. Jackson, et al., No. 17-1471 – Argued on January 15, 2019, this case involves the Class Action Fairness Act and the circumstances under which Defendants may remove a class action to federal court where Defendants file a counter-claim. The ultimate decision likely will determine if the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in Shamrock Oil & Gas Co. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100 (1941) – that a Plaintiff may not remove a counter-claim against it – extends to third-party Defendants bringing counter-claims.

Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, et al., No. 17-988 – Argued on October 29, 2018, this case poses the issue of whether the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) forecloses a broad interpretation of an arbitration agreement that allows prosecution of a class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements. Given the ruling in Epic Systems in 2018, the upcoming decision in this case will be of critical significance to employers involved in arbitration of workplace disputes.

New Prime Inc. v. Oliveria, et al., No. 17-340 – Argued on October 29, 2018, this case presents the issue of whether a court or an arbitrator must determine the applicability of § 1 of the FAA – which applies only to “contracts of employment” – to independent contractor agreements. The future decision in this case will be important to employers seeking to use class action waivers in workplace arbitration agreements used with independent contractors.

Mount Lemon Fire District v. Guido, No. 17-587 – Argued on October 1, 2018, this case raises the issue of whether the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) applies to state and local governmental entities. A future decision will determine the coverage of the ADEA relative to the public sector employees.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue decisions in these five cases by the end of the 2018/2019 term in June of 2019.

Rulings in these cases will have significance for employers in complying with employment discrimination laws, structuring arbitration proceedings, and defending class action litigation.

Implications For Employers

Each decision outlined above may have significant implications for employers and for the defense of high-stakes class action litigation. As always, we will closely monitor all Supreme Court case developments and report them to our readers. Stay tuned!

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: At 852 pages, Seyfarth’s 15th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report analyzes 1,453 rulings and is our most comprehensive Report ever.

Click here to access the microsite featuring all the Report highlights. You can read about the five major trends of the past year, order your copy of the eBook, and download Chapters 1 and 2 on the 2019 Executive Summary and key class action settlements.

The Report was featured today in an exclusive article in MarketWatch. Click here to read the coverage!

The Report is the sole compendium in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to workplace class action litigation, and has become the “go to” research and resource guide for businesses and their corporate counsel facing complex litigation. We were again honored this year with a review of our Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”). Here is what EPLiC said: “The Report is a must-have resource for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation. Anyone who practices in this area, whether as a corporate counsel, a private attorney, a business execu­tive, a risk manager, an underwriter, a consul­tant, or a broker, cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publica­tion of its kind in the United States. It is the sole compendium that analyzes workplace class actions from ‘A to Z.’” Furthermore, EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art word” on workplace class action litigation.

The 2019 Report analyzes rulings from all state and federal courts – including private plaintiff class actions and collective actions, and government enforcement actions –  in the substantive areas of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. It also features chapters on EEOC pattern or practice rulings, state law class certification decisions, and non-workplace class action rulings that impact employers. The Report also analyzes the leading class action settlements for 2018 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, ERISA class actions, and statutory workplace laws, as well as settlements of government enforcement actions, both with respect to monetary values and injunctive relief provisions.

We hope our loyal blog readers will enjoy it!

Executive Summary

The prosecution of workplace class action litigation by the plaintiffs’ bar has continued to escalate over the past decade. Class actions often pose unique “bet-the-company” risks for employers. As has become readily apparent in the #MeToo era, an adverse judgment in a class action has the potential to bankrupt a business and adverse publicity can eviscerate its market share. Likewise, the on-going defense of a class action can drain corporate resources long before the case even reaches a decision point. Companies that do business in multiple states are also susceptible to “copy-cat” class actions, whereby plaintiffs’ lawyers create a domino effect of litigation filings that challenge corporate policies and practices in numerous jurisdictions at the same time. Hence, workplace class actions can impair a corporation’s business operations, jeopardize or cut short the careers of senior management, and cost millions of dollars to defend. For these reasons, workplace class actions remain at the top of the list of challenges that keep business leaders up late at night with worries about compliance and litigation. Skilled plaintiffs’ class action lawyers and governmental enforcement litigators are not making this challenge any easier for companies. They are continuing to develop new theories and approaches to the successful prosecution of complex employment litigation and government-backed lawsuits.

New rulings by federal and state courts have added to this patchwork quilt of compliance problems and risk management issues. In turn, the events of the past year in the workplace class action world demonstrate that the array of litigation issues facing businesses are continuing to accelerate at a rapid pace while also undergoing significant change. Notwithstanding the transition to new leadership in the White House with the Trump Administration, governmental enforcement litigation pursued by the U.S. Equal Employment Commission (“EEOC”) and other federal agencies continued to manifest an aggressive agenda, with regulatory oversight of workplace issues continuing as a high priority. Conversely, litigation issues stemming from the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) reflected a slight pull-back from previous efforts to push a pronounced pro-worker/anti-business agenda. The combination of these factors are challenging businesses to integrate their litigation and risk mitigation strategies to navigate these exposures. These challenges are especially acute for businesses in the context of complex workplace litigation. Adding to this mosaic of challenges in 2019 is the continuing evolution in federal policies emanating from the Trump White House, the recent appointments of new Supreme Court Justices, and mid-term elections placing the Senate in control of Republicans and the House in control of Democrats. Furthermore, while changes to government priorities started on the previous Inauguration Day and are on-going, others are being carried out by new leadership at the agency level who were appointed over this past year. As expected, many changes represent stark reversals in policy that are sure to have a cascading impact on private class action litigation.

While predictions about the future of workplace class action litigation may cover a wide array of potential outcomes, the one sure bet is that change is inevitable and corporate America will continue to face new litigation challenges.

Key Trends Of 2018

An overview of workplace class action litigation developments in 2018 reveals five key trends. First, class action litigation has been shaped and influenced to a large degree by recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Over the past several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted more cases for review than in previous years – and as a result, has issued more rulings that have impacted the prosecution and defense of class actions and government enforcement litigation. The past year continued that trend, with several key decisions on complex employment litigation and class action issues that were arguably more pro-business than decisions in past terms. Among those rulings, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018) – which upheld the legality of class action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements – is a transformative decision that is one of the most important workplace class action rulings in the last two decades. It is already having a profound impact on the prosecution and defense of workplace class action litigation, and in the long run, Epic Systems may well shift class action litigation dynamics in critical ways. Coupled with the appointments of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, litigation may well be reshaped in ways that change the playbook for prosecuting and defending class actions.

Second, the plaintiffs’ bar was successful in prosecuting class certification motions at the highest rates ever as compared to previous years in the areas of ERISA and wage & hour litigation, while suffering significant defeats in employment discrimination litigation. While evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in good outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests, federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2018. Plaintiffs’ lawyers continued to craft refined class certification theories to counter the more stringent Rule 23 certification requirements established in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011). As a result, in the areas of wage & hour and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored exceedingly well in securing class certification rulings in federal courts in 2018 (over comparative figures for 2017). Class actions were certified in significantly higher numbers in “magnet” jurisdictions that continued to issue decisions that encourage or, in effect, force the resolution of large numbers of claims through class-wide mechanisms. Furthermore, the sheer volume of wage & hour certification decisions in 2018 increased as compared to last year, and plaintiffs fared better in litigating those class certification motions in federal court than in the prior year. Of the 273 wage & hour certification decisions in 2018, plaintiffs won 196 of 248 conditional certification rulings (approximately 79%), and lost only 13 of 25 decertification rulings (approximately 52%). By comparison, there were 257 wage & hour certification decisions in 2017, where plaintiffs won 170 of 233 conditional certification rulings (approximately 73%) and lost 15 of 24 decertification rulings (approximately 63%). In sum, employers lost more first stage conditional certification motions in 2018, and saw a reduction of their odds – a decrease of 11% – of fracturing cases with successful decertification motions.

Third, filings and settlements of government enforcement litigation in 2018 did not reflect a head-snapping pivot from the ideological pro-worker outlook of the Obama Administration to a pro-business, less regulation/litigation viewpoint of the Trump Administration. Instead, as compared to 2016 (the last year of the Obama Administration), government enforcement litigation actually increased in 2018. As an example, the EEOC alone brought 199 lawsuits in 2018 as compared to 184 lawsuits in 2017 and 86 lawsuits in 2016. However, the settlement value of the top ten settlements in government enforcement cases decreased dramatically – from $485.25 million in 2017 to $126.7 million in 2018. The explanations for this phenomenon are varied, and include the time-lag between Obama-appointed enforcement personnel vacating their offices and Trump-appointed personnel taking charge of agency decision-making power; the number of lawsuits “in the pipeline” that were filed during the Obama Administration that came to conclusion in the past year; and the “hold-over” effect whereby Obama-appointed policy-makers remained in their positions long enough to continue their enforcement efforts before being replaced in the last half of 2018. This is especially true at the EEOC, where the Trump nominations for the Commission’s Chair, two Commissioners, and its general counsel were stalled in the Senate waiting for votes of approval (or rejection), and one of the two nominees withdrew at year-end due to the delay. These factors are critical to employers, as both the DOL and the EEOC have had a focus on “big impact” lawsuits against companies and “lead by example” in terms of areas that the private plaintiffs’ bar aims to pursue. As 2019 opens, it appears that the content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration will continue to tilt away from the pro-employee/anti-big business mindset of the previous Administration. Trump appointees at the EEOC and the DOL are slowly but surely “peeling back” on positions previously advocated under the Obama Administration. As a result, it appears inevitable that the volume of government enforcement litigation and value of settlement numbers from those cases will decrease in 2019.

Fourth, the monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements decreased dramatically in 2018. These settlement numbers had been increasing on an annual basis over the past decade, and reached all-time highs in 2017. While the plaintiffs’ employment class action bar and governmental enforcement litigators were exceedingly successful in monetizing their case filings into large class-wide settlements this past year, they did so at decidedly lower values in 2018 than in previous years. The top ten settlements in various employment-related class action categories totaled $1.32 billion in 2018, a decrease of over $1.4 billion from $2.72 billion in 2017 and a decrease of $430 million from $1.75 billion in 2016. Furthermore, settlements of wage & hour class actions experienced over a 50% decrease in value (from $525 million in 2017 down to $253 million in 2018); ERISA class actions saw nearly a three-fold decrease (from $927 million in 2017 down to $313.4 million in 2018); and government enforcement litigation registered nearly a fourfold decrease (from $485.2 million in 2017 down to $126.7 million in 2018). Whether this is the beginning of a long-range trend or a short-term aberration remains to be seen as 2019 unfolds.

Fifth, as it continues to gain momentum on a worldwide basis, the #MeToo movement is fueling employment litigation issues in general and workplace class action litigation in particular. On account of new reports and social media, it has raised the level of awareness of workplace rights and emboldened many to utilize the judicial system to vindicate those rights. Several large sex harassment class-based settlements were effectuated in 2018 that stemmed at least in part from #MeToo initiatives. Likewise, the EEOC’s enforcement litigation activity in 2018 focused on the filing of #MeToo lawsuits while riding the wave of social media attention to such workplace issues; in fact, fully 74% of the EEOC’s Title VII filings this past year targeted sex-based discrimination (compared to 2017, where sex based-discrimination claims accounted for 65% of Title VII filings). Of the EEOC’s 2018 sex discrimination lawsuit filings, 41 filings included claims of sexual harassment. The total number of sexual harassment filings increased notably as compared to 2017, where sexual harassment claims accounted for 33 filings. Employers can expect more of the same in the coming year.

Implications For Employers

The one constant in workplace class action litigation is change. More than any other year in recent memory, 2018 was a year of great change in the landscape of Rule 23. As these issues play out in 2019, additional chapters in the class action playbook will be written.

The lesson to draw from 2018 is that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys at the state level are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2019 in bringing class action and collective action litigation against employers.

These novel challenges demand a shift of thinking in the way companies formulate their strategies. As class actions and collective actions are a pervasive aspect of litigation in Corporate America, defending and defeating this type of litigation is a top priority for corporate counsel. Identifying, addressing, and remediating class action vulnerabilities, therefore, deserves a place at the top of corporate counsel’s priorities list for 2019.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Michael L. DeMarino

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In the midst of a legal landscape that is seemingly pro-arbitration, employers should recognize that employees still have a few strategies to oppose arbitration or invalidate an arbitration agreement. The recent ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Buchanan, et. al. v. Tata Consultancy Services, Ltd., 15-CV-01696 (N.D. Cal. Jul. 23, 2018), is a good reminder for employers that arbitration agreements are still susceptible to challenges like waiver and unconscionability. Employers faced with class actions involving a mix of class members who signed and did not sign arbitration agreements should be careful to preserve their right to enforce the agreements. 

At the same time, this decision in Buchanan is important because it held that a private, individual plaintiff is not entitled to rely on the pattern and practice burden shifting framework articulated in Teams Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters v. U.S., 431 U.S. 324, 360 (1977) – an issue that the Ninth Circuit has not yet addressed.

Background:

In Buchanan, et. al. v. Tata Consultancy Services, Ltd., No. 15-CV-01696 (N.D. Cal. Jul. 23, 2018), four plaintiffs sued Tata Consultancy Services, Ltd. (“TCS”), alleging disparate treatment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, plaintiffs claimed that TCS, which is headquartered in India, maintained a pattern and practice of intentional discrimination in its United States workforce by favoring persons who are South Asian or of Indian National Origin. TCS provides consulting and outsourcing services, and plaintiffs claimed that TCS favored individuals who are predominately South Asian when assigning individuals to open client projects. After class certification briefing, the district court certified a class consisting of all individuals “who are not of South Asian race or Indian  nation origin who were employed by [CTS]  . . . and were terminated . . . .” Id. at 6.

After the class was certified, TCS brought a motion to bifurcate the claims of Plaintiff Buchanan from those of other plaintiffs and a motion to compel arbitration. The district court granted both motions.

The Decision

As a threshold matter, the district court held that Plaintiff Buchanan was not entitled to rely on the pattern and practice framework for proving employment discrimination under Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters v. U.S., 431 U.S. 324, 360 (1977). Buchanan was not a member of the class because, unlike the class, he was never employed by TCS. Under the Teamsters framework, the burden shifts to the employer to defeat a prima facie showing of a pattern or practice by demonstrating that the plaintiffs’ proof is either inaccurate or insignificant.

Although the Ninth Circuit has not addressed whether an individual private plaintiff may use the Teamsters framework, the district court held that pattern and practice method of proof is not available to private plaintiffs. “To allow this expansion of Teamsters,” the district court reasoned, “would ‘conflict with the Supreme Court’s oft-repeated holding . . . that ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against plaintiffs remains at all times with the plaintiff.” Buchanan, et. al. v. Tata Consultancy Services, Ltd., at 8. Because Plaintiff Buchanan, as an individual private plaintiff, was subject to a different burden shifting framework than will govern the claims of the class, the district court concluded that bifurcating his claims from those of the class would avoid confusion at trial and support judicial economy.

As to TCS’s motion to compel arbitration, plaintiffs argued that TCS waived its right to demand arbitration and that the arbitration agreement contained impermissible waiver and unconscionable provisions. Addressing plaintiffs’ waiver argument, the district court concluded that although TCS waited until the fourth amended complaint to assert its right to arbitrate, TCS had notified plaintiffs of its intent enforce the agreement as soon as plaintiffs implicated a potential plaintiff to whom the agreement applied. Hence, the district court concluded that plaintiffs were on notice and granting TCS’s motion would not prejudice plaintiffs.

The district court similarly rejected plaintiffs’ contention that the arbitration agreement contained an impermissible prospective waiver of an employee’s federal anti-discrimination rights. The district court ultimately disagreed that Teamsters pattern and practice burden-shifting framework is a substantive right. The district court likewise rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable because of a “selective[] overlay [of] a pro-Defendant subset of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. ” Id. at 14. Plaintiffs challenged the arbitration agreement because it did not provide employees the opportunity to file motions to strike or motions for judgment on the pleadings. The district court, however, concluded that these limitations did not rise to the level of unconscionability. It reasoned that “[m]otions to strike are disfavored . . . . and Motions for judgment on the pleadings are easily recast” into motions for summary judgment. Id.

Implication For Employers:

This case is a valuable reminder for employers with arbitration agreements that it is still best practice to avoid acting inconsistent with the right to arbitration, lest you supply plaintiffs with a waiver argument. Employers facing a class mixed with employees who signed and did not sign arbitration agreements should be careful preserve their right to enforce arbitration agreements. This may include notifying plaintiffs of the existence of the arbitrations agreement and your intent to enforce the agreement as soon as a plaintiff enters the case to whom the agreement is applicable.

 

On June 21, 2018, XpertHR featured Gerald (Jerry) L. Maatman, Jr. of Seyfarth Shaw LLP as a special guest commentator on its popular podcast series for human resources professionals. In this episode, Jerry provides a comprehensive overview of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., and the decision’s implications for employers.

In a closely contested 5-4 decision authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court held that employers may require employees to sign class action waivers as a condition of employment, and such contacts are unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. In practice, this means that employees who have signed such agreements are obligated to arbitrate workplace disputes individually, rather than as a class or collective action. It is believed that this ruling may affect an estimated 25 million employment contracts, a number that will only continue to rise.

On XpertHR’s podcast, which is hosted by Legal Editor David Weisenfeld, Jerry answers a myriad of key questions about the impact of this decision for employers. David and Jerry touch on important aspects of the ruling such as Justice Ginsburg’s harsh dissent, potential workarounds by the Plaintiff’s bar, the practicality of arbitration agreements for employers, and more. To listen to the full episode, click HERE.

Implications For Employers

The Epic Systems ruling has the potential to immediately influence workplace relations. In fact, the impact of this case is already being seen in courtrooms around the country, with employers incorporating this stance into their arguments against putative employment class actions. Furthermore, as Jerry states in the podcast, the Supreme Court has issued a “mosaic of arbitration decisions” over the past few years that may expand the scope of this ruling beyond just wage & hour cases.

However, though the reading of this decision is pro-business, it may present new complications for employers. For example, the Plaintiff’s bar may adopt the strategy of filing hundreds of individual arbitration claims, a tactic Jerry describes as “death by 1,000 cuts.” Justice Ginsburg’s vociferous dissent can also be interpreted as a plea for Congressional action, though it is difficult to determine the likelihood and proximity of legislative action.

For a full explanation of this case’s impact on employers and HR personnel, make sure to listen to XpertHR’s podcast!

Seyfarth Synopsis:  This year we were lucky enough to have Perry Cooper, Senior Legal Editor of Bloomberg BNA, as our special guest at Seyfarth Shaw’s “Top Trends In Workplace Class Action Litigation” event.  Perry provided our over 1,000 in-person and webcast attendees with an overview of major Supreme Court class action decisions, as well as led the discussion on other important topics for employers including arbitration, ascertainability, and the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act.  Today’s post allows our blog readers to watch Perry’s entire presentation.  Check it out in the link below!

250px-US-CourtOfAppeals-8thCircuit-SealBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Michael L. DeMarino

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After thirty-three former employees who signed release agreements requiring individual arbitration of ADEA claims collectively sued their employer for age discrimination, the employer moved to compel individual arbitration. The District Court denied the company’s motion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed because it found that the ADEA did not contain a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA’s mandate to enforce arbitration agreements.

***

Case Background

In McLeod, et. al. v. General Mills, Inc., No. 15-3540, 2017 WL 1363797 (8th Cir. Apr. 14, 2017), thirty-three former employees of General Mills (the “Company”) were offered severance packages and signed release agreements in which they agreed to individually arbitrate claims relating to their termination—including, specifically,  ADEA claims. Id. at *1. Despite agreeing to individual arbitration, the employees collectively sued the Company in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, alleging various ADEA violations. The Company moved to compel arbitration, and the District Court denied that motion.  Id.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of the Company’s motion to compel arbitration. The Eighth Circuit held that Section 626(f) of the ADEA does not contain a contrary congressional command to override the Federal Arbitration Act’s (“FAA”) mandate to enforce arbitration agreements. Id. at *2-3. At the core of this holding was the Eighth Circuit’s decision that the “right” to a jury trial and the “right” to proceed in a collective action, are not substantive ADEA rights. Id

This decision is important because it addresses the fundamental question of whether employment agreements that require individual arbitration run afoul of the ADEA and its provisions authorizing plaintiffs to sue collectively.

Unlike other decisions involving the clash of arbitration agreements and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), the Eighth Circuit’s decision in McLeod resolves the tension between, on the one hand the FAA’s mandate to enforce arbitration agreements, and on the other hand, the ADEA’s requirement in  § 626(f) that a party must prove in a “court of competent jurisdiction” that the waiver of ADEA rights was “knowing and voluntary.”

Because the Eighth Circuit determined that the “waiver” of rights in Section 626(f) refers only to the waiver of substantive ADEA rights and because the “right” to a jury trial and the “right” to proceed in a collective action are not “rights” under § 626(f), it held that there was no “waiver” for purposes of  § 626(f).

Case Background

In 2012, the Company terminated 850 of its employees. These employees were offered severance packages in exchange for signing release agreements. Id at *1. The release agreements required the employees to release the Company from all claims related to their termination, including claims under the ADEA. Id.

The release agreements also contained a dispute resolution provision that required the employees to submit any claim covered by the release agreement to arbitration on an individual basis. Id.

Thirty-three of the employees who were terminated in 2012 sued the Company in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Specifically, the employees sought a declaratory judgment that the releases were not “knowing and voluntary,” as required by 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). The employees also asserted collective and individual claims for alleged ADEA violations. Id.

The Company moved to compel arbitration of the employees’ claims, and the District Court denied that motion. Id. The Company subsequently appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

The Eighth Circuit’s Decision

On appeal, the employees argued that ADEA §  626(f) contains the necessary “contrary congressional command” to render their release agreements invalid. Id. at *2. Specifically, the employees relied on two related sections of the ADEA to argue that compelling arbitration results is an effective waiver of their substantive rights under the ADEA. Id. These two sections are § 626(f)(1) and § 626(f)(3).

Section 626(f)(1) of the ADEA prohibits the waiver of any ADEA right or claim — unless the waiver is “knowing and voluntary.” 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). Whereas, § 626(f)(3) describes how to prove a “waiver,” requiring that the “the party asserting the validity of a waiver shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction that a waiver was knowing and voluntary . . . .”  Id (citing 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(3)). (emphasis added). 

The employees argued that, by moving to compel arbitration of their claims, the Company was asserting the validity of a waiver — by forcing them to forego their “right” to a jury trial and their “right” to proceed by class action. Id.

The Eighth Circuit rejected this argument. “In § 626(f),” it explained, ‘“waiver’ refers narrowly to waiver of substantive ADEA rights or claims — not, as the former employees argued, the ‘right’ to a jury trial or the ‘right’ to proceed in a class action.” Id. (emphasis in original).

In reaching that decision, the Eighth Circuit cited 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett, 556 U.S. 247 (2009). In that case, the Supreme Court interpreted § 626(f)(1)’s references to “‘right[s] or claim[s]’ to mean substantive rights to be free from age discrimination, not procedural ‘rights’ to pursue age discrimination claims in court.” Id. Noting that Penn Plaza controls, the Eighth Circuit explained that the “specific ‘rights’ the former employees cite are not ‘rights’ under § 626(f)(1).” Id. The Eighth Circuit therefor decided that no “rights or claims” are “waived” by agreeing to bring claims in arbitration. Id.

The Eighth Circuit also rejected the employees’ argument that § 626(b), by incorporating 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), gives them a “right” to bring a collective action. Id. at 3. Before making short shrift of this argument, the Eighth Circuit noted that the ADEA borrows the procedural collective action mechanism from § 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Section 626(b) incorporates § 216(b), which allows an employee to sue on behalf of himself “and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Thus, the Eighth Circuit explained that § 626(b) expressly allows employees to bring collective actions for age discrimination. McLeod, 2017 WL 1363797 at *3.

Although the Eighth Circuit acknowledged that the ADEA expressly authorizes employees to sue collectively, it held that § 626(b) does not create a non-waivable, substantive right to do so. Citing its decision in Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050, 1052 (8th Cir. 2013), the Eighth Circuit first explained that “[s]tanding alone, § 216(b) does not create a non-waivable substantive right; rather, its class-action authorization can be waived by a valid arbitration agreement.” Id.  The Eighth Circuit then found no convincing reason why § 626(b)’s incorporation of § 216(b) would “elevate the procedural class-action authorization to a substantive § 626(f)(1) ‘right.’” Id.

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the ADEA does not provide a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA’s mandate to enforce agreements to arbitrate ADEA claims, and that the District Court should have granted the Company’s motion to compel arbitration. Id.

Next, the employees argued that an arbitration panel could not grant them their declaratory relief — i.e., decide the question of whether their waiver of substantive ADEA rights was “knowing and voluntary.” Id. at 4. Specifically, the employees argued that this question can only be resolved in court because of § 626(f)(1)’s mandatory language “shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction.” Id. (emphasis added).

The Eighth Circuit declined to decide this issue, finding, instead, that the question was not justiciable. Id. Because the Company had not yet asserted that any of the employees had in fact waived their ADEA claims, and because the employees were seeking declaratory relief only “if and to the extent” the Company asserted that defense, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the employees’ declaratory relief was hypothetical. Id. “No Article III case or controversy arises,” it explained, “when plaintiffs seek a ‘declaratory judgment as to the validity of a defense’ that a defendant ‘may or may not, raise.’” Id. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit held that the District Court did not have jurisdiction to decide whether the employees’ waiver was “knowing and voluntary.” Id.

Implication For Employers

This decision is important for employers, but less so for the reasons one might imagine. The reality is that this decision does little to alter the ADEA judicial landscape. More than two decades ago the Supreme Court held in Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp. that ADEA claims could be subjected to compulsory, individual arbitration, even though collective actions are permitted under the ADEA by the identical statutory language as the FLSA. See Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 32 (1991). While Gilmer did not specifically touch on the interplay between § 626(f) and the FAA, it is a bit surprising that a discussion of Gilmer is altogether absent from the Eighth Circuit’s decision.

One take away is that employers can remain confident that provisions requiring individual arbitration of ADEA claims will not result in a prohibited waiver of an employees’ rights under the ADEA.

This decision also sheds light on an important strategy consideration. Employers that assert waiver as a defense may find themselves litigating the validity of that waiver (i.e., whether the waiver was knowing and voluntary) in court — even though the employees agreed to arbitrate their claims. Hence, employers will likely need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of defending an ADEA violation on the merits in arbitration versus adopting a waiver defense in court.

washington-monument-754745_960_720Seyfarth Synopsis: Governmental enforcement litigation was a mixed bag in 2016. The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) continued their aggressive enforcement programs, but their effectiveness was down “by the numbers” as compared to previous years. What does this mean for 2017?  In the 6th and final installment in our series of blog postings on workplace class action trends, we examine what employers are likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front.

Introduction

Government enforcement lawsuits brought by the DOL and EEOC continued the aggressive litigation programs of both agencies, but by sheer numbers of cases, their enforcement activities were arguably limited in their effectiveness, at least when measured by lawsuit filings and recoveries compared to previous years. Settlement numbers for government enforcement litigation in 2016 decreased substantially as compared to 2015, as did the litigation dockets of the DOL and the EEOC. This trends is aptly illustrated by a comparison of settlement recoveries over the past 7 years. Settlement recoveries in 2016 were the second lowest of any year during that period.

Top 10 Government Enforcement

This trend is critical to employers, as both agencies have a focus on “big impact” lawsuits against companies and “lead by example” in terms of areas that the private plaintiffs’ bar aims to pursue. The content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration remains to be seen; most believe there will be wholesale changes, which may well prompt the private plaintiffs’ class action bar to “fill the void” and expand the volume of litigation pursued against employers over the coming year.

Governmental Enforcement Litigation Trends In 2016

On the governmental enforcement front, both the EEOC and the DOL intensified the focus of their administrative enforcement activities and litigation filings in 2016.  At the same time, the number of lawsuits filed and the resulting recoveries by settlement – measured by aggregate litigation filings and the top 10 settlements in government enforcement litigation – were less than half of what the EEOC and DOL achieved in 2015.

The EEOC’s lawsuit count dropped precipitously. By continuing to follow through on the systemic enforcement and litigation strategy plan it announced in April of 2006 (that centers on the government bringing more systemic discrimination cases affecting large numbers of workers), the EEOC filed less cases overall but more systemic lawsuits. This manifested the notion that the Commission’s limited budget and bandwidth are best deployed to matters where a systemic focus is most needed and the largest numbers of alleged victims are at issue.  As 2016 demonstrated, the EEOC’s prosecution of pattern or practice lawsuits is now an agency-wide priority backed up by the numbers.  Many of the high-level investigations started in the last three years mushroomed into the institution of EEOC pattern or practice lawsuits in 2016. These numbers are shown by the following chart:

EEOC Systemic Cases: Filed, Resolved, And On Active Docket
FY 2013 – 2016

Cases Filed

The Commission’s 2016 Annual Report also announced that it expects to continue the dramatic shift in the composition of its litigation docket from small individual cases to systemic pattern or practice lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers.  The EEOC’s FY 2016 Annual Report detailed the EEOC’s activities from October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016.  The EEOC’s Report indicated that:

  • The Commission completed work on 273 systemic investigations in FY 2016, which resulted in 21 settlements or conciliation agreements that yielded a total recovery of $20.5 million for systemic claims; six of the settlements involved 50 alleged victims or more, and 13 settlements included 20 or more alleged victims. The FY 2016 recoveries represent a decrease of systemic recoveries in FY 2015 when the Commission netted $33 million based on resolution of systemic investigations.
  • The EEOC recovered $347.9 million for alleged victims of employment discrimination in FY 2016 through mediation, conciliation, and settlements. This represented a decrease of $10.4 million as compared to FY 2015, when the Commission garnered $356.6 million for its enforcement efforts.
  • For its lawsuits, the EEOC secured $58.3 million in recoveries in FY 2016.  This figure was down $7 million as compared to the FY 2015 recoveries of $65.3 million. However, the EEOC resolved fewer lawsuits than it did last year, and recovered less money from those cases.  Specifically, the EEOC resolved 139 lawsuits during FY 2016 for a total recovery of $52.2 million; by comparison, the EEOC resolved 155 lawsuits in FY 2015 for a total recovery of $65.3 million.
  • The EEOC filed only 86 lawsuits in 2016 (down significantly from the 139 lawsuits it filed in 2015), of which 31 were “multiple victim” lawsuits, with 18 cases involved claims of systemic discrimination on behalf of 20 or more workers, and 13 cases involved multiple alleged discrimination victims of up to 20 individuals.  The EEOC had 165 cases on its active lawsuit docket by year end (down from FY 2015, when it had 218 cases on its docket, of which 48% involved multiple aggrieved parties and 28.5% involved challenges to alleged systemic discrimination).  Overall, this represented increases in these categories in terms of the make-up of the Commission’s litigation being tilted more heavily toward systemic cases.
  • The EEOC also received 91,503 administrative charges of discrimination, which was slightly up from the FY 2015 total of 89,385 charges and the FY 2014 total of 88,778 charges. Thus, charge activity was one of the heaviest in the 52 year history of the Commission.
  • The EEOC also encountered significant criticism in the manner in which it enforced anti-discrimination laws.  This criticism took various forms in terms of judicial sanctions, suits against the Commission by private litigants and States, and questioning by Congress over the EEOC’s alleged lack of transparency.

While the inevitable by-product of these governmental enforcement efforts is that employers are likely to face bigger lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers in 2017, the EEOC’s systemic litigation program is not without its detractors.  Several federal judges entered significant sanctions against the EEOC – some in excess of seven figures – for its pursuit of pattern or practice cases that were deemed to be without a good faith basis in fact or law. The U.S. Supreme Court in EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 136 S. Ct. 1642 (2016), examined the propriety of the $4.7 million fee sanction, the largest fee sanction ever leveled against the Commission; while the EEOC had been successful in its initial appeal in reversing the sanction before the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the EEOC’s position, remanded the fee sanction issue for review, and gave new life to the employer’s efforts to recoup millions of dollars against the Commission.

Fiscal year 2016 also marked another year in the EEOC’s 2012-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”).  The SEP was created in 2012 as a blueprint to guide the EEOC’s enforcement activity.  Its most controversial and perhaps most far-reaching effect on the agency’s activity is the priority it gives to systemic cases: those pattern or practice, policy, or class-like cases where the alleged discrimination has a broad impact on an industry, profession, company, or geographic area.  Systemic cases have been the main driver of EEOC litigation over the past few years, and likely will be well into the future.  The EEOC is now fighting challenges to its power to bring those cases on a number of fronts.  Among other things, it is aggressively challenging any court’s ability to review how it conducts certain statutorily-mandated procedures before bringing suit, including how it investigates its cases and tries to conciliate those cases with employers.  If successful in those efforts, the EEOC will have greatly eased its path to pursuing systemic cases.

The EEOC is not only expanding its reach in procedural terms, but also it is attempting to broaden the scope of its authority through an expansion of the scope of anti-discrimination laws themselves.  In a number of recent cases, the EEOC has advanced novel legal theories that would, among other things, expand anti-discrimination protections to cover transgender employees and require employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant employees, even those who are experiencing normal pregnancies.  The EEOC continued to push the edge of the legal envelope in 2016, viewing itself as an agency that not only enforces the law, but also one that expands the scope of those laws as it deems appropriate.

For this and other reasons, the agency has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism by Republican members of Congress, business groups, and critics of an allegedly activist agency wasting the taxpayers’ dollars.  Such criticism is unlikely to stem the tide of systemic cases or deter the EEOC from continuing to try to expand its enforcement powers.  Subject to policy-directed changes mandated by the Trump Administration, employers can expect the EEOC will use the next year to continue to push for expansion of its procedural and substantive limits.

The DOL also undertook aggressive enforcement activities in 2016.

The Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”) kept up its aggressive enforcement actions in 2016, particularly in the hotel, restaurant, and retail industries.  Much of WHD’s enforcement and other activities took place under the umbrella of “fissured industries” initiatives, which focus on industries with high usage of franchising, sub-contracting, and independent contractors.  At the conclusion of those enforcement actions, WHD continued to increase its use of civil money penalties, liquidated damages, and enhanced compliance agreements.

Legislatures and government agencies in various states and municipalities also increased their activities on the wage & hour front.  Whether increasing the minimum or living wage, enacting scheduling laws and ordinances, implementing wage theft prohibitions, or increasing the minimum salary level required for exemption, many have already revised or are actively planning to revise laws and rules governing how businesses pay employees in 2017.

With the approaching ten-year anniversary of the last time Congress enacted a minimum wage increase (2007), advocates of a minimum wage increase are likely to turn up the volume on their requests for an increase to the federal minimum wage in 2017.  This may well depend on the politics of the debate, for the incoming Republican Administration appears opposed to such an increase.

Finally, if history is a guide, the incoming Administration is likely to return to the decades-old practice of issuing opinion letters in response to specific requests, which had been abandoned by the Obama Administration’s decision-makers at the DOL.

Over the past several years, the DOL’s Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”) fundamentally changed the way in which it pursues its investigations.  Suffice to say, the investigations are more searching and extensive, and often result in higher monetary penalties for employers. According to the DOL, since early 2009, the WHD has closed 200,000 cases nationwide, resulting in more than $1.8 billion in back wages for over 2 million workers.  In FY 2016, the WHD collected more than $266.5 million in back pay wages, an increase of $20.5 million over the past year. Hence, in 2016, employers finally saw the impact of these changes on the WHD’s enforcement priorities, and 2017 is apt to bring much of the same absent a stark change in priorities under the Trump Administration.

The DOL also focused its activities in 2016 on wage & hour enforcement on what it terms “24/7.” The WHD’s Administrator, Dr. David Weil, was an architect of the WHD’s fissured industry initiative.  This initiative focuses on several priority industries, including food services (both limited service/full service establishments), hotel/motel, residential construction, janitorial services, moving companies/logistics providers, agricultural products, landscaping/horticultural services, healthcare services, home healthcare services, grocery stores, and retail trade.  In FY 2016, the WHD reported recoveries of $143,274,845 for nearly 19,000 workers within these fissured industries.

Not to be outdone, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) undertook an ambitious agenda in 2016 too.  It reconsidered well-settled NLRB principles on joint employer rules and representative elections, entertained the possibility of extending the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) to college athletes, and litigated novel claims seeking to hold franchisors liable for the personnel decisions of franchisees. More than any other area impacting workplace litigation, the NLRB also remained steadfast in its view that workplace arbitration agreements limiting class or collective claims are void under § 7 of the NLRA. It pursued a myriad of unfair labor practice charges against employers for alleged violation of the NLRA for use of arbitration agreements with class action and collective action waivers.

Implications For Employers In 2017?

So what are employers likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front? In the early days of the Trump Administration, clear direction on litigation policy remain unclear. Most pundits believe that employers can expect less litigation and less regulation than during the Obama Administration. Furthermore, the phenomenon of “regulation by enforcement litigation” is likely no longer the by-product of the DOL and the EEOC’s enforcement litigation programs. Most likely, control of agency budgets may well provide the lever that the Trump White House may use to force its policy choices upon the government enforcement litigation programs of the DOL and the EEOC.

By Christopher Cascino

On December 23, 2014, in Ruiz v. Moss Brothers Auto Group, Inc., 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 1176 (Cal. App. Ct. 4th Dist. Dec. 23, 2014), the California Appellate Court joined a number of other state and federal courts in holding that employers need to provide strict proof that electronically signed employment arbitration agreements were, in fact, signed by the complaining employee.

Workplace arbitration agreements are becoming increasingly important as risk management tools in defending against class actions. This case is a reminder for employers that, though electronically signed employment arbitration agreements are generally held to be valid, employers need to make sure that they can prove with certainty under the laws of their respective states that their employees are the ones who electronically signed these agreements.

Background Of The Case

The plaintiff, Ernesto Ruiz, filed a putative class action against his employer, Moss Brothers Auto Group, alleging that Moss Brothers failed to pay himself and other employees overtime and to provide required meal and rest breaks. Ruiz sought civil penalties for these violations on behalf of himself, his fellow employees, and the State of California.

Moss Brothers moved to compel arbitration because, according to Moss Brothers, Ruiz had electronically signed an arbitration agreement. That arbitration agreement provided that Ruiz would have to bring any employment dispute before an arbitrator, and further provided that the arbitrator could “hear only . . . individual claims” and had no authority to “consolidate[] the claims of others into one proceeding.”

Ruiz opposed arbitration and submitted a declaration in which he said that he did not recall signing the arbitration agreement and that, moreover, he would not have signed any agreement that would have limited his ability to sue Moss Brothers.

Moss Brothers countered Ruiz’s declaration with a declaration of its own, stating that “Each employee is required to log into the Company’s HR system — each with his or her unique login ID and password — to review and electronically execute the Employee Acknowledgement form, which includes the arbitration agreement. While all employees are required to sign the form, they are free to review it at their leisure while logged into the HR system.” It also produced a copy of the arbitration agreement at issue in the case with the phrases “Ernesto Zamora Ruiz (Electronic Signature)” and “9/21/2011 11:47:27 AM” under the signature and date lines of the agreement.

The Court’s Ruling

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s finding that Moss Brothers had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Ruiz was the one who electronically signed the arbitration agreement. Specifically, the Court of Appeal found that it could not infer that Ruiz signed the arbitration agreement simply because the arbitration agreement was “presented to all Moss Bros. employees . . . and each employee is required to log into the company’s HR system, using his or her unique login ID and password, to review and sign the Employee Acknowledgment form.” It said that, without some additional explanation of how this would prove that it was Ruiz who signed the agreement, there was a “critical gap” that prevented the Court from concluding that Ruiz signed the agreement.

Other courts have made similar rulings. For example, in Kerr v. Dillard Store Servs., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11792 (D. Kan. Feb. 17, 2009), an employee who brought a racial discrimination claim against her employer claimed that the arbitration agreement she allegedly signed electronically must have been signed on accident by a secretary who was logged into her computer because she would have refused to sign the agreement. The court refused to enforce the employment arbitration agreement because the employer “did not have adequate procedures to maintain the security of intranet passwords, to restrict authorized access to the screen which permitted electronic execution of the arbitration agreement, to determine whether electronic signatures were genuine or to determine who opened individual emails.” The court went on to find that, as a result, “it is not inconceivable [the secretary] or a supervisor logged on to plaintiff’s account and executed the agreement,” and thus that the employer had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the employee had signed the arbitration agreement.

Similarly, in Neuson v. Macy’s Department Stores Inc., 249 P.2d 1054 (Wash. App. 2011), an employer tried to enforce an electronically signed employment arbitration agreement, arguing that the fact that the employee’s social security number, birth date, and zip code were entered on the electronic signature showed that the agreement was signed by the employee. The Washington Appellate Court disagreed because the employer could not show “how or why the information on th[e] electronic signature would be unavailable to anyone other than” the plaintiff.

Implications for Employers

While courts generally find that complaining employees did, in fact, electronically sign employment arbitration agreements, employers should, in light of cases such as Ruiz, Kerr, and Neuson, take steps to make sure that they can prove that electronically signed employment arbitration agreements were signed by each of their employees. The question of whether an arbitration agreement exists is generally a question of state law. See Perry v. Thomas, 482 U.S. 483, 492 n. 9 (1987). Because of this, employers should look to cases in their own state finding that employers proved that their employees had electronically signed employment arbitration agreements and implement the procedures used by the employers in those cases. By doing so, employers can not only greatly reduce the risk of an adverse ruling on whether an arbitration agreement was electronically signed but also the unnecessary expense of litigating that issue.

By Caroline A. Keller and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Class action plaintiffs’ lawyers and their allies generally do not like arbitration, especially where the arbitration agreements effectuate a waiver of the ability of a worker or a consumer to bring a class action. Advocates for workers and consumers have attacked arbitration agreements through various avenues in the courts and in the court of public opinion. Recently, their efforts also have focused on passage of legislation.

On Monday, May 5, 2014, the New York State Assembly passed legislation — known as Bill A4791-2013 — prohibiting State entities from contracting with any business that requires an employee or independent contractor performing work under the contract to arbitrate claims arising under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or any tort related to or arising from discrimination, sexual assault, or harassment.  Such torts may include assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, or negligent hiring. If this legislation is enacted, all employers who do business with any State government entity in New York would be required to allow their employees to adjudicate employment claims before the courts instead of using arbitration. Exempt from the bill is any arbitration that is mandated by a collective bargaining agreement between the employer and/or independent contractor. The bill also provides for a waiver to be granted “to respond to an emergency arising from unforeseen causes,” but the waiver is to be no longer than necessary in duration and the State agency granting the waiver is obligated to list the reasons for granting it.

The New York legislation follows in the footsteps of a similar federal provision known as the “Franken Amendment,”  which was added as part of a defense spending bill and signed into law in 2009. The Franken Amendment, named after Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, bars federal funds from going to defense contractors that continue to apply mandatory arbitration clauses to claims of sexual assault, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring, retention and supervision. The law also requires the subcontractors on federal projects to certify to the same arbitration restriction.

These pieces of legislation indicate the beginning of a trend towards limiting the arbitration options for employment claims.

The New York bill now moves to the Republican-controlled New York Senate for consideration. Stay tuned for future developments on this front in New York and in other states.