On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in one of the most important employment cases in recent history. In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, and consolidated cases, Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, and N.L.R.B. v. Murphy Oil, Inc., petitioners asked the Court to address whether employees can join together to sue their employer for labor violations, or whether employers may enforce individual arbitration agreements. Transcript available here. Bryan Schwartz Law has previously blogged about the Morris, Lewis, and Murphy Oil cases here, here, and here. Based on the questioning at oral argument, the conservative justices of the Roberts Court appear poised to deliver a victory to big business at the expense of employees.
Whether individual arbitration clauses in employment agreements are enforceable will depend on the Court’s interpretation of two federal laws, the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 (FAA) and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA).
The FAA provides that arbitration agreements “shall be valid,” except, according to a savings clause, “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” 9 U.S.C. § 2. Arbitration agreements require parties to resolve legal disputes in front of a private arbitrator rather than in a court of law. Employers frequently seek to condition employment on a worker’s agreement to forego class-wide relief if a dispute arises, and instead pursue their claims in individual arbitrations.
Section 7 of the NLRA prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ right to engage in “concerted activities” for their “mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. Class actions have long been considered a concerted activity, which permit large numbers of employees who share common disputes with large employers to band together to pursue relief they would otherwise have foregone due to fear of being singled out for retaliation, or because the cost of hiring an attorney for their individual case would dwarf the amount of their individual wage claims. Agreements to arbitrate individually are in tension with the NLRA’s right to “concerted” activity.
During the years John Roberts has served as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court has consistently stretched the FAA to favor big business, and disfavor class actions. In 2011 and 2013, the Supreme Court held that the FAA allows companies to use fine-print arbitration clauses to force consumer and merchant disputes to be arbitrated on an individual basis. See AT&T v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (Scalia, J.); American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S.Ct. 2304 (2013) (Scalia, J.). Bryan Schwartz Law previously blogged about Concepcion and Italian Colors here and here. These rulings effectively bar claims by millions of individuals who have each suffered a relatively small injury by a corporation, by baring them from using the class action mechanism.
Unlike consumers or merchants, federal law specifically recognizes a worker’s right under the NLRA to engage in “concerted activity” against employers. In Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., and Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP, the Seventh and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal recognized “concerted activity” as a substantive federal right which would render individual arbitration clauses unenforceable against employees under the FAA’s savings clause. The employers appealed.
In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, and the consolidated cases, petitioners asked the Court to determine whether the FAA gives an employer the freedom to condition employment on an employee’s agreement to proceed individually in arbitration. Put another way, the issue was whether the NLRA gives workers a chance at a more level playing field, by protecting employees from their employer’s attempts to restrain their ability to act jointly to vindicate rights in an arbitral or other forum.
Questioning from conservative Justices Roberts and Alito suggests they will back the employers’ arguments that the right to “concerted activity” ends at the courthouse or arbitral forum’s doors. These justices seem satisfied to interpret the FAA to permit companies to use forced individual arbitration to bar workers from coming together in a concerted or joint legal action against their employer. (See Transcript, pp. 5, 34-36, 41-44). They appear inclined to subordinate the purpose of the NLRA to the FAA’s mandate to honor arbitration agreements absent some very specific Congressional command. (See Transcript p. 4). Justice Thomas and the Supreme Court’s newest addition, Justice Gorsuch, were silent throughout the argument, but can be expected to vote with the vocal conservative Justices.
Justice Kennedy seems poised to contort the language of the NLRA to the benefit of employers, too. In the first question of the day, Justice Kennedy suggested the meaning of “concerted action” under the NLRA may somehow exclude class actions. (Transcript p. 5. Justice Kennedy raised a hypothetical of two employees seeking to arbitrate their wage claims. (Transcript pp. 15-16). He implied that employees’ concerted activity rights could be satisfied if each employee hired the same attorney for individual representation – though the whole point of class action is the efficiency of not having countless individual actions seeking the same relief. Justice Kennedy showed no apparent concern for workers’ potential confidentiality concerns, or conflicts of interest that can arise in separate individual representation of numerous employees against a single employer. (Transcript pp. 37). Justice Kennedy suggested, that “many of the advantages of concerted action can be obtained by going to the same attorney” (Transcript p. 39), but this is absurd: corporations and everyone else know that most workers will never step forward individually to prosecute their claims. Companies don’t want to arbitrate at all – they want to eliminate legal challenges by workers, and know the Supreme Court has gifted them a sledgehammer for doing so, with the creative distortion of the FAA to ban group litigation.
Even before Concepcion, Justice Kennedy has been willing to twist the plain language of the FAA to the benefit of employers. In Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105, he interpreted the FAA to apply to all employment contracts, except for interstate transportation workers, despite the fact that the plain language of the FAA suggests the Act excludes all employees working in interstate commerce. 9 U.S.C. § 1 (“nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, or railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”) (emph. added).
To the Court’s progressive wing, the resolution of these issues could not be clearer – the NLRA is a Congressional command that falls within the FAA’s express savings clause, and the NLRA prevents employer restraints on employees’ concerted action, including joint efforts to seek labor law remedies.
Justice Breyer made his view clear that the NLRA requires invalidation of forced individual arbitration agreements in employment contracts, because, under the NLRA, “what the employer cannot stop is joint effort” including bringing legal claims in a class or collective action. (Transcript, pp. 56-57). Enforcing individual arbitration agreements would gut a foundation of labor law that represents “the entire heart of the New Deal.” (Transcript, pp. 7-8).
Justice Ginsberg described as the “driving force” of the NLRA the recognition of an “imbalance” in bargaining power between employers and employees, and explained that the protection of employees’ “concerted activity” was meant to correct that imbalance. (Transcript, pp. 5-6). A worker with small monetary damages can thereby join with other workers sharing similar claims in order to bring a larger claim to recover their damages jointly. (Transcript, pp. 21).
Justice Kagan pointed to the Supreme Court’s prior precedent, federal statutes, and the Constitution in support of the progressive wing’s straightforward position. The Supreme Court in Eastex v. N.L.R.B., 437 U.S. 556, 565-566, 566 n. 15 (1978) recognized that the NLRA protects employees from retaliation by their employers when they resort to “administrative and judicial forums” for their mutual aid and protection. (Transcript, pp. 6-7). Sections 102 and 103 of the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, upon which the NLRA was modeled, state that any contract that prevents concerted activities of workers for their mutual aid and protection “shall not be enforceable in any court.” (Transcript, pp. 18). Once such a basic right has been articulated, as in, e.g., the First Amendment right to free speech, its broad protection may not be easily narrowed in its exercise. (Transcript, pp. 66).
To Justice Sotomayor, the NLRA is a federal law that invalidates contracts that constrain concerted activity, making forced individual arbitration clauses illegal and unenforceable, in much the same way that “state law concepts like fraud[ and] duress,” invalidate contracts. (Transcript pp. 13-14).
No Proportional Check on Corporate Wrongdoing
The conservative justices of the Roberts Court appear determined to interpret the FAA based on its text, or as Congress intended, but rather by any means available to protect large corporations against consumers, small businesses, and now employees. Berkeley Law’s Dean, and the famed constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, has observed that to effectively protect their rights employees need a proportional response to violations by large corporations:
With the rise of the large corporation in the early twentieth century, courts and legislatures developed class actions as a procedural device to protect individuals from the harms of exploitation by large entities. Courts and legislatures realized that large entities have incentives to engage in widespread but small violations of the law, because corporations know that people cannot afford to sue over a small violation of the law. When individual litigation is not economically rational, the threat of litigation is not an effective deterrent to illegal behavior. Absent a robust government bureaucracy dedicated to enforcing consumer- or employee- protection laws, class actions are an essential aspect of law enforcement. And even the most aggressive enforcement agency cannot deal with even a significant fraction of law violations. Litigation is essential for deterring wrongdoing and class actions suits are necessary when a large number of people suffer a relatively small injury.
If the Supreme Court proceeds as expected, based on Monday’s oral argument, millions of workers will lose an effective means to remedy many violations of their rights. More and more employees will be forced to enter into individual arbitration agreements and face their employers alone.
 Jessica Silver-Greenberg & Robert Gebeloff, “Arbitration Everywhere, Stacking the Deck of Justice,” N.Y. Times, Oct. 31, 2015.
 Erwin Chemerinsky, The Case Against the Supreme Court, § II.5 (2014).