On Monday, the Roberts Court took another significant step in its ongoing project to hobble class actions and impose barriers to employees seeking redress against their employers by holding that class action waivers within arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The employees, seeking to recover unpaid wages on behalf of themselves and other employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), had argued that the NLRA’s Section 7, which guarantees employees’ “right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively . . . , and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” prohibits employers from requiring that employees agree to individual, binding arbitration as a condition of continued employment.
The case, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, comes on the heels of series of Roberts Court cases expanding the ability of companies to impose individual arbitration on their employees and customers, thus preventing employees and consumers from filing lawsuits in open court or filing class actions anywhere. Bryan Schwartz Law has written extensively about the Court’s decisions expanding the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) at the expense of the rights of employees and consumers: here, here, here, here, here, and here. In 2001, the Rehnquist Court ruled in Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams that the FAA’s express exclusion of “the contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” meant to remove only the employment disputes of transportation workers from binding arbitration, notwithstanding the broad “any other class of workers” language in the Act. Then, in 2011, the Roberts Court approved of class action waivers in consumer arbitration contracts in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.
The Court’s opinion in Epic Systems, while hardly a surprise given this Court’s expressed disregard for the rights of workers and consumers in its recent arbitration jurisprudence, is notable for the sheer level of its intellectual dishonesty. Justice Gorsuch, writing for the five-Justice majority, feigns confusion as to why the National Labor Relations Board did not address the apparent conflict between the NLRA (enacted 1935) and the FAA (enacted 1925) until 2012, when the obvious answer is that no one thought that the FAA had anything to do with employment disputes in the late 1930s when Congress passed both the NLRA and the FLSA, which permits employees to bring “collective actions” to recover unpaid wages.
Gorsuch counsels judicial restraint in admonishing the employees for asserting a conflict between the FAA and NLRA – “This Court is not free to substitute its preferred economic policies for those chosen by the people’s representatives” – but fails to mention that the current regime making compulsory, pre-dispute arbitration a ubiquitous requirement for employees and consumers is a recent, judicial invention. Given the low value of most individual employment and consumer claims, the right-wing innovation is tantamount to a get-out-of-jail-free card (or out-of-liability-free card, at least) for companies engaging in wage theft and other insidious business practices, undermining fair competition with companies that play by the rules.
Completely absent from Court’s opinion is any discussion or concern as to how forced individual arbitration undermines the substantive rights enshrined in laws like the FLSA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting employment discrimination). The success of these Acts has depended greatly on the ability to bring group actions challenging policies and practices that injure large numbers of workers. For instance, the landmark 1971 discrimination case Griggs v. Duke Power Co. involved a class of African-American employees who successfully challenged high school diploma and IQ-testing requirements that were unrelated to their jobs, but had the effect of keeping African-Americans out of the most desirable positions. In Gorsuch’s world, these sorts of fundamental statutory protections must give way to the Roberts Court’s arbitration regime, under which its expansive reading of the FAA trumps all.
Justice Ginsburg penned a fiery and forceful dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, in which she blasts the majority opinion for trampling on the ability of employees to exercise their statutory rights. Ginsburg traces the history of the Court’s labor jurisprudence, noting that New Deal legislation like the NLRA and the FLSA arose from an understanding that individual employees lacked the bargaining power to demand fair working conditions, and that only through acting collectively could employees “match their employers’ clout in setting the terms and conditions of employment.” In that sense, the majority’s opinion, premised on the fanciful notion that most employees have any ability to negotiate when their employers demand they sign an arbitration agreement, reflects a return to the pre-New Deal Lochner era, when the Court routinely struck down worker protections as violating the supposed freedom to contract.
Ginsburg further notes that the result of Epic Systems “will be the underenforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers.” Low-wage employees, especially, may be reluctant to take on their employers alone for fear of retaliation, since the costs and risks of proceeding individually often dwarf the potential recoveries. Of course, this is not an accidental outgrowth of the Roberts Court’s arbitration jurisprudence, but its central design: to insulate companies from liability for harm to their employees and customers.
After Epic Systems, employees, consumers, and those who advocate on their behalf have an increasingly limited toolbox to confront corporate abuse on a class-wide basis, so long as employers can demand individual arbitration. At this point, the only comprehensive solution is likely a legislative one, highlighting the importance of who Americans elect to the next Congress. When most Americans know victims of corporate overreaching – a day we fear is coming soon – the tide will turn, and the Roberts Court will be seen in its true light, on the wrong side of history.