Landmark Supreme Court Decision Likely Permits Employers To Require Employees To Pursue Claims Individually And Not By Way Of Class Action Lawsuits

As we previously reported here, a report issued by the Judicial Council of California, Administrative Office of the Courts, Office of Court Research, shows that employment cases were the most frequently filed class actions, representing 29.3% of the class actions filed, and that over half of the employment cases filed alleged violations of Labor Code provisions governing payment of wages, rest and meal periods, and related claims. This is consistent with our experience representing numerous employers against such class action lawsuits.

Many employers have attempted to require current and former employees to pursue claims individually and not by way of class action lawsuits by requiring employees to agree to arbitrate individually whatever claims they might have.  California courts repeatedly struck down such arbitration agreements in whole or in part by finding such agreements to be "unconscionable" or "contrary to public policy." Those courts have declined to apply the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA") to such arbitration agreements.  Among other things, the FAA states:  

A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract. 

However, a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States has the real potential to change all that for many if not most California employers. In AT&T Mobility LLC v. Vincent Concepcion, the Supreme Court  reversed a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit holding (1) that an arbitration agreement between AT&T and its cell phone customers requiring customers to bring claims in their "'individual capacity, and not as a plaintiff or class member in any purported class or representative proceeding'" is unconscionable and therefore unenforceable because,"AT&T had not shown that . . . arbitration adequately substituted for the deterrent effect of class actions" and (2) that the basis for the finding of unconscionability "was not preempted by the [FAA]."  In other words, the Supreme Court rejected lower courts' analyses of the issue and held that arbitration agreements are generally enforceable according to their terms under the FAA, and neither California courts nor other courts can evade the FAA merely by declaring an arbitration agreement to be "unconscionable" in whole or in part.  The Court explained "the judicial hostility towards arbitration that prompted the FAA had manifested itself in 'a great variety' of devices and formulas' declaring arbitration against public policy."

Although the Supreme Court's landmark ruling concerned an arbitration provision of a consumer contract and not an arbitration agreement between and employer and an employee, we think the holding and the reasoning of the decision applies with equal or nearly equal force to arbitration agreements between employers and employees. In Southland Corp., v. Keating, the Supreme Court held the FAA applies to state courts and is intended to preempt state anti-arbitration laws to the contrary, and in Circuit City Stores, Inc., v. Saint Clair Adams, the Supreme Court held the FAA generally applies to employment contracts. 

Unfortunately, not all employers will be able to take advantage of this landmark decision. The FAA expressly exempts from its reach "contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce," which the Supreme Court held in Circuit City Stores, Inc., v. Saint Clair Adams applies to and is limited to "transportation workers, defined, for instance, as those workers 'actually engaged in the movement of goods in interstate commerce," such as truck drivers.  In other words, the FAA cannot be used as a basis for requiring such employees to arbitrate employment claims on an individual basis and not by way of a class action lawsuit.

Also, and predictably, there are already moves afoot to unwind legislatively the effect of Supreme Court's ruling. The day the decision came down, United States Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.), (of  Saturday Night Live fame) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) announced they will introduce legislation called the "Arbitration Fairness Act," which would eliminate "forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, and civil rights cases. . . ."  Whether such moves will prove to be successful given the present constitution of the Congress and the present political and economic climate remain to be seen.  

In any event, based on this landmark ruling and its potential to effectively immunize many employers against class action lawsuits by current or former employees, we think employers should promptly consult competent employment law counsel about either revising existing employer-employee arbitration agreements to require arbitration of employment claims on an individual basis and not on a class basis or about requesting or requiring employees to now enter into such arbitration agreements.

We are continuing to study this important decision and what other impact it might have on California employers and will likely post further commentary.

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