Ninth Circuit Rules Employer’s Mandatory Arbitration Agreement Violates the National Labor Relations Act

The Ninth Circuit recently ruled that an employer’s mandatory arbitration agreement that included a class action waiver violated the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) and therefore was unenforceable. Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP (9th Cir. August 22, 2016) 834 F.3d 975. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling endorses the position taken by the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) on this issue and is consistent with the position taken by the Seventh Circuit. However, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling is in conflict with the position taken by the Second, Fifth and Eighth Circuits, each of which has held that the Federal Arbitration Act requires that class action waivers contained in employers’ mandatory arbitration provisions must be enforced under the recent arbitration decisions of the United States Supreme Court. This split among the Circuits renders a future United States Supreme Court decision on this issue all but inevitable.

Stephen Morris and Kelly McDaniel brought a wage and hour class action against their employer, Ernst & Young (“E&Y”). E&Y moved to compel arbitration pursuant to a “concerted action waiver” signed by Morris and McDaniel. The concerted action waiver required employees (1) to pursue all claims against E&Y in arbitration and (2) to arbitrate only as individuals. The effect of the two provisions was that employees were prohibited from bringing class action claims “in any forum – in court, in arbitration proceedings, or elsewhere.” 834 F.3d at 979.

The Second, Fifth and Eighth Circuits have held that the Federal Arbitration Act requires that such arbitration agreements be enforced. However, the Ninth Circuit characterized the issue in a very different way: “The problem with the contract at issue is not that it requires arbitration; it is that the contract term defeats a substantive federal right to pursue concerted work-related legal claims.” 834 F.3d at 985. The court also said, “The same provision in a contract that required court adjudication as the exclusive remedy would equally violate the [Act].” 834 F.3d at 984.

Two years ago, the California Supreme Court addressed the identical issue in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC (2014) 59 Cal.4th 348, 366-374. In Iskanian, the California Supreme Court performed an independent analysis of the issue and concluded that such waivers are enforceable. The California Supreme Court’s analysis was similar to that of the Fifth Circuit, whose decisions the court cited. Since the California Supreme Court’s holding on this issue is contrary to that of the Ninth Circuit, it is likely that California’s trial and appellate courts will follow the California Supreme Court’s lead, and will enforce class action waivers contained in employers’ mandatory arbitration provisions, unless either the California Supreme Court changes its mind or the United States Supreme Court decides the issue.

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