On June 16, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice did an about-face when it filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in an important labor arbitration case, NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA. The Murphy case presents the question of whether arbitration agreements can restrict employees from participating in class or collective actions. The brief filed by the Department of Justice argues that employers can impose such restrictions. See the full brief here.
Arbitration agreements have traditionally required employees to submit their claims to arbitration rather than through the court system. The trend over the last several years is for employers to include class action or collective proceeding waivers in such agreements. Such provisions are believed to reduce litigation costs associated with class and collective actions (which are on the rise). In response to this trend, the NLRB ruled that such waivers violate the NLRA when they are a condition of employment.
Several of the NLRB’s cases regarding such arbitration agreements have been appealed to the circuit courts, resulting in contradictory decisions on this issue. The Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits held that such arbitration agreements are enforceable, with the Seventh Circuit finding that these agreements violate the NLRA. There are similar challenges to agreements being made in other circuits, including the Eleventh Circuit. Based on the split of authority on this issue, the Supreme Court accepted review of the case argued before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
When the NLRB submitted its petition for writ of certiorari in Murphy, the Department of Justice supported the NLRB and its argument that the ability for an employee to engage in concerted activities is the “core substantive right” of the NLRA, and prohibiting class and collective actions infringe on that right. However, in its new brief, the Department of Justice argues that the NLRB failed to give adequate weight to the congressional policy of favoring arbitration agreements. This change of heart by the Department of Justice creates the potential for an unusual situation. Typically, when the Solicitor General’s office files an amicus brief, a lawyer for the government will present oral argument before the court on that side of the case. Given that the NLRB sits on the other side of the case, the upcoming oral arguments may consist of a lawyer for the United States arguing against a lawyer for a U.S. agency: the United States arguing against the United States.