Florida employers are beginning to benefit from recent U.S. Supreme Court and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) rulings. On June 26, 2018, the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued two decisions in favor of Florida employers in which it rejected NLRB rulings that the employers had violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The cases are Everglades College, Inc. v. NLRB and Cowabunga, Inc. v. NLRB.
Applying the Supreme Court’s Epic Systems decision (for further information on Epic, click here), the Eleventh Circuit held in both cases that the inclusion of class and collective action waivers in these employers’ mandatory arbitration agreements did not violate the NLRA. Additionally, relying on the Board’s Boeing decision (for more information, on Boeing click here), the Eleventh Circuit vacated the NLRB’s holdings that the arbitration agreements were unlawful because employees could “reasonably believe that they were prohibited from filing unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.”
In Boeing, the NLRB retroactively changed the rationale it used to evaluate the lawfulness of facially neutral employee policies, thus eliminating the broadly applied “reasonably believe” standard that prohibited any rule that could be interpreted as covering protected activity. Without that standard, the Board could not defend its prior decisions in the appeals. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the remaining issues in the cases to the NLRB so that it can apply its new Boeing rationale, which does not interpret ambiguities against the drafter and does not ban all activity that could conceivably be included in generalized provisions.
Even with the NLRB General Counsel’s recent memo addressing the application of the Boeing standard (for more on the memo, click here), it is unclear how the Boeing rationale will apply to arbitration agreements. Regardless, employers should remain hopeful as the new standard provides for a more balanced review.
The United States Supreme Court recently decided two cases addressing class-action proceedings. These cases show that “Things Are Changing” and employers will no longer have “Nothing But Heartache.” Both decisions are employer-friendly, in that these opinions effectively limit participation in class-action lawsuits.
In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court upheld the enforceability of class-action waivers in employee arbitration agreements. Arbitration is an alternative means of resolving a dispute without proceeding to a court trial. A class-action waiver in the employment context is a contract provision in an arbitration agreement that prevents employees from resolving employment disputes in a group. The Court found that employers can put these waivers in their arbitration agreements, and the waivers do not invalidate the agreements. Opponents to these waivers are now screaming, “Stop, In the Name of Love.”
Now, some “Reflections.” In light of this decision, employers should keep two things in mind.
The Epic Systems decision does not represent a blanket endorsement of arbitration agreements; rather, this decision requires courts not to overturn arbitration agreements solely because they contain class-action waivers. This case does not prevent courts from refusing to enforce arbitration agreements for other reasons.
Epic Systems does not mean all employers should declare, “I’ll Try Something New,” and adopt arbitration agreements. Employers considering using arbitration agreements should evaluate whether arbitrating their disputes is the right choice. Employers should keep in mind that by agreeing to arbitration, they are generally giving up their right to appeal an adverse decision.
In the second case, China Agritech v. Resh et al., which was not an arbitration case, the Court held that employees/former employees who were not certified as members of a class-action lawsuit before the legal deadline to join the lawsuit could not file a new class-action suit after the passage of the statute of limitations on the initial class action. Thus, some employees/former employees who do not timely protect their rights will no longer be able to belt, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
“No Matter What Sign You Are,” as an employer these decisions are “Automatically Sunshine” and maybe even a bit of “Buttered Popcorn.”
Summer associate Kelley Thompson assisted in preparing this blog post.
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.
Three circuit courts of appeal have issued opinions on whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) and Eleventh Circuit (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), relying on past precedent, have held that Title VII does not prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, on April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit (Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) issued a conflicting opinion, becoming the first circuit to hold that sexual orientation discrimination is indeed prohibited. Now, with the circuits split on this issue, the stage is set for the U.S. Supreme Court to be asked to resolve this conflict. However, recent reports opine that the employer in the Seventh Circuit case will not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. If the employer does not appeal, another case will have to make its way through the lower courts before the divergence of opinion can take center stage at the Supreme Court.
Until the battle is fought before the Supreme Court, Florida employers should keep in mind that while Florida falls under the jurisdiction of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and thus, arguably sexual orientation discrimination is not currently prohibited by Title VII, many municipalities, including the City of Sarasota and City of Miami, have local ordinances that prohibit such discrimination. Further, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with enforcing Title VII, takes the position that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes sex discrimination and is therefore prohibited.