9th Cir. Articulates “Iskanian Rule” for Federal Courts

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On September 28, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in on a very contentious issue—the enforceability of waivers of claims brought pursuant to the Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”)—an issue that had divided the district courts for the last several years. See Sakkab v. Luxottica Retail North America, Inc., 803 F.3d 425 (9th Cir. 2015) (slip op. available here). The majority, agreeing with the California Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Iskanian case (Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC, 59 Cal. 4th 348 (2014)), found that an employee cannot waive the right to bring a representative PAGA action, and that any agreement seeking to waive such rights prospectively is unenforceable, a holding that is now becoming known as the “Iskanian Rule.” As a result, the lower court’s holding that the Iskanian rule is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) was reversed in part, and the case was remanded for the district court to decide in which forum (court or arbitration) the plaintiff’s representative PAGA claims would be resolved.

The plaintiff, a former employee of LensCrafters, had filed an employment class action lawsuit against Luxottica, alleging that the defendant misclassified the plaintiff and other employees as supervisors, in order to improperly exempt them from overtime wages and meal and rest break requirements. The defendant sought to compel arbitration pursuant to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) agreement contained in its “Retail Associate Guide.” The plaintiff argued that the portion of the ADR agreement prohibiting him from bringing PAGA claims on behalf of other employees was unenforceable under California law; thus, even if his claims were compelled to arbitration, he could not be denied a forum for his PAGA claims. The district court rejected the plaintiff’s argument and granted the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration only of the plaintiff’s individual claims, concluding that the FAA preempted the state law Iskanian rule. The plaintiff in Sakkab appealed.

Judge Milan Smith authored the majority opinion, arguing that Iskanian is not preempted by the FAA because it has nothing directly to do with arbitration. The thrust of the majority’s position was that PAGA actions are not necessarily “procedurally” complex, and that only state law rules that would require complex procedures in arbitration, resulting in “procedural morass,” run afoul of Concepcion’s rule against states interfering with “fundamental attributes of arbitration.” Slip op. at 19, 25-27. The majority bolstered its conclusion by adopting the preemption framework set out by the Iskanian court, which rested on the notion that PAGA claims are unique in that they are brought on behalf of the state to enforce the law, unlike private actions for damages which involve only private rights. As such, the United States Supreme Court’s FAA preemption case law, which mandates preemption of state law rules that implicate private rights, does not extend to a state law rule that disallows employers from enforcing waivers of PAGA claims. The dissent, however, reiterating the holding in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2007), would find that the FAA generally preempts any law that creates a special rule disfavoring arbitration or conflicts with the FAA’s objectives, and views no distinction between bans on PAGA claims and bans on class action waivers for the purpose of FAA preemption.

This ruling is particularly significant since it is the first endorsement of Iskanian, a state case, by a federal appellate court, and California federal courts will now be required to follow this rule. The defendant Luxottica has filed a petition seeking rehearing en banc, the plaintiff-appellant’s response to which is due by January 15, 2016.

Authored by: 
Robin Hall, Associate