Posts belonging to Category Arbitration



Morris v. Ernst & Young: 9th Cir. Strikes Down Concerted Action Waiver Under Federal Labor Law

In the ongoing fight over the use and enforceability of collective action waivers, the stage has been set for the United States Supreme Court to weigh in and hopefully offer clarity to labor law practitioners and employers. In 2012, two former employees filed a class and collective action lawsuit against Ernst & Young in the Southern District of New York, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) due to the company misclassifying them as exempt. Morris, et al. v. Ernst & Young, LLP, et al., No. C-12-04964-RMW. As a condition of their employment, plaintiffs Stephen Morris and Kelly McDaniel were required to sign agreements requiring them to pursue legal claims solely through arbitration and only individually, in “separate proceedings.” The case was then transferred to the Northern District of California, where the court granted the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, enforced the arbitration agreement’s de facto class action waiver, and ordered the plaintiffs to individual arbitration. Order Granting Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and Compel Arbitration, Morris, et al. v. Ernst & Young, LLP, et al., No. C-12-04964-RMW (July 9, 2013). The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit.

In 2012, in D.R. Horton, 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012), the National Labor Relations Board held that class action waivers violate federal labor law by frustrating employees’ right to engage in concerted activity to improve their working conditions. On appeal in Morris, the issue was whether the district court had properly rejected the plaintiffs’ reliance on federal labor law (specifically the National Labor Relations Act), as interpreted by the NLRB, as a basis for invalidating the arbitration agreement’s class action waiver. A divided Ninth Circuit reversed, thereby joining the Seventh Circuit in adopting the NLRB’s position that collective action waivers do in fact interfere with an employee’s right under the NLRA to engage in concerted activity, and are therefore unenforceable. Morris, No. 13-16599 (9th Cir. Aug. 22, 2016) (slip op. available here); Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016) (available here).

The Morris majority concluded, after examining the statutory language of the NLRA and the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton, that an employer violates the NLRA when it requires covered employees to sign an agreement precluding them from “filing joint, class, or collective claims.” Slip op. at 6-7, citing D.R. Horton, 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012). The court emphasized that the problem with the agreement was not that it called for arbitration of disputes, but that it prevented employees from acting in concert in any forum to address labor concerns, which undermines the substantive federal right of employees to collectively pursue work-related legal claims:

It would equally violate the NLRA for Ernst & Young to require its employees to sign a contract requiring the resolution of all work-related disputes in court and in “separate proceedings.” The same infirmity would exist if the contract required disputes to be resolved through casting lots, coin toss, duel, trial by ordeal, or any other dispute resolution mechanism, if the contract (1) limited resolution to that mechanism and (2) required separate individual proceedings.

Id. at 16 (emphasis in original). Had Ernst & Young’s arbitration agreement permitted concerted activity, the court held that it would have been enforceable. See id. Further, the panel reasoned that its holding in Morris did not contradict the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) because the rights in NLRA section 7—including the employees’ right to collective action—are substantive; “when an arbitration contract professes the waiver of a substantive federal right, the FAA’s saving clause prevents a conflict between the statutes by causing the FAA’s enforcement mandate to yield.” Id. at 18-19.

In her dissent, Judge Ikuta sided with the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits, calling the Ninth Circuit majority’s decision “breathtaking in its scope and in its error; . . . [and] directly contrary to Supreme Court precedent.” Slip op., Ikuta dissenting op. at 27. Judge Ikuta’s dissent focused on the existence of a “contrary congressional command,” CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 132 S. Ct. 665, 669 (2012), i.e. that Congress expressly intended to preclude waiver of the judicial forum, and took the position that, absent an express contrary congressional command, an arbitration agreement’s terms (including those that waive the use of class or collective mechanisms) should be enforced. Id. at 30-36. According to Judge Ikuta, the text of the federal statute at issue, here, the NLRA, must “expressly preclude the use of a predispute[s] arbitration agreement for the underlying claims at issue” to trump the FAA. Id. at 35-36. She found that the NLRA’s right to “concerted activities” did not meet this standard, and that “the Supreme Court consistently rejects claims that a ‘contrary congressional command’ precludes courts from enforcing arbitration agreements according to their terms . . . .” Id. at 36.

At the heart of the dispute seems to be a disagreement over whether the FAA and NLRA can co-exist, or whether one must override the other, and whether the NLRA creates substantive rights. In the past, when the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on class action waivers and class arbitration, it has been outside of the employment context and has not involved interpretation of two co-equal federal laws. In Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010), the Court held that under the FAA, arbitration on a class basis could not be ordered absent evidence that the parties agreed to such procedure in the arbitration agreement. A year later, in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011), the Court again expansively interpreted the FAA, holding that state laws prohibiting class action waivers in consumer arbitration agreements were preempted by the FAA.

If the Supreme Court grants certiorari to address the circuit split, how it balances employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity under the NLRA with the “national policy favoring arbitration” under the FAA will surely have tremendous impact on workplace rights throughout the country. Ernst & Young’s petition for review has been joined by several amicus curiae briefs, and the Supreme Court has issued an order extending the time for Morris to file his response to the petition to November 14, 2016.

Authored by:
Jamie Greene, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Uber Drivers Seek En Banc Review of 9th Cir.’s Arbitration Ruling

Uber drivers suing the ride-hailing company have urged an en banc review of the Ninth Circuit panel’s recent decision that drivers must arbitrate their claims, including any challenges to that they might have to the arbitration agreements themselves. Plaintiffs-Appellees’ Petition for Rehearing En Banc, Mohamed v. Uber Technologies, Inc., et al., 15-16178, Gillette v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 15-16181, and Mohamed v. Hirease, LLC, 15-16250 (9th Cir. Sept. 7, 2016) (available here). The request to re-examine the decision stems from appeals by Uber in three proposed class actions in which drivers alleged that Uber misclassified them as independent contractors, rather than as employees, and violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act and analogous state statutes by running criminal background and credit checks on drivers without proper authorization and then improperly utilizing their consumer credit reports. The at-issue arbitration agreements were contained in two driver agreements, a 2013 agreement and a 2014 agreement, both of which contained opt-out clauses that none of the plaintiffs had utilized.

On September 7, 2016, a three-judge panel partly reversed U.S. District Judge Edward M. Chen’s June 2015 ruling that Uber’s arbitration agreements were unenforceable, and clarified that the 2013 and 2014 contracts clearly delegated the question of arbitrability to the arbitrator. Mohamed, at 6-7 (slip op. available here). The panel found that “[t]he 2013 agreement clearly and unmistakably delegated the question of arbitrability to the arbitrator except as pertained to the arbitrability of class action, collective action, and representative claims.” Id. at 14. Furthermore, “the 2014 agreement clearly and unmistakably delegated the question of arbitrability to the arbitrator under all circumstances.” Id. at 11. The panel also held that neither delegation provision was unconscionable, because the ability to opt-out of both agreements within 30 days essentially rendered both agreements procedurally conscionable, per se. Id. at 18. Indeed, although the panel acknowledged that it was likely more burdensome to opt out of the arbitration provision by overnight delivery service or in person (as required by the 2013 agreement) than it would have been by email (as allowed by the 2014 agreement), “there were some drivers who did opt out and whose opt-outs Uber recognized. Thus, the promise was not illusory.” Id. at 17. Accordingly, the court rejected Judge Chen’s finding that Uber’s arbitration provision was procedurally and substantively unconscionable on these grounds. Id. at 17-18.

In their petition for rehearing, the drivers first argue the panel’s ruling unlawfully permits otherwise unconscionable arbitration agreements to be upheld, so long as the agreement contains a “meaningful” opt-out clause, even where the terms of the clause are difficult to comply with or are purposely buried in the fine print to prevent an individual from opting out. Petition for Rehearing, at 4-7 (internal citations omitted). Second, they contend that the panel’s finding that questions of arbitrability be decided by an arbitrator conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court’s requirement that valid delegations of arbitrability be “clear and unmistakable,” insofar as the at-issue delegation provisions contained exceptions, conflicted with other arbitration terms, and were generally ambiguous. Id. at 7-10 (internal citations omitted). Third, the drivers argue that the panel’s holding that the presence of opt-out clauses renders the agreements’ class action waivers lawful under federal labor laws is incorrect and conflicts with contrary holdings of the Seventh Circuit. Id. at 10-12. Specifically, in Morris v. Ernst & Young, No. 13-16599, 2016 WL 4433080 (9th Cir. Aug. 22, 2016), the Ninth Circuit recently held that class action waivers violate employees’ right to engage in “concerted action” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). However, this panel (in Mohamed) held that the availability of limited and burdensome opt-out provisions rendered the class action waivers non-mandatory, and thus lawful. Mohamed, slip op. at 18 n.6. The plaintiffs point out that this conclusion conflicts with the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147, 1155 (7th Cir. 2016), where the court held that an employee cannot prospectively waive the right to engage in protected concerted action under the NLRA, notwithstanding an opt-out provision. Finally, the drivers argue that the panel’s determination that a cost-sharing provision that would require drivers to pay substantial fees was negated by Uber’s mid-litigation offer to pay such costs, runs contrary to Sixth Circuit precedent which held such a provision unenforceable if it “deter[s] potential litigants, regardless of whether . . . the employer agrees to pay a particular litigant’s share of the fees and costs to avoid such a holding.” Petition for Rehearing, at 12-15 (citing Morrison v. Circuit City Stores, Inc., 317 F.3d 646, 676-77 (6th Cir. 2003) (en banc)).

It remains to be seen whether the Ninth Circuit will accept this petition for rehearing en banc.

Authored by:
Natalie Torbati, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Martin v. Milan Institute: 9th Cir. Affirms Trial Court’s Finding of Arbitration Waiver

In Martin, et al. v. Yasuda, et al., No. 15-55696 (9th Cir. July 21, 2016) (slip op. available here), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed its holding that a court—not the arbitrator—determines whether arbitration has been waived, unless the arbitration agreement specifically reserves that task for the arbitrator, and found that the defendants’ litigation conduct over a seventeen-month period resulted in a waiver of the defendants’ right to arbitrate. This important ruling rejects the defendants’ attempt to manipulate the judicial and arbitral systems to gain an unfair advantage due to their litigation conduct. Slip op. at 21.

In Martin, students of the Milan Institute of Cosmetology (“Milan”) sued the school in federal court alleging that Milan was, in fact, their “employer” because they were required to perform unpaid work to graduate from Milan’s cosmetology program, including cleaning, sweeping, selling retail products, and promoting Milan’s services. Slip op. at 4. The students’ Enrollment Agreement contained an arbitration agreement that stated, “[a]ll determinations as to the scope, enforceability and effect of this arbitration agreement shall be decided by the arbitrator and not by a court.” Id. The plaintiffs filed their complaint on October 28, 2013, and the following events transpired during litigation: (1) the parties filed a Joint Stipulation to extend the time to file a motion for conditional and class certification, noting the considerable time and effort spent by the parties to conduct discovery to focus on the issue of whether Milan employed the students; (2) the court denied in part and granted in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ First Amended Complaint, holding the plaintiffs could assert California state law claims; (3) the defendants answered a Second Amended Complaint and asserted arbitration as an affirmative defense; (4) the parties submitted a Joint Rule 26(f) Report detailing an eight-month period of discovery related to the “employee” issue and, at the scheduling conference, the court warned defense counsel about possibly waiving their right to arbitrate; (5) written discovery occurred and the deposition of Milan’s CEO was taken; and (6) seventeen months after the start of the case, the defendant moved to compel arbitration. Id. 5-9. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, finding that the defendant had waived its right to arbitrate. The defendants then appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first held that there is a presumption that that the court, and not the arbitrator, should decide the waiver issue. Citing the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Cox v. Ocean View Hotel Corp., 533 F. 3d 1114, 1120-21 (9th Cir. 2008), the panel stated that waiver by litigation conduct is a gateway issue to be decided by the court, not the arbitrator, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 83 (2002). Slip op. at 10-11. The broad language in Milan’s arbitration agreement assigning duties to the arbitrator does not overcome the presumption because the clause did not contain “clear and unmistakable language” that the arbitrator may decide the waiver issue. Id. at 12-13. Presumably, the arbitration agreement must clearly and specifically provide that only the arbitrator can determine whether litigation conduct waives the right to arbitrate. But, the court reasoned, such a provision would place this decision in the hands of the arbitrator, who is less familiar with the litigation than the court and with someone who has a financial interest in finding no waiver so that the arbitrator may keep the case. See id. at 12 n3.

The Court of Appeals, applying its arbitration waiver test announced in Fisher v. A.G. Becker Paribas, Inc., 791 F.2d. 691, 694 (9th Cir. 1986), then found that the defendants waived the right to arbitrate because they had engaged in conduct inconsistent with the right to arbitrate that prejudiced the plaintiffs. In so doing, the appeals court held that a statement by a party that is has the right to arbitration in the pleadings or motions is not enough to defeat a claim of waiver. Further, the court found it particularly key that the defendants had structured discovery, including a deposition, so that the trial court could rule on the defendants’ motion to dismiss on a key merits issue: whether the Cosmetology Act legally precluded the students from being classified as employees. Because the court found for the plaintiffs on the issue, the plaintiffs would be prejudiced by the delay in moving to arbitrate because they would be forced to re-litigate an issue on the merits on which they had already prevailed in court. Slip op. at 17. Finally, spending a lengthy amount of time litigating in the more complex federal court system inevitably causes the parties to spend more time, money, and effort than had they proceeded to arbitration. Id. at 18.

In affirming the district court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit agreed that the defendants couldn’t have their cake and eat it too: a party that signed a binding arbitration agreement and then is sued “can either seek to compel arbitration or agree to litigate in court. It cannot choose both.” Slip op. at 21 (emphasis added).

Authored By:
Robert Drexler, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Long v. Provide Commerce: Arbitration Clause in Browsewrap Agreement Held Unenforceable

A California Court of Appeal affirmed an order issued by Judge Jane Johnson denying a motion to compel arbitration where the arbitration agreement was contained in an online “browsewrap” agreement. Long v. Provide Commerce, Inc., No. B257910, 2016 WL 1056555 (March 17, 2016) (slip op. available here). The plaintiff had purchased flowers through ProFlowers.com, a website operated by the defendant. In his putative consumer class action lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that, despite being advertised as a completed, assembled product, the flowers were delivered in a “do-it yourself kit requiring assembly.” Slip op. at 3. The defendant moved to compel arbitration based on an arbitration clause in the website’s Terms of Use.

In Long, the Terms of Use were available via a hyperlink at the bottom of each page on the website—what is known in e-commerce as a browsewrap agreement. A browsewrap agreement does not require any express manifestation of agreement to the Terms of Use; rather, the user agrees to the Terms simply by using the website. Slip op. at 7. This is in contrast to a “clickwrap” agreement, where the consumer must click on a checkbox indicating his assent to be bound by the Terms of Use in order to continue using the website. Id. As there was no dispute that the plaintiff had no “actual knowledge” of the Terms of Use when he made his online purchase, the court analyzed the design and placement of both the hyperlink and the website to determine whether they were “sufficient to put a reasonably prudent Internet consumer on inquiry notice of the browsewrap agreement’s existence and contents.” Id. at 8.

The question of “what sort of website design elements would be necessary or sufficient to deem a browsewrap agreement valid in the absence of actual notice” was an issue of first impression in California. Slip op. at 9. While the hyperlink to the Terms of Use appeared on every page of the website and was visible without scrolling down, the hyperlink was nonetheless deemed too inconspicuous to provide the plaintiff with inquiry notice. Id. at 12-13. First, the hyperlink was light green-colored on a lime green background, and thus could blend in. Id. at 13. Additionally, there was nothing on the ProFlowers.com website to notify the consumer that, in using the website to buy flowers, “he should also be on the lookout for a reference to ‘Terms of Use’ [elsewhere] on the website[].” Id. at 12. Also, when a consumer selected his purchase and proceeded to checkout, the hyperlinks were not, contrary to the defendant’s characterization, “located next to” the form fields that a consumer would fill out to complete his order. Rather, there were several layers of other text and images that a consumer would need to look past to find the Terms. Furthermore, the inclusion of the Terms of Use hyperlink in a confirmation email did not remedy the problem; in the email, the Terms of Use hyperlink appears in inconspicuous grey font on a white background and was “located on a submerged page,” forcing the recipient to scroll down past layers of information, advertisements, logos, and other hyperlinks. Id. at 13.

The opinion expressly focused on the “practical reality” of how a consumer would interact with the website and the confirmation email. Slip op. at 13. Although it did not need to decide this issue, the court opined that, even if the hyperlink had been displayed conspicuously on the website, “without notifying consumers that the linked page contains binding contractual terms, the phrase ‘terms of use’ may have no meaning or a different meaning to a large segment of the Internet-using public.” Id. The court thus “advised” online retailers to include a conspicuous textual notice rather than just a hyperlink. Id. at 12-13 (agreeing with Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 763 F.3d 1171 (9th Cir. 2014)). Finally, the Court of Appeal also held that, as the plaintiff was not bound by the Terms of Use browsewrap agreement, the plaintiff also was not bound by the forum selection clause included therein. Id. at 14-15.

Authored By:
Katherine Kehr, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC