Fair Pay Class Action Against Google Inc. Moves Ahead

Last week, a California state court in San Francisco ruled that a California Equal Pay Act class action against Google Inc. has survived the pleading stage. The California Equal Pay Act currently requires equal pay for employees who perform “substantially similar work” when viewed as a composite of skill, effort and responsibility. The 2016 amendment to the Equal Pay Act also prohibits employers from relying on the employee’s prior salary to justify a sex-based difference in salary. Plaintiffs allege in their amended complaint that Google relies on gender stereotypes and has a company-wide policy of relying on former salary history in setting pay and assigning jobs. These allegations were critical to the court’s decision to allow the case to proceed as a class action.

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Florida Federal Court Rules That Winn-Dixie’s Website Violated the ADA

Retailers throughout the country have been besieged by lawsuits and demand letters alleging that their websites are not accessible to the visually impaired and that this lack of accessibility violates Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiffs’ bar, without definitive guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the courts, has assumed that retail websites are “places of a public accommodation” under the ADA and that the appropriate compliance level should be the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 A or AA.
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Suit Shopping: Deceptive Pricing Class Actions Persist

Kate Gold published an article, along with Kathryn Deal, Meredith Slawe, Kate Villanueva, Dan Brewer and Ashley Super titled, “Suit Shopping: Deceptive Pricing Class Actions Persist” for the California Retailers Association’s Golden State Report.

Recent years have seen a considerable increase in deceptive pricing litigation, with plaintiffs’ attorneys turning to untried theories to help advance their cases. As a result, retailers are facing more high-risk class action suits that could lead to significant exposure, reputational damage, and considerable litigation costs. The article details two potential sources of suits—compare-at pricing and shipping charges—and how courts and agencies have thus far responded to such matters.

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Spotlight on Fair Pay for Female Law Firm Partners: Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Sedgwick

Traci Ribeiro’s class action lawsuit against her employer Sedgwick LLP is the latest in a string of lawsuits in the pay equity battle, which has been highlighted in this year’s Presidential election and through the recent EEOC claim filed by the U.S. womens’ soccer team. Ribeiro is a non equity partner who claims that, as one of the firm’s three highest revenue generating partners, she has been denied equity partnership and was subjected to retaliation for filing an EEOC complaint claiming gender discrimination.  She seeks to represent a class of past and present female attorneys in partnership track positions at the firm; her complaint alleges violations of the California Fair Pay Act, Illinois Fair Pay Act, and Federal Equal Pay, as well as gender discrimination and retaliation under the California FEHA, Illinois Human Rights Act, and Title VII.  Ribeiro claims, in addition to routinely paying women lawyers less than their male counterparts, Sedgwick has denied women equity partnership and membership on its Executive Committee (until 2016, when Ribeiro made a formal complaint about gender discrimination).  She asserts discrimination under both a disparate treatment and disparate impact theory.

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Seventh Circuit: Tipped Employees Can Perform Limited Non-Tipped Work At The Tip Credit Rate Of Pay

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a significant decision last week addressing the compensation of tipped employees who perform non-tipped work.  In Schaefer v. Walker Bros. Enterprises, 2016 WL 3874171 (7th Cir. July 15, 2016), a restaurant server in Illinois pursued a class and collective action alleging, among other things, that his employer violated state and federal wage and hour laws by failing to pay servers minimum wage for the time they spent on non-tipped duties.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment dismissal of the lawsuit.  The Court held that an employer may compensate a tipped employee at the reduced “tip credit rate” of pay for:  (1) limited non-tipped work incidental or related to tipped work; and (2) other negligible non-tipped work.  The decision provides helpful guidance to restaurant employers regarding the types of duties that tipped employees may perform at a reduced rate of pay.

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Split Circuit Court Decisions Create Uncertainty on Class Action Waivers and likely Supreme Court Review

By Vik Jaitly

Last week the 7th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Lewis v. Epic-Systems Corp., held that a company’s arbitration agreement, which prohibits employees from participating in “any class, collective or representative proceeding,” violated an employees’ right to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  The ruling creates a circuit split on the enforceability of class action waivers because the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Circuits each have held that class action waivers do not violate an employee’s rights under the NLRA.  Because of this circuit split, it is likely that the Supreme Court will visit this issue in the near future.

Background on Enforceability of Class Action Waivers

In recent years, federal courts have largely upheld arbitration pacts with class or collective action waiver language that provides that not only must an employee bring his or her claim exclusively in arbitration, but also that he or she must do so on an individual, and not on a class-wide basis. Specifically, in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (2011), the Supreme Court ordered the enforcement of arbitration agreements in a dispute involving an arbitration provision in cellphone contracts.  In the process, Concepcion generally held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts state bans on class action arbitration waivers.  The case however, did not directly address the viability of class action waivers in the employment context.

Shortly thereafter, in January 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that an employer could not force its employees to sign arbitration agreements with class waiver provisions because such agreements were unlawful under the NLRA. See D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB 184 (2012).  On appeal, the 5th Circuit rejected the NLRB’s holding that class waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements are unlawful, joining the 2nd and 8th Circuits, which had issued similar rejections.

Seventh Circuit Opinion

In Lewis v. Epic-Systems Corp., the plaintiff had entered into an arbitration agreement with his employer in which he had waived his “right to participate in or receive money or any other relief from any class, collective, or representative proceeding.”  Lewis later filed a suit in federal court on behalf of himself and other employees alleging that the company had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by misclassifying the employees and depriving them of overtime.

The employer moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims and compel arbitration on an individual claim basis. The plaintiff argued that the agreement’s class and collective action waiver was unenforceable because it interfered with his right to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA.  The district court agreed with plaintiff and denied employer’s motion to dismiss, relying primarily on a prior decision the district court had issued adhering to the D.R. Horton’s decision.  The district court believed the 5th Circuit’s majority opinion “never persuasively rebutted the board’s conclusion that a collective litigation waiver violates the NLRA and never explained why, if there is tension between the NLRA and the FAA, it is the FAA that should trump the NLRA, rather than the reverse.”  The employer subsequently appealed the district court’s decision to the 7th Circuit.

In its analysis, the 7th Circuit adopted the NLRB’s reasoning (as stated in D.R. Horton) that engaging in class, collective or representative proceedings is “concerted activity” and a protected right under Section 7 of the NLRA.  Therefore, the court concluded, it would be an unfair labor practice under Section 8 of the NLRA for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise” of this right.

Surprisingly, the 7th Circuit rejected the argument that the arbitration agreement must be enforced under the FAA—an argument adopted by all the other circuits that have ruled on this matter. In its ruling, the court focused on the FAA’s savings clause, which provides that arbitration agreements are enforceable except if the agreements themselves are unlawful.  Thus, the court found that Epic’s arbitration agreement is illegal under the NLRA, and because an illegal agreement is not enforceable under the FAA’s savings clause, there is no conflict between the FAA and the NLRA.

General Takeaways for Employers

The Lewis decision leaves employers with several takeaways:  First, employer need to know that class and collective action waivers will not be enforced in federal courts sitting in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, which are the states within the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Second, these same agreements will likely continue to be enforced in federal courts sitting in the circuits that have rejected the NLRB’s reasoning in D.R. Horton (for now, 2nd, 5th, and 8th Circuits).

Third, this circuit split will likely involve the input of the Supreme Court in the future but perhaps not between the Presidential election, and the appointment of a ninth Justice, given the desire to avoid a 4-4 split. If the case is brought before the Supreme Court before a new Justice is confirmed by the Senate, and the Supreme Court decision is split 4-4, each of the Circuit’s decisions will remain in effect.