Employers who have watched the National Labor Relations Board — the nation’s primary enforcer of labor law — over the years anticipate that it will reshuffle its priorities soon after the White House changes parties. The agency swore in Jennifer Abruzzo as its new general counsel on July 22, 2021; and three weeks later, Abruzzo released an internal memorandum that is a blueprint for changes to the law she would like to see the agency implement.
On May 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis, in which it held that arbitration agreements containing class action waivers were enforceable notwithstanding the National Labor Relations Act’s protection for employee “concerted activity.” The five-Justice majority opinion sparked a fiery dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who focused on the opinion’s potential impact on wage and hour litigation, among other employee activities. In response, this week, Washington State’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee issued a sweeping Executive Order seeking to discourage employers from implementing (or continuing to rely on) arbitration agreements with class action waivers. Although Governor Inslee’s action is the exception so far, it may signal a broader backlash to arbitration agreements with class action waivers in the employment context.
In a long-awaited decision, the United States Supreme Court, by a 5-to-4 vote, overturned the National Labor Relations Board’s (the “Board”) ruling that class action waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) because they interfere with the right to engage in “protected activity,” which, according to the Board, includes the ability to bring class or collective actions. Epic Sys. Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-0285, 2018 WL 2292444, at *23 (U.S. May 21, 2018).
The United States Supreme Court finally agreed earlier this year to resolve whether the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits class action waivers in employee arbitration agreements. This ruling will have an immediate and far ranging impact on employers. The Trump presidency will likely play a crucial role in the outcome of what will be the first of many challenges to the expansive federal agency policies under the former Obama administration.
Employers have increasingly required employees to sign agreements to have their employment disputes resolved through private arbitration rather than through a lawsuit in state or federal court. The most critical aspect of these agreements has been the provisions by which the employee agrees to resolve his or her dispute on an individual basis rather than by means of a class action. When enforced, class action waivers are a potent weapon to stem the tide of wage and hour and employment discrimination class actions, which otherwise can result in claims involving thousands of workers and multimillion dollar settlements.