On September 2, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Patterson v. Raymour’s Furniture Co., the most recent case in what has become an all-out war between employers and the NLRB over the use of class-waiver provisions in arbitration agreements. The decision, consistent with prior Second Circuit precedent enforcing such waivers, maintains the status quo for an issue with a recently-formed circuit split (discussed in our prior post here).
Beginning with its decision in D.R. Horton, the Board has taken the position that class-waiver provisions in arbitration agreements infringe on the rights of employees to engage in concerted activities and, therefore, violate the National Labor Relations Act. Prior to May 2016, each federal appellate court that addressed the issue had rejected the Board’s reasoning and enforced these types of arbitration agreements. However, in May and August 2016, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, respectively, issued decisions finding that such agreements violated the NLRA and were not entitled to enforcement under the Federal Arbitration Act. These decisions created a circuit split with the Fifth, Eighth, and Second Circuits, each of which had previously enforced these types of agreements.
However, just as the Eighth Circuit doubled-down on its rejection of the NLRB’s position in June (Cellular Sales of Missouri, LLC v. NLRB), the Second Circuit in Patterson has refused to reverse course on the issue. Unfortunately, the Court’s application of pro-employer precedent on this issue was less than enthusiastic. First, the Court chose to issue its decision through a “summary order,” which holds no precedential value. Further, rather than stating its actual agreement with the prior Second Circuit decision enforcing class-waiver provisions in arbitration agreements (Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP), the Court merely stated that it was “bound” by that prior holding until it is overruled, perhaps suggesting that an en banc Second Circuit should reevaluate the Court’s position on the issue. Even more explicitly, the decision states, “If we were writing on a clean slate, we might well be persuaded . . . to join the Seventh and Ninth Circuits and hold that the EAP’s waiver of collective action is unenforceable.”
In sum, employers should be wary of taking too much comfort in the Second Circuit’s decision in Patterson. Although an immediate reversal of Second Circuit precedent would have been devastating, employers would have preferred a more ringing endorsement of Sutherland’s holding. Regardless, the enforceability of class-waiver provisions in arbitration agreements is an issue that is far from settled, and given the circuit split, the Supreme Court’s involvement will almost certainly be necessary.