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.