Overview: By Decision dated July 19, 2017 (the “Decision”), the Appellate Division, First Department (the “First Department”) (which has jurisdiction over Manhattan and Bronx) held that arbitration agreements obligating employees to waive their rights to bring collective disputes, such as class actions regarding wage disputes, were unlawful and unenforceable because they “run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act” (the “NLRA”). Though freely acknowledging that the United States Supreme Court will resolve a similar issue in its October 2017 Term, the Decision currently binds the trial courts in Manhattan and Bronx and has precedential effect for other trial courts throughout New York. The Decision can be appealed to New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals.
How Did this Issue Come Up?: In Gold v. New York Life Insurance, former insurance agents engaged as independent contractors by New York Life Insurance Company (“NY Life”) asserted violation of New York Labor Law and sought recovery of underpayment of wages. Each agent’s contract contained a provision requiring arbitration of claims or disputes with NY Life. By these agreements, the insurance agents also waived any right to bring their claims on a class collective or representative basis. On appeal from summary judgment in favor of NY Life, the First Department interjected itself into the national debate concerning enforceability of class and collective action waivers in the context of wage and hour litigation by refusing to enforce NY Life’s arbitration agreements. The court held that these agreements were unenforceable because their class and collective action waivers violate the NLRA. The Decision is significant in that the First Department rejected the current and longstanding position held by the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals (the “Second Circuit”) (which court’s jurisdiction includes Manhattan and Bronx) that upholds class and collective action waivers, and sided with the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in deeming such agreements to have an effect of unlawfully abrogating employees’ right under Section 7 of the NLRA.
What Does the Decision Mean for Employers?: Until the United States Supreme Court rules otherwise in its upcoming term, the Decision is troubling for New York employers who have relied on the United States Supreme Court’s and Second Circuit’s decisions upholding employee waivers to commence and/or participate in collective, class, or representative actions. For cases currently before trial courts in Manhattan and Bronx, employers may no longer successfully seek to defeat a class action through invocation of class action waivers contained in arbitration agreements. The Decision potentially opens the door for more class actions to be filed in state trial courts in these counties. Plaintiffs’ attorneys seeking to assert wage claims that arose in Manhattan and Bronx will likely elect to avoid the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York and not pursue claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and assert only wage claims under New York Labor Law in state court.
Since arbitration agreements with class action waivers may no longer offer employers protection from class actions in state trial courts, employers are encouraged to review and evaluate their current wage and hour practices, implement regular self-audits and reviews and undertake immediate corrective action in the event non-compliance is identified. We encourage you to consult with a FordHarrison LLP attorney or your labor counsel about the Decision and its implications to your existing practices.