Seyfarth Synopsis: The NLRB has withdrawn the significant concession it offered at oral argument on the nature of the NLRA rights it seeks to assert in the face of employers’ mandatory arbitration programs.

As noted in our earlier blog post, the Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 2, 2017, on one of the most significant employment law cases in some time, to consider whether to permit employers to use mandatory arbitration programs that contain waivers of collective and class actions.

In the most dramatic moment of the morning, the NLRB’s General Counsel Richard Griffin made a significant admission.[1]

In response to a series of questions by a skeptical Chief Justice Roberts, Griffin to agree that it would not be an unfair labor practice for a mandatory arbitration program to require use of a forum whose rules did not allow class arbitration. Justice Alito quickly realized the significance of this point: “if that’s the rule, you have not achieved very much because, instead of having an agreement that says no class, no class action, not class arbitration, you have an agreement requiring arbitration before the XYZ arbitration association, which has rules that don’t allow class arbitration.” Griffin did not dispute this. He commented that “the provisions of the [NLRA] run to prohibitions against employer restraint.”

Next to the podium was counsel for the employees, Daniel Ortiz of the University of Virginia School of Law. Ortiz did not agree with that concession, thus seeming to highlight a fundamental dissent from the NLRB’s position. This gap was all the more notable for the fact that the Solicitor General already had abandoned the NLRB to side with the employers.

In an unusual development, just one day after the argument, the NLRB’s Griffin sent a short letter to the Court disavowing its argument and adopting the position staked out by Ortiz:

I am writing to correct an inaccurate response I gave at oral argument yesterday in response to the line of questioning by Chief Justice Roberts found at pages 47-50 of the transcript of the oral argument. My responses, to the extent they indicated any difference from the responses given by employees’ counsel, Mr. Ortiz, to the questions of Chief Justice Roberts found at pages 60-64 of the transcript of the oral argument, were a result of my misunderstanding the Chief Justice’s questions and were inaccurate; Mr. Ortiz correctly stated the Board’s position and there is no disagreement between the Board’s and the employees’ position on the answers to those questions.

Such letters are not unprecedented. Still, it is a remarkable about face. For the justices who already seemed skeptical of the NLRB’s position, this change of position may only serve to highlight that the NLRB is not clear in the reasoning of its position or the effects such reasoning may have if ordered more broadly by the Court to apply to future cases.

[1] The New York Times highlighted Griffin’s concession:

The labor board’s general counsel, Richard F. Griffin Jr., argued for the workers. He made a concession at odds with the position of another lawyer on his side.

Mr. Griffin said that employment contracts could not require workers to give up collective action in arbitration but that the private entities that conduct arbitration could require that cases be pursued one by one.

If that is so, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. responded, “you have not achieved very much because, instead of having an agreement that says no class arbitration, you have an agreement requiring arbitration before the XYZ arbitration association, which has rules that don’t allow class arbitration.”

Daniel R. Ortiz, a law professor at the University of Virginia who also argued for the workers, took a different approach…