Supreme Court Ruling May Stop Enforcement of Some Contractors’ Arbitration Agreements

New Prime v Olivieri double decker bus

The year 1925 was a banner year for transportation. Walter Percy Chrysler founded the Chrysler Corporation, London introduced its first double decker bus, and Malcolm Campbell became the first person to exceed 150 mph in an aero-engined car, accomplishing the feat at Pendine Sands in Wales. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Meanwhile, back in the States, American courts had developed a habit of not enforcing arbitration agreements, and Congress was determined to change that. In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which is the law that allows parties to agree to arbitrate disputes and which tells courts to respect those agreements, subject to a few limited exceptions.

Those exceptions were at issue in the Supreme Court case of New Prime v. Olivieri, decided last week in an 8-0 decision. 

The Court ruled that:

(1) If there is a question about whether the FAA applies to an arbitration agreement, a court — not an arbitrator — decides whether the FAA protects the arbitration agreement. 

(2) The FAA’s exception — which says the FAA does not cover workers in the transportation industry — applies not just to employees in the transportation industry but also independent contractors. In other words, the FAA does not protect arbitration agreements entered into by independent contractors in the transportation industry.  

For business owners who wish to use arbitration agreements with their workers, what does this ruling mean?

I.  Who decides who decides?

Sometimes an arbitrator decides whether a dispute is subject to arbitration, and sometimes a court decides. Last month in the Henry Schein case, the Supreme Court held that an arbitrator can decide, in most instances, whether a dispute is covered under an arbitration agreement.

But last week’s New Prime case draws a distinction about who decides if the issue is whether the FAA applies to the dispute.

So, to simplify: On the issue of who decides whether a dispute is subject to an arbitration agreement, what’s the rule now? 

1. If the issue is whether the FAA protects the arbitration agreement, a court decides whether the FAA applies or not. (That’s the New Prime decision.)

2. If the FAA does apply and the issue is whether a particular dispute is subject to the agreement to arbitrate, then the arbitrator decides whether a dispute is subject to the agreement to arbitrate — assuming that the arbitration agreement has delegated to the arbitrator the ability to decide. (That’s the Henry Schein decision.)

The last sentence in Point 2 is the reason companies should consider adding a clause to their arbitration agreements saying that the arbitrator decides questions of arbitrability.

II.  How does the New Prime ruling apply to arbitration agreements with independent contractors? 

For independent contractors not in the transportation industry, this ruling does not apply. Arbitration agreements with independent contractors are generally enforceable and are protected by the FAA.

But how do we know the FAA doesn’t apply to all independent contractors in interstate commerce?

To answer that question, we need to head back to the Year 2001, a year after the electronic calendar shifted away from 19xx and technically-inclined doomsday prophets foretold of planes falling out of the sky. Shortly after mankind endured this potential calendar-caused calamity, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Circuit City Stores v. Adams.

The issue in Circuit City was whether the FAA applies to arbitration agreements between employers and employees. There is a carve out provision in the FAA, saying that the law favoring arbitration does not apply to “to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

The issue in Circuit City was whether the carve out for “contracts of employment” of “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” was intended to be broad and apply to all employees in interstate commerce or just those in the transportation industry. What was the intended meaning of “workers engaged in … interstate commerce”?

In Circuit City, the Court ruled that:

(1) the FAA generally does apply to arbitration agreements between employers and employees, but

(2) the FAA does not apply to workers in the transportation industry.

The Court decided that the phrase “workers engaged in … interstate commerce” was intended to refer only to workers in the transportation industry, not all workers. Arbitration agreements with employees in industries other than transportation would be enforceable under the FAA.

But that decision left open an important issue: What about independent contractors in the transportation industry? Do they have “contracts of employment”? Does the FAA apply to their arbitration agreements or not?

Fast forward to last week’s New Prime case.

The Supreme Court ruled that when the FAA was written in 1925, the phrase “contracts of employment” was understood to mean all work engagements, not just employer-employee relationships. Our understanding of the word “employment” has changed over time and, if that phrase were used in a statute today, it would likely refer only to true employer-employee relationships. But in 1925, it meant all work.

The Court therefore ruled that the FAA’s carve out applies to all workers in the transportation industry, regardless of whether such workers are employees or independent contractors. This means that arbitration agreements signed by employees or independent contractors in the transportation industry are not covered by the FAA, and therefore their agreements to arbitrate disputes are not protected by the FAA. Those disputes might have to go to court.

So what happens now?

First, the ruling is narrower than it may seem. The Court ruled only that the FAA did not apply to independent contractors’ arbitration agreements in the transportation industry.  It did not rule that these arbitration agreements were automatically void.

Many states have their own statutes that protect arbitration as a means for resolving disputes. Companies with workers in the transportation industry should check whether there is a state law that can be applied to protect these arbitration agreements.  If it would be reasonable to apply that state’s law, then companies should consider choosing that state’s law in the arbitration agreement’s Choice of Law provision. The right state’s law might still be able to save the arbitration agreement. We can expect further litigation on this subject, but here’s a tip for now. Try to pick a state with a favorable arbitration statute if your workers are in the transportation industry.

Second, we can expect the next battle to be over the meaning of the phrase, “transportation industry.” Does the “transportation industry” include only workers who transport goods across state lines? Or does the “transportation industry” include independent contractor drivers who transport passengers across town (such as ride share) or who deliver your pizza?

In Circuit City, the Supreme Court looked favorably on other court decisions that had defined the “transportation industry” to mean those workers “actually engaged in the movement of goods in interstate commerce.” If that holds true, then local drivers of passengers and late-night food cravings should be considered not part of the “transportation industry.” The FAA, therefore, would still apply to those workers.

But we can expect the plaintiffs’ bar to argue for a broad interpretation of the “transportation industry.” We can now expect to see arguments that rideshare drivers and local delivery drivers are in the “transportation industry” and that their arbitration agreements are not protected by the FAA. I think that argument is incorrect, but I do expect to see it.

I would expect Courts of Appeal (and perhaps eventually the Supreme Court) to adopt a narrow view of the “transportation industry,” meaning that the FAA still applies to independent contractors who transport people or make local deliveries. I expect the courts to rule that the carve out from the FAA exempts only those workers (employees and contractors) who routinely transport goods across state lines.

For now, here’s what you need to know:

  • Arbitration agreements with independent contractors in the “transportation industry” are not protected by the FAA. It may be more difficult to enforce those arbitration agreements unless they are governed by the law of a state with its own arbitration statute.
  • Arbitration agreements with independent contractors outside of the transportation industry should remain enforceable under the FAA.

And the bottom line for me is that maybe it’s time for self-driving cars.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

 

After Supreme Court Ruling, Be Sure Your Arbitration Agreements Contain These Two Essential Clauses!

Hyena supreme court henry schein arbitration

I never thought hyenas essential
They’re crude and unspeakably plain
But maybe they’ve a glimmer of potential
If allied to my vision and brain

– “Be Prepared,” The Lion King

The song goes on to warn that “you can’t be caught unawares.” Be prepared. The song neglects to remind companies to check their arbitration agreements for two essential clauses, but that’s why you have me.

The Supreme Court delivered its first Kavanaugh-authored opinion late last week. It was a short, punchy, and unanimous decision with no mention of cartoon hyenas or warthogs, but it clarifies an important point under federal arbitration law: If an agreement calls for disputes to be resolved by an arbitrator, a court cannot override that contractual agreement — even to decide a threshold question like whether the dispute is subject to arbitration.

This is a case of Who decides who decides.

Many arbitration agreements contain carve-outs, saying that certain types of disputes are not subject to arbitration. A common carve-out allows parties to go to court to get an injunction to prevent imminent harm.

The issue here was whether a carve-out like that could be presumed by the court (since it was not explicitly in the agreement), or whether the arbitrator had to decide what was subject to arbitration. The court ruled:

When the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, the courts must respect the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract.

How does this apply to you?  Two important points:

First, carve-outs: Your arbitration agreements should be drafted to include carve-outs that allow parties to go to court to seek injunctive relief to prevent imminent harm. Specific types of disputes should not be subject to arbitration. If your employee or contractor is about to reveal a trade secret, you need the ability to run to court and get immediate relief. Arbitration is too slow to prevent that danger.

Second, arbitrability: If you fear that a court might invalidate the arbitration agreement or attempt to override it, include a provision like this: “Any disputes regarding whether an issue is subject to arbitration shall be resolved by the arbitrator.”

This case was decided under the Federal Arbitration Act, which is the federal law that favors enforcement of agreements to arbitrate disputes, subject to a few limited exceptions. One of those exceptions is also now before the Supreme Court in New Prime v. Olivieri, a case we discussed here. It relates to independent contractors in the transportation industry and whether the Federal Arbitration Agreement applies. A decision in New Prime will be issued sometime this term.

Arbitration agreements are an important tool that should be in your toolbox, especially if your company is concerned about class action claims, either from employees or independent contractors.

Be prepared.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

 

Preview of 2021? New Bill Would Revoke Arbitration Agreements, Raise Stakes for Independent Contractor vs. Employee Disputes

Independent contractor misclassification epic systems congressRegardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that the best part of Election Day being over is that there will be no more political ads for a while. You know what I mean: “Candidate A hates you and your family and supports legislation to tax you into bankruptcy. I’m Candidate B and I approve this message.” Or, “Candidate B hates you and your family and supports criminals and gangs. I’m Candidate A and I approve this message.” Finally and mercifully, that’s going to end for a while.

So let’s look ahead to 2020, when another vicious round of political ads will be unleashed upon your television screen, punishing all who have not yet cut the cord.

With the Democrats taking control of the House, and with several key Republican seats expected to be in play in 2020, a Democratic presidential win in two years could mean that the Democrats enter 2021 in control of both houses of Congress and the Executive Branch.

A bill recently introduced by prominent Democrats provides a hint of what would happen to recent wins for businesses in the areas of employee arbitration agreements and class action waivers.

H.R. 7109, the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, would prohibit class action waivers in employment contracts and would prohibit agreements to arbitrate future claims. The proposed law would roll back the Supreme Court’s recent Epic Systems decision and shift the balance of workplace power back toward employees.

According to a study cited in Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Epic Systems, about 65% of companies with more than 1,000 employees have mandatory arbitration agreements. These contracts would become void.

The bill would also increase the stakes for businesses that use independent contractors. If employee arbitration agreements and class action waivers were unenforceable, then the determination of Independent Contractor vs. Employee becomes even more important. A misclassified contractor (who is deemed to be an employee) could then bring class action claims in court, rather than being restricted by contract to seeking an individual remedy through arbitration.

The bill has no chance of passage in the current Congress, but a tsunami of pro-worker legislation may be coming after the next couple of years. 

Meanwhile, enjoy the resumption of TV ads about erectile dysfunction and drugs that you should ask your doctor about even side effects include rare incurable cancers and in some cases death. These are the ads we know and love.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Arbitration Agreements Save Uber From Massive Class Action

uber victory arbitration agreements 2018

Two themes are often repeated in this blog: (1) Independent contractor relationships are under attack, and (2) there are a lot of things companies can do to protect themselves, but they need to be proactive, not wait until they get sued. I’ve also tried themes relating to song titles – like here (Led Zeppelin) and here (Tom Petty) – but that’s kind of not the point I’m trying to make right now.

These two themes came together nicely this week in a major ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Uber earned a big win, thanks to its arbitration agreements and a May 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision confirming that mandatory arbitration agreements should be enforced.

Uber has been a favorite target of the plaintiffs’ bar in independent contractor misclassification lawsuits. Uber has been trying to defeat class claims by asking courts to enforce the mandatory arbitration agreements signed by most of its drivers.

That fight has been going on since 2013, when a federal court in California rejected Uber’s bid to enforce its arbitration agreements. The California judge certified a class of 160,000 drivers, then certified another subclass of drivers, creating a massive class action that Uber tried to settle for $100 million. The judge in that case rejected the settlement as too small, but Uber’s long game in court appears to have paid off.

After the judge rejected the proposed settlement, the case was to proceed; but, remember, the judge had also rejected Uber’s attempt to enforce the arbitration agreements, which would have kept the matter out of court entirely. If the arbitration agreements were enforced, the drivers would have to litigate their claims individually, one-by-one, with no individual driver’s claim worth all that much money. The attractiveness of these claims for plaintiffs’ lawyers is in the massive dollars generated by consolidating tens of thousands of individual claims into class actions. Individual arbitrations do not have much lure.

In this week’s Court of Appeals decision, the arbitration agreements were upheld as valid and enforceable. Uber will not have to face this class action of 160,000+ California drivers. The jackpot settlement of $100 million is gone, and the drivers who wish to go forward will now have to pursue their claims drip-drip-drip, one-by-one, with only small amounts of money at issue in each case.

This ruling became inevitable after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems decision in May 2018, which held that individual employee arbitration agreements are generally enforceable and do not violate workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had no choice but to rule that Uber’s arbitration agreements were indeed enforceable, overturning the district court judge’s 2013 decision that said they were not.

The plaintiffs tried to argue that since one of the lead plaintiffs opted out of arbitration, the entire potential class should be viewed as if everyone opted out of arbitration. But the Court was having none of that. A single class representative plaintiff doesn’t have the authority to cancel thousands of other contracts that he wasn’t a part of.

The lesson here is that arbitration agreements work. They are a potent weapon in defending against and preventing massive class action risks, especially for companies that rely heavily on independent contractors for their business model.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Arbitration Agreements Can Prevent Discovery of Other Class Members

McGrew independent contractor collective action sixth circuit court of appeals

An old Canadian poem called “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” tells the tale of a Yukon Gold Rush prospector (McGrew), his sweetheart “Lou,” and a stranger who buys drinks for everyone in the saloon, plays a sad song on the piano, then shoots McGrew, who also shoots the stranger, and everyone dies except Lou, who gets McGrew’s gold. You can read a summary here.

This post is about a different McGrew, who doesn’t get any gold.

This McGrew is an exotic dancer in Kentucky. She filed a lawsuit alleging independent contractor misclassification, an issue that was mildly less prevalent during the Yukon Gold Rush. Melissa McGrew had an arbitration agreement but filed a lawsuit anyway, trying at least to get the court to grant conditional certification and require all potential class members to be notified of the lawsuit and their opportunity to bring claims.

No way, said the district court; and no way said the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals, guided by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Epic Systems case, ruled that because arbitration agreements are enforceable, a plaintiff can’t first try to take advantage of collective action notice procedures in court. Arbitration means no court, which means no collective action notice procedures.

This is not a surprising ruling, but it’s an important reminder of another benefit to businesses of arbitration agreements with class action waivers.

Not only can businesses prevent class action litigation, but they can also prevent the procedures that would result in notifying all potential class members.

In this case, McGrew got no gold, and her lawyers got no list.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Beware of Classwide Arbitration: Instacart Case Might Allow It

Instacart arbitration decision allowing class actions

Did that photo make you want to eat a pumpkin right now? (Probably not.)

🍿🍩🍰🍦🍨 Do these emojis make you hungry?

Does this one 🍺 make you wish the workday was over?

Fortunately for those who like instant gratification, driving services like Instacart promise to connect you with contractors who will go grocery shopping for you and will deliver the bounty to your house. This is not an ad for Instacart, though. This is a post about arbitration.

You see, like many other delivery app companies, Instacart’s drivers are independent contractors. Also like many other delivery app companies, Instacart gets sued for independent contractor misclassification. Wisely, Instacart has all contractors sign arbitration agreements.

One of the most significant benefits of arbitration agreements for companies is the opportunity to insert a clause that waives the right to bring any class/collective action claims. All claims must be brought individually — but only if that waiver language is clearly stated in the contract.

Instacart may have had an Oops!

In a pending case alleging independent contractor misclassification, the arbitrator has ruled (preliminarily) that the driver bringing the claim may bring a class/collective action. Instacart said, Whahhh?, and asked a California court to intervene and to rule that the arbitrator was overstepping his authority.

Arbitrators, though, are pretty well insulated from court review. That’s usually a plus, but it can also be a minus. For Instacart, it’s a minus here.

The California court ruled that it has no jurisdiction to intervene. It cannot review that preliminary decision by an arbitrator. Rather, a court can only review an arbitrator’s decision under very limited circumstances, mainly only after there has been an “award.” Instacart appealed but fared no better. The California Court of Appeals agreed.

The Court of Appeals, like the court below, ruled that the arbitrator’s decision to allow class arbitration is not an “award,” and the court cannot intervene. The arbitration must continue under the jurisdiction of the arbitrator. Only when the case is done will the court take a look.

This decision should serve as a reminder of two important points:

  1. In arbitration agreements with independent contractors, it is important to include a carefully drafted clause that waives the right to file or participate in a class or collective action. The clause should also state that the arbitrator has no jurisdiction to consider a class or collective action. These clauses need to be unambiguous.
  2. When parties agree to arbitrate, the arbitrator has a lot of power, and the preliminary rulings of an arbitrator are generally not subject to court review (except in limited circumstances). When you choose arbitration, you’re all in.

The case is in its very early stages, so we’ll see what happens. But there are some early lessons to be learned here. Congratulations. You made it to the end of the post. Now you can go eat.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Epic Ruling Clears Path: Arbitration Agreements Can Save Millions in Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Arbitration agreements for independent contractorsToday in the Epic Systems case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that in employer-employee relationships, mandatory arbitration agreements with class action waivers are lawful.

A class action waiver means that employees cannot file class actions. They must instead bring any claim individually to arbitration, one person at a time, even if there are a lot of others in the same situation.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the employers could require employees to sign these agreements.

  • The argument for allowing the agreements was that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) favors arbitration as a way to resolve disputes and says that most attempts to invalidate arbitration agreements are against the law. But there are narrow exceptions.
  • The argument against allowing the agreements was that the NLRA grants workers the right to engage in protected concerted activity, and filing class actions (they argue) is a type of protected concerted activity.

The court had to decide whether the NLRA’s right to engage in protected concerted activity created an exception to the FAA’s rule favoring arbitration. As expected, the conservative court held that mandatory employee arbitration agreements — including class action waivers — are lawfulIn other words, businesses may require their employees to sign away their right to bring class actions. Read that again slowly. It’s important.

What does this mean for independent contractor agreements?

The decision does not directly address independent contractor agreements, but the decision does say that the Supreme Court has rejected every other challenge to the FAA’s policy favoring arbitration.

It seems pretty safe, then, to assume that the Court would allow mandatory arbitration agreements, with class action waivers, in independent contractor agreements.

Should businesses include mandatory arbitration provisions in independent contractor agreements?

There are pros and cons to arbitration, and the answer depends largely on how reliant your business is on independent contractor relationships as part of the business model. In other words, are you at risk of a class action?

If yes you are, then yes you probably should. (But please consult counsel.)

Businesses that may be at risk of a widespread finding of independent contractor misclassification can use these agreements to prevent class actions from being filed. If contractors who claim misclassification have to bring their claims individually, there is a lot less money at stake and, strategically, the incentive for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take these cases is greatly diminished. Few lawyers will take a case that may be worth a few thousand dollars (or often less). Most lawyers would love a case that may be worth a few million dollars. The difference is in the numbers. Class action waivers can greatly reduce your company’s risk of a large misclassification verdict.

Other advantages of arbitration include:

  • The results of individual arbitrations can be kept confidential, unlike court decisions. That means a finding against you will not hit the social media feeds or trade publications;
  • The parties select the arbitrator, which means you can ensure that your fact finder is a lawyer or has a background in the industry or type of dispute involved;
  • There’s no risk of a runaway jury, populated by regular folks who might have an axe to grind and no sense of the value of money;
  • The dispute gets resolved quickly, with finality, and with no right to appeal (except in very limited circumstances)

But there are potential downsides to arbitrations too:

  • Filing fees can be expensive;
  • Arbitrators can be expensive too. They get paid by the hour, unlike a judge who is not being paid by either side (we hope);
  • The barrier for employees to bring a claim is lower. They don’t need an attorney, and they can initiate a claim with ease, which could mean that more individual claims would be filed than if employees had to go to court;
  • There is no right to appeal (except in limited circumstances). This is both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on whether you win!

Arbitration agreements have pros and cons, but for businesses that make substantial use of independent contractors, an arbitration agreement with a class action waiver can be critically important in avoiding a large claim.

One final reminder: If you use an mandatory arbitration agreement, remember to include a class action waiver. That’s one of the main benefits of these agreements.

Please consult with your employment lawyer to decide whether arbitration agreements are right for your business.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.