The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis struck a big blow to worker rights. At issue was whether employer arbitration agreements, often signed as beginning day employment papers, can prevent workers from pursuing their right to participate in class or collective actions against their employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Enacted in the 1930s, the FLSA established wage and hour rights including the federal minimum wage and overtime pay for hours worked over 40 during the workweek. Under the FLSA, workers can recover for underpaid and miscalculated wages. The statute also provides that current and former employees can pursue a type of class action known as a collective action so that other workers that have suffered similar wage losses can be identified and joined into the case. Collective actions can also help streamline litigation by creating efficiencies in time and money.
The opposing statute at issue in Epic Systems Corp. is the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA provides that parties may contractually agree to resolve disputes through binding arbitration rather than the court system. In an arbitration, the parties give up their 7th Amendment right to a trial by jury as well as their right to appeal on substantive grounds to a court of law.
In Epic Systems Corp, the Court rejected National Labor Relations Board’s contention that class waivers violate employee rights to take collective steps for their “mutual aid and protection.” The Court ruled that employers can require employees to arbitrate disputes with their employer and waive their right to pursue or participate in class or collective actions. The FLSA is silent about overriding arbitration agreements. Ultimately, “[i]n the Federal Arbitration Act,” the Court held, “Congress has instructed federal courts to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms – including terms providing for individualized proceedings.”
As both Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority and Justice Ginsburg, for the dissent, point out – this result is something Congress can fix statutorily by clarifying that collective action rights cannot be waived by arbitration agreements. The Court also provides a sliver of daylight to workers by acknowledging state law contractual defenses to arbitration clauses still exist with respect to class waiver arbitration agreements.
Arbitration can be equitable and advantageous for parties of comparable bargaining power that willingly enter into such an agreement. But, more often than not, employment agreements with arbitration clauses involve a large disparity in favor of the employer. Employees often aren’t even aware they’ve signed an arbitration agreement.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s broad holding that forced arbitration clauses and class action waivers are enforceable in employment contracts will have a broad impact on millions of workers and will likely impact other areas of employment law beyond wage and hour disputes.