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Two members of the National Labor Relations Board recently held that employers may not require employees to enter into arbitration agreements, as a condition of employment, that waive the ability to pursue class or collective claims. The Board’s ruling does not sound the death knell for class action waivers, however, as many Plaintiff’s lawyers have touted.

The Board’s decision likely will be reviewed by an appellate court since the NLRA allows D.R. Horton to appeal Board decisions in the District of Columbia Circuit, or in any circuit where the unfair labor practice arose or where the company does business.  The decision is almost surely to be challenged on grounds that it is at odds with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740 (2011), where the Court held that a California law prohibiting class action waivers in consumer arbitration agreements was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, meaning that class action waivers in consumer arbitration agreements may be enforceable.  The Board’s decision also is likely to be challenged based on the fact that it was issued by only two Board members, potentially in violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in New Process Steel v. NLRB.

In D. R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (January 3, 2012), a plurality of the Board held that D.R. Horton’s class/collective action waivers in its arbitration agreements – which employees were required to sign as a condition of employment – constituted an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act. 

This case started innocuously enough, as the charging party alleged that he was misclassified as an exempt employee under the FLSA, and initiated arbitration on behalf of himself and similarly situated employees.  After D.R. Horton asserted that arbitration of collective claims was prohibited under his arbitration agreement, the charging party brought a ULP charge against the company.  With only two members participating in the decision (as the third and only other Board member recused himself), the Board held that D.R. Horton engaged in an unfair labor practice by including waivers of class or collective claims in arbitration agreements that its employees were required to sign. 

The basis for the Board’s plurality opinion is Section 7 of the NLRA, which provides employees with the right “to engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection . . . .”  29 U.S.C. § 157.  “The Board has long held, with uniform judicial approval, that the NLRA protects employees’ ability to join together to pursue workplace grievances, including through litigation,” and “that concerted legal action addressing wages, hours or working conditions is protected by Section 7.”  Thus, D.R. Horton’s mandatory arbitration agreement, which precludes employees from pursuing class or collective claims in any forum (judicial or arbitral) “clearly and expressly bars employees from exercising substantive rights that have long been held protected by Section 7 of the NLRA,” and constitutes an unfair labor practice.

The Board’s decision expressly dealt with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Concepcion, distinguishing that case because it did not involve “the waiver of rights protected by the NLRA or even employment agreements.”  Likewise, the Board noted that Concepcion dealt with a conflict between California state law and federal law (the FAA), which implicated the Supremacy Clause, while the D.R. Horton case addressed alleged conflicts between two federal laws – the NLRA and FAA.  To the extent a conflict does exist between the two federal laws, the Board stated that the FAA would yield to the NLRA and its protections on the right to engage in concerted activity.

While the NLRB usually decides cases involving unionized workforces, this decision based on Section 7 of the NLRA would apply to union and nonunion employees, so long as the employer meets the jurisdictional requirements of the NLRA.

Even the Board’s ruling has some limitations, of which employers should be aware:

  • The class waiver prohibition is limited to statutorily defined “employees” under the NLRA, meaning it does not apply to managerial employees or supervisors. 
  • Employers may still insist that any arbitration proceedings be on an individual basis “[s]o long as the employer leaves open a judicial forum for class and collective claims.” 
  • The Board does acknowledge that a union is still free to collectively bargain away its members’ ability to pursue class or collective claims, just as it may agree to arbitration provisions that waive other actions.  The key is that the union negotiates this, not an employer unilaterally imposing such waivers.