Earlier this year, we wrote about a proposed bill in California, AB 51, which would prevent employers from requiring their employees to bring all employment-related claims, including discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and wage and hour claims, in arbitration instead of state or federal court.  Earlier this month, Governor Newsom signed AB 51 into law.
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California has long been considered one of the most – if not the most – protective states of employee rights.  This continues to ring true, as the legislature has proposed another law aimed at prohibiting employers from requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment.   In essence, Assembly Bill 51 (AB 51), would prevent employers from requiring their employees to bring all employment related claims, including discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and wage and hour claims, in arbitration instead of state or federal court.
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The United States Supreme Court has granted consolidated review of three cases to determine whether arbitration agreements that waive employees’ rights to participate in a class action lawsuit against their employer are unlawful. The Court’s decision to address the uncertainty surrounding class action waivers of employment claims follows a circuit split last year in which the Fifth and Eighth circuits upheld such waivers and the Seventh and Ninth circuits found that such waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act. Given the increasingly widespread use of class action waivers by employers to stem costly class and collective actions, the high court’s ruling is likely to have a significant nationwide impact.
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With its May 26 Lewis v. Epic-Systems Corp. decision, the Seventh Circuit became the first circuit to back the reasoning in D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012), and held that a mandatory arbitration agreement prohibiting employees from bringing class or collective actions against their employer violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This decision creates a circuit split regarding the enforceability of arbitration agreements with class action waivers in the employment context, and the issue is now ripe for potential Supreme Court review.
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In the second half of December 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued 16 rulings on the illegality of mandatory arbitration agreements containing class and collective action waivers, even in situations where the agreements allow employees to opt out of, or into, the waiver. The NLRB continues to hold firm that these types of waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) because they infringe upon the employees’ protected right to engage in concerted activity—despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s continued favoring of class action waivers.
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Last week, in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-3 ruling, reversed the Second Circuit and held that a contractual waiver of class arbitration is enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) even if the cost of proving an individual claim in arbitration exceeds the potential recovery.  In holding that a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement is enforceable, even as to federal anti-trust claims, this decision builds upon the trend set in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010), AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), and CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 132 S. Ct. 665 (2012) – that arbitration agreements should be enforced according to their terms even for claims under federal statutes.


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