Fifth Circuit Invalidates NLRB’s D.R. Horton Ruling
Today, the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in D.R. Horton v. NLRB, invalidating the NLRB's holding that D.R. Horton's arbitration agreement violated the NLRA by prohibiting employees from pursuing employment claims on a class or collective basis. The NLRB had reasoned that disallowing class and collective claims in arbitration and in court precludes employees from exercising their right under the NLRA to engage in collective, concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. The Fifth Circuit disagreed.
Relying on recent United States Supreme Court decisions starting with AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the Fifth Circuit held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) requires that arbitration agreements be enforced according to their terms and that a provision prohibiting class-wide arbitration is an enforceable term. The Fifth Circuit further held that nothing in the NLRA or its legislative history evinces any Congressional intent to ovveride the FAA, and that general language in the NLRA relating to "mutual aid and protection" could not be interpreted as an expression of Congress' intent to override the FAA.
The NLRB argued that its ruling was valid because it did not require employers to allow class-wide arbitration. Instead, it simply required employers to allow employees to pursue relief on a class-wide basis either in arbitration or in court. The Fifth Circuit held that there was nothing in the NLRA suggesting that a prohibition on class-wide claims violates the NLRA. The court also held that requiring employers to allow employees to pursue class-wide claims (either in court or in arbitration) has the effect of disfavoring arbitration, in contravention of the FAA.
The Fifth Circuit's decision was not an all-out win for D.R. Horton, however. The Fifth Circuit held that D.R. Horton's arbitration policy reasonably could be interpreted as preventing employees from pursuing administrative claims with the NLRB (based on broad language explaining that the employee was waiving the right to file a lawsuit "or other civil proceeding" relating to an employment dispute). As a result, the court held that the NLRB properly ordered D.R. Horton to take corrective action to revise its policy to clarify that employees are not prohibited from filing charges with the NLRB.
The Fifth Circuit's decision in D.R. Horton is the first circuit court decision addressing the D.R. Horton issue in a direct appeal from a NLRB action. However, many courts throughout the country, including many in California and in the Ninth Circuit have similarly rejected the NLRB's D.R. Horton analysis and refused to follow it. It remains to be seen what the NLRB will do in response to the Fifth Circuit's decision. The NLRB could petition for review to the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, the NLRB may continue to follow and apply its D.R. Horton analysis to invalidate class waivers in jurisdictions outside the Fifth Circuit. Alternatively, the NLRB could abandon its attack on class waivers consistent with the weight of court decisions rejecting the NLRB's analysis in this regard. Time will tell.
For now, arbitration agreements with class action waiver provisions remain an effective tool for employers to prevent class-wide employment claims.
The Fifth Circuit's decision is available here.