NLRB Continues Reliance on D.R. Horton to Attack Employment Arbitration Agreements
As many predicted, the Fifth Circuit’s recent invalidation of the NLRB’s D.R. Horton decision has not caused the NLRB to revise its enforcement position on the subject of class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements. The NLRB basically takes the position that, unless overruled by the United States Supreme Court (as opposed to a circuit court of appeal), Board decisions (such as D.R. Horton) remain in effect and are binding on the NLRB’s administrative law judges (“ALJ”). A decision last week from an ALJ in Leslie’s Poolmart, Inc. and Keith Cunnigham evidences the NLBR’s continued adherence to its D.R. Horton decision and policy. Indeed, the Leslie’s Poolmart decision actually expands D.R. Horton by holding that an arbitration agreement that was silent on the issue of class and collective claims still violated Section 7 of the NLRA by interfering with employees’ rights to engage in collective, concerted activity for mutual aid and protection.
In Leslie’s Poolmart, employees were required to sign an arbitration agreement upon hire, whereby they agreed that they would arbitrate any employment-related disputes. The agreement said nothing about whether an employee could pursue class or representative relief in arbitration. Notwithstanding his agreement to arbitrate, employee Cunningham filed a class action lawsuit in California state court against Leslie’s, alleging various wage and hour violations. Leslie’s removed the case to federal court and then filed a motion to compel arbitration of Cunningham’s individual claims and requested that the class claims be dismissed. The court granted the motion (with the exception of a PAGA claim, which the court held was exempt from individual arbitration).
Not to be deterred, Cunningham filed a charge with the NLRB alleging that Leslie’s arbitration agreement and efforts to enforce it violated section 7 of the NLRA. Last week, a NLRB ALJ agreed. The ALJ held that she was still bound by D.R. Horton regardless of the fact that the Fifth Circuit effectively overruled the decision. The ALJ further held that D.R. Horton applied even though the arbitration agreement in this case (unlike the one at issue in D.R. Horton) did not expressly preclude arbitration of class or representative claims. The ALJ reasoned that even though the agreement did not expressly foreclose class claims, it effectively foreclosed such claims because the employer required all employees to sign the agreement and responded to court actions by making motions to compel individual arbitration and to dismiss any class allegations. Thus, the ALJ found that the agreement interfered with employees’ ability to engage in collective concerted activity. The ALJ further held that a single employee's filing of a class action claim (even without active participation of any other employee) constituted protected concerted activity. The ALJ ordered Leslie’s to rescind its arbitration policy and/or to revise it to make clear that employees can pursue class claims either in arbitration or in court. The ALJ further ordered Leslie’s to file a motion with the district court requesting that it vacate its order compelling Cunningham to arbitrate his individual claims. The January 17, 2014 Leslie’s Poolmart decision is available in full on the NLRB’s website here.
Unless and until the United States Supreme Court overrules D.R. Horton, it appears, at least for now, that some plaintiffs' class action lawyers may continue using unfair labor practice charges as a last ditch effort to try to avoid dismissal of their class claims. Given the wide rejection by courts of the NLRB's D.R. Horton decision, the ultimate success of this type of tactic is doubtful.