A “Split Decision”: California Supreme Court Addresses Arbitration Agreements and Gives Some Good News (But Mostly Bad News) to Employees

In the Iskanian v.CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC decision, the California Supreme Court addressed the enforceability of employer-employee arbitration agreements in various circumstances. Iskanian v.CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC, 59 Cal.4th 348 (2014). The case delivered some good news – but mostly bad news – for employees and attorneys who represent employees.

First, as to the bad news: Boxed in by the United States Supreme Court’s decisions on the enforceability of arbitration agreements, including in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740 (2001), the California Supreme Court upheld the validity of class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements. The California Supreme Court overruled its previous decision in Gentry v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles, 42 Cal.4th 443 (2007) as preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”).

The California Supreme Court also addressed the recently developed and powerful argument that class action arbitration waivers are invalid under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), which provides workers with a right to collective organize and advocate for their rights as a group. That argument gained traction with the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) in its recent decision in D.R. Horton. Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012), but unfortunately the California Supreme Court sided with the Fifth Circuit’s contrary opinion in D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013). The California Supreme Court held that the NLRA was no obstacle to the applicability of the FAA to support the enforcement of class action waivers in arbitration agreements.

There is a silver lining to every cloud, and the Court’s decision in Iskanian provided one. The Court held that an employer-employee arbitration agreement cannot provide for a waiver of employees’ rights to undertake a representative action under the California Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”), as that would violate public policy. The Court held that the FAA did not mandate a contrary result, while explaining that “a single-claimant arbitration under the PAGA for individual penalties will not result in the penalties contemplated under the PAGA to punish and deter employer practices that violate the rights of numerous employees under the Labor Code. That plaintiff and other employees might be able to bring individual claims for Labor Code violations in separate arbitrations does not serve the purpose of the PAGA, even if an individual claim has collateral estoppel effects.” In so holding, the Court also explained that PAGA does not violate the principle of separation of power under the California Constitution.

There are several interesting things to think about moving forward after this case. As an initial matter, it remains to be seen as to whether this will result in employers inserting more arbitration agreements in employment contracts and handbooks. The reason is that, although the United States and California Supreme Courts have made it easier for employers to do so, employers still need to be careful for what they wish for. Experience has demonstrated that arbitrations are costly for the employer, and they don’t always come out the way the employer expects it to. For example, our firm has had excellent outcomes in arbitrations, including seven figure awards and awards of punitive damages.

Moreover, while Iskanian gives employers a new stick to enforce certain arbitration agreements, employees and their advocates faced with an arbitration agreement should not give up and lose hope because (1) arbitration agreements are still subject to challenge on unconscionability grounds (Iskanian did not change that), (2) PAGA provides at least some stick to enable employees to enforce their rights in “representative” actions, and (3) there are positive sides to an arbitration agreement. There is a positive side to arbitration agreements for employees because the employer generally has to pay the arbitrator’s costs if the employee wins, there is no real appeal so the employer has to pay up quickly, and the arbitration can be quicker and less expensive for the employee.

We also all need to keep tabs on whether the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear this case to address its holdings.

July 15, 2014 Benjamin Siegel