Employment Law Blog

Categories: Class Actions

Lights Out: Class Arbitrations Prohibited by Ambiguous Arbitration Agreements

April 25, 2019

On April 24, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, No. 17-988, in which it held (by a 5-4 vote) that, under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), parties have not agreed to class arbitration where the arbitration clause at issue is ambiguous about the availability of such arbitration. There, a Lamps Plus employee sued the company on behalf of a putative class of employees after a data breach exposed approximately 1,300 employees’ tax information, but the employee had signed an arbitration agreement at the outset of his employment. The agreement stated that all disputes arising out of the employment relationship would be resolved by arbitration and provided that the claims would be resolved in accordance with the rules of the arbitral forum.

Reversing both the district court’s order compelling class arbitration and the Ninth Circuit’s affirmance, the Supreme Court, relying on one of its prior decisions in 2010, reasoned that ambiguity—like silence—in an arbitration agreement regarding class arbitration is insufficient to infer that the parties affirmatively agreed to such arbitration. The Court also rested heavily on what it deemed the fundamental differences between class and individual arbitrations, only the latter of which the Court claimed was envisioned by the FAA. Class arbitration, the Court proffered, does not allow for “lower costs, greater efficiency and speed, and the ability to choose expert adjudicators to resolve specialized disputes.” The Court also eschewed the lower courts’ reliance on the contra proferentem doctrine (ambiguity in a contract construed against the drafter), which it called a “doctrine of last resort,” reasoning that its use by the lower courts was inconsistent with the fundamental rule that arbitration is a matter of consent.

In dissent, Justice Ginsburg pilloried the majority for “how treacherously the Court has strayed from the principle that arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion.” Observing the current state of arbitration and its present uses, her dissent called for urgent action by Congress to “correct the Court’s elevation of the FAA over the rights of employees and consumers to act in concert. In a separate dissent, Justice Kagan believed that resort to the neutral state contract law principle of contra preferendum—a neutral interpretive principle utilized by all 50 states—was appropriate and required if the arbitration agreement was ambiguous. Justice Kagan chided the majority for disregarding the parties’ actual arbitration agreement.

The Lamps Plus decision is important because it signals that arbitration agreements that are ambiguous as to the availability of class arbitration will be construed as prohibiting the same. Indeed, Lamps Plus (and the Court’s prior decision in Stolt-Nielsen regarding an arbitration clause completely “silent” as to class arbitration) raises an interesting question: is there even a need for an affirmative class arbitration waiver? While in the abstract, perhaps the answer is “no,” the safer and less expensive answer for employers and other companies seeking to preclude class arbitration (and class actions) is “yes.” Dissents notwithstanding, Lamps Plus is yet another win for companies in the Roberts’ Court.

Attorneys: Steven Adler and Brian Block
Related Practice: Labor and Employment
Category: Arbitration, Employment Litigation

Class Action Liability Risks for Violations of ADA and New York Human Rights Laws

July 6, 2018

In January 2018, the federal government conformed its website accessibility requirements to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), an international set of standards intended to make web content more accessible to users with perceptual or physical challenges. The WCAG addresses low vision, color perception, cognition, manual dexterity, screen reading technology, and other issues related to user abilities. The Department of Justice (DOJ) promised to do the same in the private sector by mid-year, but that initiative has been deferred.

As a consequence, there has been a surge of class action lawsuits alleging Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations based on access to website information that the Courts have been addressing individually. The first federal court decision that a website violated the ADA was in early 2017. The decision was followed by 800 federal lawsuits that year alone, alleging ADA as well as state law civil rights violations. (New York led the way with more cases than any other state). Until a clear standard is set by Congress or the appropriate regulatory agency, web site ADA lawsuits will continue to increase.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability “in places of public accommodations”.  As such, any business is potentially an ADA class action target. Class actions require only one named plaintiff (who brings suit individually and on behalf of those “similarly situated”), and one defendant (potentially, you). Whether you are a large or small business, brick and mortar, or web-based only, defending an ADA/Human Rights Law class action promises to be costly in two ways. Not only is there the risk of a potential damage award, the ADA is a “fee shifting statute.” As a result, a defendant must pay its own legal costs to defend the action and may be required to pay those of a successful plaintiff as well. These costs alone may run into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now, with the website accessibility lawsuit floodgate open, it imperative for businesses to ensure ADA compliance. The easiest and most economical approach is a website compliance audit and action-item checklist conducted by legal counsel experienced in ADA website accessibility issues. For instance, does your website include:

  • Visual Alternatives (pre-recorded text for audio, descriptors for images)
  • Sound alternatives (text descriptors for audio)
  • Color Contrasting (that meet the minimum ratios)
  • Key board navigation (i.e. function and/or tab key, not mouse-only options)
  • Adjustable font size (without content or acuity loss)
  • Semantic HTML (descriptive headings that identify the content that follows)

Many of these features are easy (and inexpensive) to implement once you (and your website consultant) know what is required. Please contact the firm’s cybersecurity practice attorneys Steven Teppler or Lauren Topelsohn to discuss our fixed fee consultation details.

Attorneys: Steven Teppler and Lauren Topelsohn
Related Practice: Labor and Employment

Supreme Court Curtails Employees' Right To File Class Actions

May 29, 2018

On May 21, 2018 the United States Supreme Court delivered another blow to employee rights. In Epic Systems v. Lewis, the Court issued a monumental decision protecting employers from class action lawsuits.

In Epic Systems, the Court upheld the right of employers, as a condition of employment, to require employees to arbitrate claims individually on a one-on-one basis rather than collectively or as a class. According to the Court, this can be accomplished simply by sending an e-mail to employees informing them if they don’t note their objection, they will be considered to have consented to arbitration on an individual basis. This decision effectively precludes workers from suing in court or filing for arbitration when their claims are small, such as when suing for an employer’s failure to pay minimum wages or overtime pay. According to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent, “[t]he inevitable result of today’s decision will be the underenforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers.”  Tip to Employers: Consider requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements or send an e-mail informing employees that, if they don’t object, they will be bound to arbitrate their dispute on an individual basis. 

Attorney: Steven Adler
Related Practice: Labor and Employment