Analysis of Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles LLC

Next up on the update list is Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles LLC (June 23, 2014). In Iskanian, a limousine driver filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of himself and similarly situated employees for his employer’s alleged failure to compensate its employees for, among other things, overtime and meal and rest periods.  Plaintiff also asserted a PAGA claim. The employee had entered into an arbitration agreement that waived the right to class proceedings. The defendant moved to compel arbitration. After the court granted the motion, Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443 (Gentry) was decided and the Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate directing reconsideration in light of Gentry. On remand, the defendant withdrew the motion and the plaintiff moved for certification. A class was certified.

After the United States Supreme Court issued AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 563 U.S. __ [131 S.Ct. 1740] (Concepcion) and invalidated Discover Bank v. Superior Court (2005) 36 Cal.4th 148 (Discover Bank), CLS renewed its motion to compel arbitration. The trial court granted the renewed motion.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal agreed that Concepcion invalidated Gentry.  The court also declined to follow a National Labor Relations Board ruling that class action waivers in adhesive employment contracts violate the National Labor Relations Act.  With respect to the PAGA claim, the Court of Appeal construed the plaintiff’s position to be that PAGA does not allow representative claims to be arbitrated, holding that the FAA precludes states from withdrawing claims from arbitration and that PAGA claims must be argued individually, not in a representative action, according to the terms of the arbitration agreement.

The Supreme Court granted review, examining (1) whether a state’s refusal to enforce such a waiver on grounds of public policy or unconscionability is preempted by the FAA, and (2) whether the FAA precludes the California Legislature from deputizing private litigants to pursue claims on behalf of the State.

While the plaintiff argued that Gentry survives Concepcion because it does not state a categorical rule such as that articulated in Discover Bank, the Court disagreed:

[T]he fact that Gentry’s rule against class waiver is stated more narrowly than Discover Bank’s rule does not save it from FAA preemption under Concepcion.  The high court in Concepcion made clear that even if a state law rule against consumer class waivers were limited to “class proceedings [that] are necessary to prosecute small-dollar claims that might otherwise slip through the legal system,” it would still be preempted because states cannot require a procedure that interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration “even if it is desirable for unrelated reasons.”  (Concepcion, supra, 563 U.S. at p. __ [131 S.Ct. at p. 1753]; see American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (2013) 570 U.S. __, __ & fn. 5 [133 S.Ct. 2304, 2312 & fn. 5] (Italian Colors).)  It is thus incorrect to say that the infirmity of Discover Bank was that it did not require a case-specific showing that the class waiver was exculpatory.  Concepcion holds that even if a class waiver is exculpatory in a particular case, it is nonetheless preempted by the FAA.  Under the logic of Concepcion, the FAA preempts Gentry’s rule against employment class waivers.

Slip op., at 7-8. Next, the Court concluded that the reasoning in Sonic II was insufficient to save Gentry:

Sonic II went on to explain that “[t]he fact that the FAA preempts Sonic I’s rule requiring arbitration of wage disputes to be preceded by a Berman hearing does not mean that a court applying unconscionability analysis may not consider the value of benefits provided by the Berman statutes, which go well beyond the hearing itself.”  (Sonic II, supra, 57 Cal.4th at p. 1149, italics added.)  The Berman statutes, we observed, provide for fee shifting, mandatory undertaking, and several other protections to assist wage claimants should the wage dispute proceed to litigation.  (Id. at p. 1146.)  “Many of the Berman protections are situated no differently than state laws concerning attorney fee shifting, assistance of counsel, or other rights designed to benefit one or both parties in civil litigation.”  (Id. at p. 1150; see, e.g., Lab. Code, § 1194, subd. (a) [one-way fee shifting for plaintiffs asserting minimum wage and overtime claims].)  The value of these protections does not derive from the fact that they exist in the context of a pre-arbitration administrative hearing.  Instead, as Sonic II made clear, the value of these protections may be realized in “potentially many ways” through arbitration designed in a manner “consistent with its fundamental attributes.”  (Sonic II, at p. 1149; see ibid. [“Our rule contemplates that arbitration, no less than an administrative hearing, can be designed to achieved speedy, informal, and affordable resolution of wage claims . . . .”].)

Slip op., at 9-10.  Since Sonic II did not prohibit the use of an arbitration procedure that satisfied the Berman statutes, the Court concluded that Sonic II survived Concepcion, unlike Gentry, which directly compared class actions that interfered with arbitration to the arbitration procedure.

Next, the Court considered the holdings of D.R. Horton Inc. & Cuda (2012) 357 NLRB No. 184 [2012 WL 36274] (Horton I) and the subsequent decision by the Fifth Circuit (Horton II). The Court concluded that the NLRA did not overrule the FAA, consistent with other courts considering the issue:

We thus conclude, in light of the FAA’s “ ‘liberal federal policy favoring arbitration’ ” (Concepcion, supra, 563 U.S. at p.__ [131 S.Ct. at p. 1745]), that sections 7 and 8 the NLRA do not represent “a contrary congressional command” ’ overriding the FAA’s mandate.  (CompuCredit v. Greenwood, supra, 565 U.S. at p. __ [132 S.Ct. at p. 669.)  This conclusion is consistent with the judgment of all the federal circuit courts and most of the federal district courts that have considered the issue.  (See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young, LLP (2d Cir. 2013) 726 F.3d 290, 297 fn. 8; Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc. (8th Cir. 2013) 702 F.3d 1050, 1053–1055; Delock v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc. (E.D.Ark. 2012) 883 F.Supp.2d 784, 789–790; Morvant v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc. (N.D.Cal. 2012) 870 F.Supp.2d 831, 844–845; Jasso v. Money Mart Express, Inc. (N.D.Cal. 2012) 879 F.Supp.2d 1038, 1048–1049; but see Herrington v. Waterstone Mortg. Corp. (W.D.Wis. Mar. 16, 2012) No. 11-cv-779-bbc [2012 WL 1242318, at p. *5] [defendant advances no persuasive argument that the Board interpreted the NLRA incorrectly].)

Slip op., at 21. At this juncture, and given the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is exceedingly unlikely that the conclusion of Horton I will be accepted.

After analyzing and rejecting the plaintiff’s waiver argument, the Court turned to the PAGA claim. After the Court explained the history of the statute, the first question examined was whether an employee’s right to bring a PAGA action is waivable. Concluding that PAGA rights could not be waived, the Court said:

The unwaivability of certain statutory rights “derives from two statutes that are themselves derived from public policy.  First, Civil Code section 1668 states:  ‘All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.’  ‘Agreements whose object, directly or indirectly, is to exempt [their] parties from violation of the law are against public policy and may not be enforced.’  (In re Marriage of Fell (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 1058, 1065.)  Second, Civil Code section 3513 states, ‘Anyone may waive the advantage of a law intended solely for his benefit.  But a law established for a public reason cannot be contravened by a private agreement.’ ”  (Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, 100 (Armendariz).)

Slip op., at 34.  The Court then said, “Notwithstanding the analysis above, a state law rule, however laudable, may not be enforced if it is preempted by the FAA.” Examining that second question, the Court held that the PAGA right is not a “private” right, existing only as a grant of a public right:

We conclude that the rule against PAGA waivers does not frustrate the FAA’s objectives because, as explained below, the FAA aims to ensure an efficient forum for the resolution of private disputes, whereas a PAGA action is a dispute between an employer and the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Slip op., at 36-37. This distinction, which was uncertain until this decision, was the source of inconsistent outcomes when other courts examined the issue of whether PAGA claims were subject to arbitration agreements.

Justice Chin authored a concurrence, though he restated his disagreement with the contention that Sonic II survived Concepcion.

Justice Werdegar concurred with the majority opinion regarding PAGA, but dissented as to the enforceability of any clause depriving employees of the right to engage in concerted action: “Eight decades ago, Congress made clear that employees have a right to engage in collective action and that contractual clauses purporting to strip them of those rights as a condition of employment are illegal.  What was true then is true today.” Werdegar diss. & conc., at 1.  Justice Werdegar strongly defended the right to engage in concerted activity, despite the FAA:

An arbitration agreement “shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract” (9 U.S.C. § 2, italics added).  Here, we deal with a provision—the waiver of the statutorily protected right to engage in collective action—that would be unenforceable in any contract, whether as part of an arbitration clause or otherwise.  The FAA codifies a nondiscrimination principle; “[a]s the ‘saving clause’ in § 2 indicates, the purpose of Congress in 1925 was to make arbitration agreements as enforceable as other contracts, but not more so.”

Werdegar diss. & conc., at 9. Justice Werdegar’s dissenting opinion as to the interaction of the NLRA, the Norris-Laguardia Act and the FAA is an exceptional defense of the position advocated by the plaintiff and in Horton I. If nothing else, it is worth a thorough reading by practitioner in the wage and hour field.