Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (US 16-285 5/21/18) Arbitration
In each of these cases, an employer and employee entered into a contract providing for individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve employment disputes between the parties. Each employee nonetheless sought to litigate Fair Labor Standards Act and related state law claims through class or collective actions in federal court. Although the Federal Arbitration Act generally requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements as written, the employees argued that its “saving clause” removes this obligation if an arbitration agreement violates some other federal law and that, by requiring individualized proceedings, the agreements here violated the National Labor Relations Act. The employers countered that the Arbitration Act protects agreements requiring arbitration from judicial interference and that neither the saving clause nor the NLRA demands a different conclusion. Until recently, courts as well as the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel agreed that such arbitration agreements are enforceable. In 2012, however, the Board ruled that the NLRA effectively nullifies the Arbitration Act in cases like these, and since then other courts have either agreed with or deferred to the Board’s position.
Held: Congress has instructed in the Arbitration Act that arbitration agreements providing for individualized proceedings must be enforced, and neither the Arbitration Act’s saving clause nor the NLRA suggests otherwise. Pp. 5–25.
(a) The Arbitration Act requires courts to enforce agreements to arbitrate, including the terms of arbitration the parties select. See 9 U. S. C. §§2, 3, 4. These emphatic directions would seem to resolve any argument here. The Act’s saving clause—which allows courts to refuse to enforce arbitration agreements “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract,” §2—recognizes only “ ‘generally applicable contract defenses, such as fraud, duress, or unconscionability,’ ” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, 339, not defenses targeting arbitration either by name or by more subtle methods, such as by “interfer[ing] with fundamental attributes of arbitration,” id., at 344. By challenging the agreements precisely because they require individualized arbitration instead of class or collective proceedings, the employees seek to interfere with one of these fundamental attributes. Pp. 5–9. (b)
(b) The employees also mistakenly claim that, even if the Arbitration Act normally requires enforcement of arbitration agreements like theirs, the NLRA overrides that guidance and renders their agreements unlawful yet. When confronted with two Acts allegedly touching on the same topic, this Court must strive “to give effect to both.” Morton v. Mancari, 417 U. S. 535, 551. To prevail, the employees must show a “ ‘clear and manifest’ ” congressional intention to displace one Act with another. Ibid. There is a “stron[g] presum[ption]” that disfavors repeals by implication and that “Congress will specifically address” preexisting law before suspending the law’s normal operations in a later statute. United States v. Fausto, 484 U. S. 439, 452, 453.
The employees ask the Court to infer that class and collective actions are “concerted activities” protected by §7 of the NLRA, which guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively . . . , and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” 29 U. S. C. §157. But §7 focuses on the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. It does not mention class or collective action procedures or even hint at a clear and manifest wish to displace the Arbitration Act. It is unlikely that Congress wished to confer a right to class or collective actions in §7, since those procedures were hardly known when the NLRA was adopted in 1935. Because the catchall term “other concerted activities for the purpose of . . . other mutual aid or protection” appears at the end of a detailed list of activities, it should be understood to protect the same kind of things, i.e., things employees do for themselves in the course of exercising their right to free association in the workplace.
The NLRA’s structure points to the same conclusion. After speaking of various “concerted activities” in §7, the statute establishes a detailed regulatory regime applicable to each item on the list, but gives no hint about what rules should govern the adjudication of class or collective actions in court or arbitration. Nor is it at all obvious what rules should govern on such essential issues as opt-out and opt-in procedures, notice to class members, and class certification standards. Telling too is the fact that Congress has shown that it knows exactly how to specify certain dispute resolution procedures, cf., e.g., 29 U. S. C. §§216(b), 626, or to override the Arbitration Act, see, e.g., 15 U. S. C. §1226(a)(2), but Congress has done nothing like that in the NLRA.
The employees suggest that the NLRA does not discuss class and collective action procedures because it means to confer a right to use existing procedures provided by statute or rule, but the NLRA does not say even that much. And if employees do take existing rules as they find them, they must take them subject to those rules’ inherent limitations, including the principle that parties may depart from them in favor of individualized arbitration.
In another contextual clue, the employees’ underlying causes of action arise not under the NLRA but under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which permits the sort of collective action the employees wish to pursue here. Yet they do not suggest that the FLSA displaces the Arbitration Act, presumably because the Court has held that an identical collective action scheme does not prohibit individualized arbitration proceedings, see Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U. S. 20, 32. The employees’ theory also runs afoul of the rule that Congress “does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions,” Whitman v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 531 U. S. 457, 468, as it would allow a catchall term in the NLRA to dictate the particulars of dispute resolution procedures in Article III courts or arbitration proceedings—matters that are usually left to, e.g., the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Arbitration Act, and the FLSA. Nor does the employees’ invocation of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, a predecessor of the NLRA, help their argument. That statute declares unenforceable contracts in conflict with its policy of protecting workers’ “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” 29 U. S. C. §102, and just as under the NLRA, that policy does not conflict with Congress’s directions favoring arbitration.
Precedent confirms the Court’s reading. The Court has rejected many efforts to manufacture conflicts between the Arbitration Act and other federal statutes, see, e.g. American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 570 U. S. 228; and its §7 cases have generally involved efforts related to organizing and collective bargaining in the workplace, not the treatment of class or collective action procedures in court or arbitration, see, e.g., NLRB v. Washington Aluminum Co., 370 U. S. 9.
Finally, the employees cannot expect deference under Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837, because Chevron’s essential premises are missing. The Board sought not to interpret just the NLRA, “which it administers,” id., at 842, but to interpret that statute in a way that limits the work of the Arbitration Act, which the agency does not administer. The Board and the Solicitor General also dispute the NLRA’s meaning, articulating no single position on which the Executive Branch might be held “accountable to the people.” Id., at 865. And after “employing traditional tools of statutory construction,” id., at 843, n. 9, including the canon against reading conflicts into statutes, there is no unresolved ambiguity for the Board to address. Pp. 9–21.
No. 16–285, 823 F. 3d 1147, and No. 16–300, 834 F. 3d 975, reversed and remanded; No. 16–307, 808 F. 3d 1013, affirmed.
GORSUCH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined.
For more information contact us at: