In a much-anticipated decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the National Labor Relations Board's controversial D.R. Horton decision, which held that an arbitration agreement requiring an employee to waive his or her right to bring class claims violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Agreeing with its sister circuit courts, the Fifth Circuit held that the NLRA did not override the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), meaning the employer's arbitration agreement must be enforced according to its terms, including the agreement's preclusion of class claims. D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 12-60031 (5th Cir. Dec. 3, 2013). The Court upheld, however, the NLRB's finding that the arbitration agreement could be misconstrued by employees as precluding the filing of unfair labor practice charges which violates Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.
Arbitration Agreement Prohibiting Class Claims Does Not Violate NLRA
The Fifth Circuit's ruling puts to rest a thorny issue for employers who have struggled with the Board's D.R. Horton decision. The controversy arose in early 2012 when the NLRB concluded that home builder D.R. Horton violated Sections 7 and 8(a)(1) of the NLRA by requiring employees to sign a Mutual Arbitration Agreement that precluded employees from filing class or collective claims related to their wages, hours or other working conditions. In re D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (Jan. 3, 2012). The Board found that the agreement interfered with the exercise of employees' substantive rights under Section 7 of the NLRA which allows employees to act in concert with each other for their mutual aid or protection.
Two of the three judges on the Fifth Circuit panel disagreed. First, the majority found that the use of class action procedures is not a substantive right but is instead a procedural device. Then, the judges analyzed whether there is a conflict between the NLRA and the FAA that would preclude application of the FAA to enforce the arbitration agreement according to its terms. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740 (2011), the Fifth Circuit determined that requiring a class mechanism is an impediment to arbitration and violates the FAA so the Board's attempt to fit its rationale into the FAA's "savings clause" failed. The Court then concluded that neither the NLRA's statutory text nor its legislative history contains a congressional command to override the FAA. Failing to find an inherent conflict between the NLRA and the FAA, the Court ruled that the arbitration agreement must be enforced according to its terms under the FAA.
The Fifth Circuit pointed out that every one of its sister circuits to consider this issue had refused to defer to the NLRB's rationale in D.R. Horton, and had held arbitration agreements containing class waivers enforceable. The two judges in the majority stated, "we are loath to create a circuit split." Judge Graves dissented, stating that he agreed with the Board that the arbitration agreement interfered with the exercise of employees' substantive rights under Section 7 of the NLRA.
Agreement Violates NLRA Because Employees Might Believe it Prohibits Filing Unfair Labor Practice Charges
The arbitration agreement used by D.R. Horton required that employees agree to arbitrate "without limitation[:] claims for discrimination or harassment; wages, benefits, or other compensation; breach of any express or implied contract; [and] violation of public policy." Although the agreement provided four exceptions to arbitration, none of the exclusions referred to unfair labor practice charges. All three judges found that this could create a reasonable belief that employees were waiving their administrative rights, including the right to file unfair labor practice charges under Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. Therefore, the Court enforced the Board's order that D.R. Horton violated Section 8(a)(1) because an employee would reasonably interpret the arbitration agreement as prohibiting the filing of a claim with the Board, validating the need for D.R. Horton to take the ordered corrective action.
Challenges to Composition of the Board Rejected
While this case was on appeal to the Fifth Circuit, the D.C. Circuit issued its Noel Canning decision which vacated an order of the three-member panel of the Board by ruling that recess appointments of the panel members were invalid. Noel Canning v. NLRB, 705 F.3d 490 (D.C.Cir. 2013) cert. granted 133 S.Ct. 2861 (U.S. June 24, 2013)(No. 12-1281). Because the panel that decided the D.R. Horton case included a member appointed by recess appointment, the Fifth Circuit asked the parties to submit briefs on whether it must consider the constitutionality of the recess appointments. The Court ultimately decided it need not consider the issue, finding that it retained jurisdiction to resolve the dispute at hand and leaving it to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the constitutionality of the Board's recess appointments. The Fifth Circuit also rejected D.R. Horton's challenges that Board Member Becker's recess appointment expired before the Board issued its decision, and that the Board had not been delegated authority to act as a three-member panel.
Favorable Result for Employers
Although there are pros and cons to using arbitration agreements in the employment context, today's ruling by the Fifth Circuit (absent review by the Supreme Court) removes the impediment to incorporating class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements. The decision reinforces, however, that certain language within an arbitration agreement may violate the NLRA if it is reasonably seen as limiting an employee's right to file an unfair labor practice charge. Employers should consult with employment counsel to review whether arbitration agreements are appropriate for their workforce, and if so, to ensure the wording of the agreement is enforceable.