By Ann C. Hodges, a professor of law at the University of Richmond
In the past 20 years the Supreme Court has interpreted the Federal Arbitration Act broadly, allowing businesses to require consumers and employees to arbitrate, rather than litigate, many legal claims. Businesses frequently use arbitration agreements to bar class actions, which can be costly and time-consuming. Just last term, in AT&T v. Concepcion, the Court enhanced this business tool, striking down a California law that prevented businesses from barring class actions in cases involving small claims brought by less powerful parties bound to arbitrate by contracts of adhesion. Although the case involved consumers, it offered employers a vehicle to restrict employee class actions.
The NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton, issued in early January, significantly limited the effectiveness of this tool for employers by invalidating an arbitration agreement that banned class actions. This case is likely to generate significant controversy, provoking even more attacks on the agency by its vocal critics, but experienced labor lawyers will recognize the case as an unremarkable application of long-settled legal principles.
Class claims frequently offer the only vehicle for consumers or employees to challenge unlawful actions that cause limited damages to each individual while often reaping millions for the business. For each person injured, the cost of litigating a claim outweighs the potential benefit. Without class actions, these claims often go unremedied. In the workplace, Fair Labor Standards Act cases seeking minimum wage or overtime payments are most likely to be abandoned on this basis and Horton involved such a claim, alleging that the nonunion employer misclassified employees as exempt from overtime pay.