Monday, May 21, 2018

Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, Docket No. 16-285

Labor law: Arbitration: Saving clause: Class actions:

Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration? Or should employees always be permitted to bring their claims in class or collective ac­tions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?
As a matter of policy these questions are surely debatable. But as a matter of law the answer is clear. In the Federal Arbitration Act, Congress has instructed federal courts to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms—including terms providing for individualized pro­ceedings. Nor can we agree with the employees’ sugges­tion that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) offers a conflicting command. It is this Court’s duty to interpret Congress’s statutes as a harmonious whole rather than at war with one another. And abiding that duty here leads to an unmistakable conclusion. The NLRA secures to em­ployees rights to organize unions and bargain collectively, but it says nothing about how judges and arbitrators must try legal disputes that leave the workplace and enter the courtroom or arbitral forum. This Court has never read a right to class actions into the NLRA—and for three quar­ters of a century neither did the National Labor Relations Board. Far from conflicting, the Arbitration Act and the NLRA have long enjoyed separate spheres of influence and neither permits this Court to declare the parties’ agree­ments unlawful.
(…) Still, the employees suggest the Arbitration Act’s saving clause creates an exception for cases like theirs. By its terms, the saving clause 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. That provision applies here, the employees tell us, because the NLRA renders their particular class and collective action waivers illegal. In their view, illegality under the NLRA is a “ground” that “exists at law . . . for the revocation” of their arbitration agreements, at least to the extent those agreements prohibit class or collective action proceedings (…) The saving clause still can’t save their cause.
It can’t because the saving clause recognizes only de­fenses that apply to “any” contract. In this way the clause establishes a sort of “equal-treatment” rule for arbitration contracts. Kindred Nursing Centers L. P. v. Clark, 581 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 4). The clause “permits agreements to arbitrate to be invalidated by ‘generally applicable contract defenses, such as fraud, duress, or unconscionability.’” Concepcion, 563 U. S., at 339. At the same time, the clause offers no refuge for “defenses that apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue.” Ibid. Under our precedent, this means the saving clause does not save defenses that target arbitration either by name or by more subtle methods, such as by “interfering with fundamental attributes of arbitration.” Id., at 344; see Kindred Nursing, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 5). This is where the employees’ argument stumbles. They don’t suggest that their arbitration agreements were extracted, say, by an act of fraud or duress or in some other unconscionable way that would render any contract unenforceable. Instead, they object to their agreements precisely because they require individualized arbitration proceedings instead of class or collective ones. And by attacking (only) the individualized nature of the arbitra­tion proceedings, the employees’ argument seeks to inter­fere with one of arbitration’s fundamental attributes.
(…) The Court recog­nized that parties remain free to alter arbitration proce­dures to suit their tastes, and in recent years some parties have sometimes chosen to arbitrate on a classwide basis. Id., at 351. But Concepcion’s essential insight remains: courts may not allow a contract defense to reshape tradi­tional individualized arbitration by mandating classwide arbitration procedures without the parties’ consent.

(U.S.S.C., May 21, 2018, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, Docket No. 16-285, J. Gorsuch)

Si un contrat de travail prévoit une clause d’arbitrage, cette clause doit être respectée en cas de litige, sauf à pouvoir alléguer utilement sa nullité en invoquant les motifs de nullité contractuels (illicéité, dol, contrainte notamment). Par ailleurs, si le contrat de travail prévoit une telle clause d’arbitrage, le droit fédéral ne permet pas à l’employé de participer à une procédure de classe. En particulier, la Cour n’a jamais jugé qu’un tel droit pouvait être déduit de la loi fédérale « National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) ». De la sorte, cette loi s’harmonise sans conflit avec la loi fédérale sur l’arbitrage. La récente opinion contraire du « National Labor Relations Board” est ici rejetée. La Cour précise en outre que dite opinion contraire ne mérite pas de déférence au sens de la jurisprudence Chevron, cette problématique n’étant pas laissée par le Congrès à l’appréciation de l’administration.
La Cour dispose ainsi que seuls les moyens permettant d’invoquer la nullité de tous types de contrats peuvent être invoqués pour tenter d’obtenir la nullité d’une clause d’arbitrage. De la sorte, un moyen de nullité qui n’est invocable que contre une clause d’arbitrage est dépourvu d’efficacité. C’est pourquoi en l’espèce les employés ne sont pas parvenus à obtenir la nullité de la clause d’arbitrage de leurs contrats de travail : le moyen de nullité invoqué (une disposition du droit fédéral qui prévoit l’action de classe dans les rapports de travail, et qui ne pourrait être écartée par une clause d’arbitrage 1 :1) n’est pas un motif susceptible d’être invoqué dans tous les litiges contractuels.
Par leur clause d’arbitrage, les parties peuvent moduler la procédure et choisir par exemple la possibilité d’un arbitrage de classe. Celui-ci ne peut cependant pas être imposé s’il n’a pas été choisi.
Cette décision a provoqué une opinion dissidente virulente.

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