Supreme Court Limits California’s PAGA Law on Employment Claims, Preempting It in Part under the Federal Arbitration Act

This article was first published in CPR Speaks, The Blog of the CPR Institute, here.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this morning that employers may require their workers to arbitrate employment disputes under California’s Private Attorneys General Act, a 2003 law that allows Californians to file suit on behalf of the state for employment-law violations.  

The Federal Arbitration Act, the Court found today in Viking River Cruises Inc. v. Moriana, No. 201573, preempts at least in part the California state PAGA law, which had been the source of tens of thousands of court claims in the face of arbitration requirements, according to an industry interest group formed to fight the PAGA arbitration ban.

This morning’s decision is available on the Supreme Court’s website here.

The dispute traces to the controversial California Supreme Court case of Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles LLC, 327 P.3d 129 (Cal. 2014) (available at https://stanford.io/3ILcTY5), where the state’s top Court held “that an arbitration agreement requiring an employee as a condition of employment to give up the right to bring representative PAGA actions in any forum is contrary to public policy.”

Today’s majority opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. does not fully invalidate PAGA, and takes issue with arguments on both sides. In fact, it leaves wiggle room for the California courts and legislature to tinker with PAGA to provide relief for what it terms “non-individual” claims that the original plaintiff no longer has standing to make under the decision.

But it strikes the Iskanian reasoning, and criticizes the PAGA statute’s orientation, noting that it isn’t clear on individual’s claims as opposed to representative actions.  Alito explains that representative actions under the law are not only those of the “individual claims” of employees who seeks to file suit for workplace claims under the state’s Labor Code, but also representative PAGA claims predicated on code violations “sustained by other employees.” The latter, under Iskanian, may not be subject to mandatory arbitration.

That didn’t sit well with the majority opinion, which contrasts PAGA’s single suit involving many claims but solely by an individual on behalf of the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency, as opposed to class-action cases which may involve many claims but also on behalf of many absent plaintiffs who are certified as a class. 

The bottom line is that the representative aspect of PAGA as it applies to arbitration was stricken in today’s Court decision, an 8-1 decision with two concurring opinions. There was a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, who maintained his longstanding view–a short dissenting opinion that he has issued on at least seven other occasions–that the Federal Arbitration Act doesn’t apply in state courts.

The results already are seen as a relief by California business interests, with the Iskanian arbitration bar eliminated.  Los Angeles-based Anthony J. Oncidi, a partner and co-chair, of Proskauer Rose’s Labor and Employment Department, writes in an email,

Employers all over California are rejoicing today with the news that this peculiar PAGA exemption from arbitration is finally gone. Employers should run, not walk, to take advantage of this significant new development by immediately reviewing and, if necessary, amending their arbitration agreements to encompass PAGA claims. And as for those employers who, for whatever reason, have not yet availed themselves of an updated arbitration program, this is just the most recent reason to consider doing so.

Another management-side attorney, Christopher C. Murray, an Indianapolis shareholder in Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., writes,

Today’s decision is, for now, a victory for employers with well-crafted arbitration agreements containing class action and representative action waivers and severability clauses. However, it’s a nuanced decision that leaves open a number of issues.  One is whether the California legislature can amend PAGA to give a plaintiff standing to bring a representative PAGA action even if the plaintiff cannot pursue an individual claim in the same action. In short, it’s unlikely that today’s opinion will be the final word on representative PAGA actions and arbitration.

[Murray co-chairs the Employment Disputes Committee at the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution-CPR, which provides this blog.]

“While today’s decision is disappointing and adds new limits, key aspects of PAGA remain in effect and the law of our state,” noted California State Attorney General Rob Bonta in a statement this afternoon. He added: “Workers can continue to bring claims on behalf of the State of California to protect themselves and, in many instances, their colleagues all across California. At the California Department of Justice, we will continue to stand with workers to fight for their rights everywhere.” (The full press release is available here.)

Today’s decision may serve to derail efforts to enact PAGA-like statutes in other states. Had the law stood in its entirety and its arbitration end-run survived, labor likely would have reinvigorated pushes in blue states to add similar laws. See, e.g., Dan Walters, “The Fight Over the Private Attorneys General Act,” Orange County [Calif.] Register (April 5) (available at https://bit.ly/3MOO7s5).

The PAGA law, according to employers, negated the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court cases of Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612 (2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2Y66dwK), which authorized mandatory predispute arbitration, and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (available at http://bit.ly/2VcI4mi), which permits mandatory arbitration backed with class waivers in consumer contracts.

The Court heard the oral arguments on March 30, the last of four arbitration cases argued in nine days at the nation’s top court. See Russ Bleemer, “Adding a Claim, and Avoiding Arbitration: The Supreme Court Reviews California’s Private Attorneys General Act,” CPR Speaks blog (March 30) (available at https://bit.ly/3NWMFoQ).

It’s also the last of the five arbitration cases the nation’s top Court has accepted and decided in its 2021-2022 term, following closely on Monday’s decision in consolidated international arbitration cases focused on cross-border discovery issues.  Links to reports on all of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, as well as case previews and in-depth reviews of the arguments, can be found on the CPR Speaks blog here.

* * *

Under the PAGA law, employees may bring forth disputes on behalf of similarly situated workers who also allege employment violations. Angie Moriana, who worked as a sales representative for Viking River Cruises in 2016 and 2017, filed suit against the company in a representative action for alleged violations of California labor laws. Moriana alleged that Viking River Cruises violated California wage and hour laws. She had signed a pre-dispute agreement agreeing to file her claims in arbitration individually, and waiving her ability to bring a class action. As a result, Viking River Cruises sought arbitration.

In Iskanian in 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled that though PAGA suits are filed on behalf of the state, employees cannot forgo their ability to file these claims individually. The California Supreme Court decided Iskanian before the U.S. Supreme Court–showing its broad deference to the Federal Arbitration Act’s recognition of the enforcement of arbitration agreements–decided the Epic Systems mandatory employment arbitration case.

This Iskanian mandatory arbitration bar reasoned that PAGA plaintiffs represent the state as private attorneys general even though the state was not a party to the arbitration agreement. In Epic Systems v. Lewis, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. 

PAGA supporters argued that the law supplements the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency’s limited enforcement capability by allowing employees to enforce the state labor laws.  Employers contended that the inability to arbitrate workplace disputes cost money and jobs.

During the March 30 Supreme Court oral arguments (full CPR Speaks coverage at the link above), the court’s liberal justices were more animated, and appeared to back the California Supreme Court prohibiting mandatory arbitration of PAGA claims. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan questioned why the state’s choice to enforce its workplace regulations should be overridden by the FAA, a statute now nearly a century old.

The Court conservatives did not share the same doubts. Contrary to Moriana’s assertion that requiring arbitration essentially waives a PAGA claim, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated that a PAGA plaintiff does have a right to pursue the substantive claim, although through a different means. Today’s opinion author, Justice Alito, appeared to imply that the court’s Epic Systems decision supported finding arbitration agreements enforceable in the face of PAGA allegations.

* * *

Alito continued that line of reasoning in this morning’s decision, invoking the Court’s arbitration precedents, and discussing the expected characteristics of arbitration as a bilateral process, not a representative or class proceeding.

Alito criticized the California statute’s structure—”a PAGA action asserting multiple code violations affecting a range of different employees does not constitute ‘a single claim’ in even the broadest possible sense”—and noted that the law prohibited dividing the matter into the constituent individual and representative claims.

The opinion focused on the definitions of representative claims in bilateral arbitration.  It states that while precedents don’t hold “that the FAA allows parties to contract out of anything that might amplify defense risks,”  the practice makes “it . . . impossible to decide representative claims in an arbitration that is ‘bilateral’ in every dimension.” Alito wrote, “[O]ur cases hold that States cannot coerce individuals into forgoing arbitration by taking the individualized and informal procedures characteristic of traditional arbitration off the table.”

The federal-state law conflict, however, was elsewhere.  The majority opinion–in a section where Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, did not join with the majority—finds a conflict between PAGA and the FAA in PAGA’s “built-in mechanism of claim joinder.”  The Court says that Iskanian’s mandate of joinder of “aggrieved” employees’ “personally suffered” Labor Code violations “as a basis to join to the action any claims that could have been raised by the State in an enforcement proceeding” coerced parties’ PAGA claims out of arbitration.

The majority invoked its historic view of arbitration, holding that “state law cannot condition the enforceability of an arbitration agreement on the availability of a procedural mechanism that would permit a party to expand the scope of the arbitration by introducing claims that the parties did not jointly agree to arbitrate.”

Alito adds that PAGA allowed parties to avoid their agreement to arbitrate their individual claims after the fact and demand court or arbitration that exceeds the scope of the original agreement: “The only way for parties to agree to arbitrate one of an employee’s PAGA claims is to also ‘agree’ to arbitrate all other PAGA claims in the same arbitral proceeding.” [Emphasis is in the opinion.]

That aspect of the California law did not survive. “We hold that the FAA preempts the rule of Iskanian insofar as it precludes division of PAGA actions into individual and non-individual claims through an agreement to arbitrate,” Alito wrote. The agreement’s severability clause, the opinion concludes, allows Viking River Cruises to compel individual arbitration of respondent Moriana’s claims.

The opinion also dismisses Moriana’s non-individual claims, holding that, with the dismissal, Moriana no longer had standing, leaving those claims–still valid in the majority’s view–in limbo. Instead of court or arbitration, however, the opinion targets the law. Alito concludes, “PAGA provides no mechanism to enable a court to adjudicate non-individual PAGA claims once an individual claim has been committed to a separate proceeding.”

* * *

In her concurrence, Justice Sotomayor picks up on the majority’s closing point as well as followed from her oral argument concerns about whether the FAA could eliminate claims chosen by the California Legislature for its constituents via PAGA.

First, she asserts that the majority “makes clear that California is not powerless to address its sovereign concern that it cannot adequately enforce its Labor Code without assistance from private attorneys general.”

But then, returning to Alito’s closing point that the nonindividual claims have no outlet due to Moriana’s apparent lack of standing under California law, Sotomayor agrees, noting that there are options:

Of course, if this Court’s understanding of state law is wrong, California courts, in an appropriate case, will have the last word. Alternatively, if this Court’s understanding is right, the California Legislature is free to modify the scope of stat­utory standing under PAGA within state and federal con­stitutional limits.

Viking River Cruises, says Washington, D.C., arbitrator Mark Kantor, who closely follows the Court’s arbitration jurisprudence and previewed the case for CPR Speaks here, “leaves considerable scope for the California legislature to rework PAGA to reestablish a representative action that could survive FAA preemption and make a waiver of PAGA unenforceable, although possibly enforceable in an arbitral forum if the relevant employment agreements calls for arbitration.”

* * *

Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s additional opinion is brief but goes further–concurring in the judgment, at the same time stepping away from much of the majority’s discussion of representative and individual actions.

She concurs with Section III of the opinion, the FAA-PAGA conflict because of the California law’s mandatory joinder provisions that would bring representative claims to arbitration. Joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, Barrett writes that she agrees “that reversal is required under our precedent because PAGA’s procedure is akin to other aggregation devices that cannot be imposed on a party to an arbitration agreement,” citing four seminal Supreme Court cases including Epic Systems and AT&T Mobility (see above).

But her one-paragraph concurrence concludes, and could add fuel to moves by the California Legislature to reform PAGA in light of today’s decision:

I would say nothing more than that. The discussion in Parts II and IV of the Court’s opinion is unnecessary to the result, and much of it addresses disputed state-law questions as well as arguments not pressed or passed upon in this case.*

That asterisk is to a footnote, in which Justice Barrett adds, “The same is true of Part I,” which described the PAGA, Iskanian, and case histories.

Chief Justice Roberts dissented from the footnote, and joined in the Alito majority opinion for Parts 1 and III.

* * *

author

Arjan Bir Singh Sodhi

Arjan Bir Sodhi is a Law Clerk for a Civil Defense Firm in Los Angeles, and recently Graduated with an LLM from Strauss Institute of Dispute Resolution, Pepperdine University Malibu.

author

Russ Bleemer

Russ Bleemer is the editor of CPR’s monthly newsletter on business conflict resolution, Alternatives, produced by CPR Institute and Jossey-Bass, a unit of John Wiley & Sons. In his role as Alternatives editor, Mr. Bleemer reports on practices and issues of concern to business, law firms, government, and the courts.…

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