Legal publications and some lawyers have touted a recent federal appeals court decision in Philadelphia as affirming the right of employers to mandate that employees both (1) waive their rights to participate in class action lawsuits, and (2) agree to arbitrate any employment issue individually, and not as part of a group of employees.
Unfortunately, this one ain’t over until the Supremes sing.
The preliminary reports about the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Opalinski v. Robert Half International, Inc., ignore that the court in that case expressly noted that the plaintiffs failed to raise an argument that might have determined the case differently.
In particular, the plaintiffs – former staffing managers at personnel placement firm Robert Half – never raised arguments that their binding arbitration agreements violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This omission is a head-scratcher, as the National Labor Relations Board and several appeals courts have held that an employee agreement that deprives an employee of the right to bring his or her claims against the employer “collectively” with other employees violates the NLRA protection of “concerted activity” with other employees relating to the terms and conditions of employment.
As we wrote previously, this issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court and should be decided later this year. So, the Third Circuit’s Opalinski decision, rather than staking out a reliable marker as to employee rights in the circuit states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, really is simply a reflection of what happens when plaintiffs’ lawyers fail to make an important legal argument.
As a result, we do not recommend that employers or employees make any decisions or changes in their employment agreements based on Opalinski. Instead, make like Diana Ross and wait for the Supremes to chime in.
Michael Homans is a Labor & Employment attorney and founding partner of HomansPeck LLC. For more employment law updates, including news and links to important information pertaining to legal developments that may affect your business, subscribe to Michael’s blog, or follow him on Twitter @EmployLawUpdate.