This year the U.S. Supreme Court could finally put to rest an important question about the rights of workers to band together to sue their employers for work-related claims such as wage theft.
The high court recently consolidated three cases that essentially present the same legal question: whether an employment contract can block a group of employees from bringing a class action lawsuit against their employer.
In the case National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., the company required employees to sign a contract to settle any work-related claims against them through arbitration, and not through a jury trial or class action. The NLRB challenged the validity of that agreement, arguing that class action bans are unenforceable under federal labor law. But the Fifth Circuit appeals court sided with the employer that the class action ban was valid.
In the two other cases – involving Epic Systems Corp., a healthcare software systems company, and Ernst & Young, an international accounting firm – the circumstances were similar. But their respective appeals courts — the Seventh and Ninth — ruled in favor of the NLRB.
By agreeing to hear the three consolidated cases, the Supreme Court is expected to finally resolve the conflict amongst the three appeals courts and settle the issue nationwide.
The ruling could tip the balance of power between employers and employees. That’s because employees have much more leverage against employers who deny wages and overtime pay for “off-the-clock” work if they can file a lawsuit as a group – through a class action – than if they have to go through the lengthy and difficult process of individual arbitration.
There are several other pending cases that could hinge on the Supreme Court’s decision in these three consolidated cases. In fact, Sommers Schwartz is currently serving as the lead counsel in a class action suit brought by call center agents for Kelly Services. These home-based employees were not fully compensated for their time spent on required work-related activities, such as logging on and off their computers and consulting with technical support staff to resolve computer problems, which could consume hours of their workdays.
Kelly, an international staffing giant, sought to block the class action suit by arguing that, under a contract that employees have been required to sign since November 2014, the workers must submit to arbitration instead.
In August, Federal District Court Judge David Lawson ruled that under the Federal Labor Relations Act workers cannot waive their right to “concerted activity,” so the class action ban in the employee contract is not enforceable. Kelly has appealed to the Sixth Circuit appeals court, but that court will likely wait for the Supreme Court to render its opinion in the three consolidated cases before taking up the Kelly case.
Arguments in the Supreme Court case are expected to be presented this spring.
The attorneys in the Sommers Schwartz Employment Litigation Group will be watching developments closely and will keep you posted regarding any developments in the important area of employee rights. If you believe you have been wrongfully denied your wages, please contact us today to discuss your situation.