The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that employers can limit class action lawsuits by their employees and instead force them to address grievances through individual arbitration. The ruling could also mean that employers can force employees to sign away their rights to file class action suits just to get a job.
The decision in Epic Systems Corp. V. Lewis was 5-4. The New York Times said that it could affect at least 25 million contracts. During the oral arguments for the case, Justice Stephen Breyer said that a win for employers would strike at the “entire heart of the New Deal.”
The majority’s opinion came from Justice Neil Gorsuch. He wrote:
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.
Or, in simpler terms: “Hey, maybe it’s shitty, but that’s just how it is!”
Attorneys representing workers contended that clauses in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act protected employees’ rights to “mutual aid and protection”—i.e., working together to bring lawsuits against their employer. But, Gorsuch wrote:
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.
The fallout from this could be quite grim, as observers noted.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the ruling “egregiously wrong.”
While Monday’s ruling is damaging in limiting the ability of workers to stand against perceived injustices on the part of their bosses, it is also noteworthy for the government’s inconsistent position as the case progressed. As HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson noted in his analysis, the Justice Department under the Obama administration had initially sided with Sheila Hobson, one of the Murphy Oil employees who’d initially brought the suit to court. However, under the Trump administration, the DOJ reversed its position, with acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall saying he’d “reconsidered the issue and has reached the opposite conclusion.”
Monday’s ruling comes as the court also weighs another case with potentially profound implications for workers. In February, the court heard arguments in the case of Janus v AFSCME Council 31, which deals with the ability for public sector unions to collect “agency” dues from non-union members whose work would still benefit from union action. According to observers at the time, it appeared as if the court was preparing to rule against the unions, and strike yet another blow against worker rights in the United States.