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Another Bad Decision Out of Trump’s Supreme Court

The Epic System case really hurts the working man

Kris LaGrange's picture
May 21, 2018

Imagine a world where an arbitration agreement can take away all of your rights on the job. After today’s decision by the Supreme Court, that world is now a reality.

The case, Epic System v Lewis, challenged whether or not a company could use an arbitration agreement to prevent employees from banding together and suing their employer with a class action lawsuit. The case came about after employees at Epic System filed a class action lawsuit claiming that their employer illegally underpaid them. Since the amounts they were suing for were relatively small, filing a lawsuit individually wouldn’t have been worth it. They would have paid more in legal fees than they would have recovered in lost wages.

The company argued that since the employees had been forced to sign arbitration agreements, the employees gave up their right to sue under the Federal Arbitration Act. Instead, the company wanted to deal with each employee in one on one arbitration hearings. Of course, the arbitration process favors the employer.

The crux of the case was whether the Federal Arbitration Act was valid in this case or was it circumvented by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was signed into law 10 years after the Federal Arbitration Act. In 2012 when this issue was first brought up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the NLRA nullifies arbitration clauses in cases like this. Today, the Supreme Court disagreed.

In a decision that was written by the newest member of the court, Trump’s appointee Neil Gorsuch decided that the NLRA does not grant employees the right to file a class action suit. While the NLRA protects concerted activities for the mutual aid of workers, Gorsuch said that this activity is limited to things that are closely aligned to the organization and collective bargaining. This means that Gorsuch believes that things like picketing are a protected action, but that employees are not protected when filing a class action lawsuit.

For non-union workers, the effect of this decision can not be overstated. The court has told companies that unless you violate the Constitution, there is nothing that can super-cede an arbitration agreement. As more and more companies require these agreements, workers voices on the job get smaller and smaller. Not only do agreements like these increase the cost of defending yourself against an employer who broke the law, but they are also used to keep any bad deeds quiet. Companies like Fox News used these agreements to keep years of sexual harassment by their hosts and CEO quiet. “You’d have to go one by one.” said Ceilidh Gao, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project warning the ruling “will make it harder for women and other workers to join their voices together to fight sexual harassment.” This decision will affect workers from low wage employees who are having their wages stolen to office workers at Fortune 500 companies who are being sexually harassed.

In a harshly worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the unusual step of reading her dissent from the bench. In it, she said that the decision would lead to the “underenforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers.” She went on to call the decision egregiously wrong and called on Congress to update Federal labor laws to protect workers.

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