The U.S. Supreme Court Hands Down a Very Employer-Friendly Arbitration Ruling

On June 15, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Viking River Cruises Inc. v. Moriana. The high court ruled that representative actions brought pursuant to the California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) may be compelled to individual arbitration—a break from the position previously taken by the California Supreme Court in Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles LLC that PAGA representative claims are not subject to arbitration agreements.

The ruling in Viking is a major development that impacts every California employer. Indeed, in the wake of the decision, employers in the Golden State may need to revise their employee arbitration provisions.

PAGA Claims

PAGA allows employees to file actions and pursue civil penalties on behalf of the state for violations of California’s Labor Code. California views PAGA as an important mechanism to ensure that labor laws are being followed and that employees are adequately protected.

For years and pursuant to Iskanian, an employee initiating a representative PAGA claim was permitted to seek redress in court, even in the event an arbitration agreement was signed. It was the finding of the California Supreme Court that a contract that waived an employee’s right to bring a PAGA action in court was invalid as a matter of public policy. As otherwise stated, the enforcement of wage-and-hour laws on behalf of the state by way of a PAGA action was not preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA)—this because such a case was not between two contracting private parties, but between the state and an employer. The bombshell opinion in Viking changes all that.

The Viking Decision

In Viking, a former sales representative named Angie Moriana initiated a PAGA action alleging wage-and-hour law violations against the river cruise company. Of note, Moriana’s employment contract with Viking contained a mandatory arbitration agreement.

In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the FAA—which instructs courts to enforce arbitration agreements and preempts state rules that undermine them—serves to block the Iskanian rule, at least partially. The vast majority of justices found that Viking could push Moriana's individual claims into arbitration pursuant to the FAA. And because of that, it was determined that California law would not permit her to continue in court with her "non-individual" claims (those brought on behalf of other workers).

According to Justice Samuel Alito, "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." He went on to state, "Moriana lacks statutory standing to continue to maintain her non-individual claims in court, and the correct course is to dismiss her remaining claims.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred, reasoning that PAGA does not permit a plaintiff to proceed in court with non-individual claims if her individual claims are sent to arbitration, though she opined that California's courts and legislature are the best authorities to address questions that may arise about a PAGA plaintiff's standing to litigate "non-individual" claims. Nonetheless, and at least for the time being, the high court’s opinion is one worthy of celebration by California businesses.

The Takeaway for California Employers

The Viking opinion provides some long-awaited relief for California employers whose employees have executed arbitration agreements that waive the right to bring a representative PAGA action. These employers should now take the opportunity to confer with counsel and review their arbitration provisions to determine whether any revisions are necessary to ensure they receive the protections afforded by Viking. Toward that end, the employment attorneys at Michelman & Robinson, LLP stand ready to assist.

This blog post is not offered, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.