New opinion — courts not arbitrators decide whether class claims are subject to arbitration

Employees sued their employer in federal court, individually and as a class, for failing to pay overtime. The employees had signed an employment agreement that included a provision that any dispute relating to their employment would be submitted to arbitration. The employer moved to compel arbitration, and the district court granted the motion and terminated the case in 2011; in its order, the district court said it was up to the arbitrator to decide whether arbitration of the classwide claims was available. The arbitrator went on to rule that classwide arbitration was available and issued a partial award for the employees.

Then — even though the employer was the party who moved to compel arbitration, and even though the employer did not appeal the part of the 2011 order it didn’t like but instead waited to see what the arbitrator said — the employer then went back to district court and asked it to vacate the award. The district court denied the motion, so the employer appealed. Today, CA3 reversed.

First, the panel held that the employer’s failure to appeal the 2011 order, instead waiting until after it lost before the arbitrator, was no problem because the employees were not prejudiced. This part of the opinion cited no authority. I don’t know that this holding is wrong, but I sure don’t know that it’s right.

On the merits, the panel deemed the crux issue to be who decides whether class-wide claims were subject to arbitration, the arbitrator or the district court. It held that the district court decides here because the arbitration clause did not unmistakeably provide otherwise. The opinion said the agreement was silent there, but it did not address the provision that an arbitrator would decide “any dispute . . . relating to . . . any provision of this Agreement.” Also odd.

The case is Opalinski v. Robert Half Int’l. Opinion by Ambro, joined by Jordan and Roth. Arguing counsel were Robert Alfred for the employer (one of 8 lawyers from 5 offices in 4 states on the brief) and Shannon Liss-Riordan for the employees.

Update: appellees have filed for panel and en banc rehearing.