U.S. Supreme Court: Union May Agree to Arbitration of Age Discrimination Claims

In New York City, there is a multi-employer association of building management that negotiates with a large union over building workers' wages, hours and other terms of employment. The union contract provided for arbitration of discrimination claims as follows:

NO DISCRIMINATION. There shall be no discrimination against any present or
future employee by reason of race, creed, color, age, disability, national origin, sex, union membership, or any other characteristic protected by law, including, but not limited to,claims made pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, the New York City Human Rights Code, . . . or any other similar laws, rules, or regulations. All such claims shall be subject to the grievance and arbitration procedures (Articles V and VI) as the sole and exclusive remedy for violations.Arbitrators shall apply appropriate law in rendering decisions based upon claims of discrimination.

So, this is a clear agreement to arbitrate. But can a union agree with an employer that individuals' claims must be arbitrated, even though the individuals have not personally agreed to do so?

Yep. The Court decided, 5-4, that the arbitration clause was fully enforceable. To get there, the majority decided two issues. First, the Court noted that unions and employers have broad discretion to agree on terms to be included in collective bargaining agreements. Unions are the employees' designated bargaining representatives and may bargain away rights (such as to sue in lieu of arbitration) in exchange for other concessions by management.

As a result, the only way the above contractual provision could be invalid was if the ADEA prohibited mandatory arbitration of discrimination claims. But the Court already had decided that the ADEA contains nothing precluding mandatory arbitration. Hence, the Court upheld the language in the CBA:

Examination of the two federal statutes at issue in this case, therefore, yields a straightforward answer to the question presented: The NLRA provided the Union and the RAB with statutory authority to collectively bargain for arbitration of workplace discrimination claims, and Congress did not terminate that authority with respect to federal age-discrimination claims in the ADEA. Accordingly, there is no legal basis for the Court to strike down the arbitration clause in this CBA, which was freely negotiated by the Union and the RAB, and which clearly and unmistakably requires respondents to arbitrate the age discrimination claims at issue in this appeal.

The Court also refused to rule that mandatory arbitration was a waiver of substantive rights without the employees' consent. The Court made clear it does not consider arbitration in lieu of court to be a substantive change, but rather merely a change of forum.

Four justices dissented in two opinions, arguing that prior precedent precluded the majority's result. Justice Souter admitted the majority's conclusion "at least could be considered" if it weren't for precedent that, in the dissent's view, should control the question.

Anyway, this is all very interesting to students of stare decisis and Supreme Court watchers. But for you, gentle reader, all that matters is that Union contracts can require mandatory arbitration of discrimination claims, if the clause in the contract is "clear and unmistakable."

What also matters is that Congress is moving to ban arbitration of employment discrimination lawsuits, this time with a clear Democratic majority and a Democratic president. So, the odds of this case surviving Congressional action are much lower than they were a few years ago.

The opinion is 14 PENN PLAZA LLC v. PYETT and the opinion is here.