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Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Right of Workers to Bring Class-Action Lawsuits - Washington Report

On the first day of their new nine-month term, The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments regarding the right of workers to bring class-action claims against their employers.

Liberal Supreme Court Justices defended the right of workers to bring such class-action claims.  However, the conservative Justices, who are in the majority on the Supreme Court, sounded skeptical.  The nine justices heard about an hour of arguments in the largest business case of the court’s new term.

Should employers prevail in the case, it would continue the trend in which companies require workers to sign private arbitration agreements and thus waive their right to bring class-action claims either in court or before private arbitrators.  According to the Economic Policy Institute think tank, about 25 million workers are already bound by such arbitration agreements.

Employers have increasingly required employees to sign waivers to guard against a rising tide of worker lawsuits. Class-action litigation can result in large damages awarded by juries and is harder for businesses to fight than cases brought by individual plaintiffs.

The three consolidated cases that came before the justices involved professional services firm Ernst & Young LLP, gas station operator Murphy Oil USA Inc., and healthcare software company Epic Systems Corporation.

Big Tech is watching the case closely as a result of allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Uber. Google, too, is a subject of a case as last month three female former Google employees filed a class-action suit against the tech giant, alleging systemic gender discrimination in pay and promotion.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said he was worried that a ruling against the workers would imperil “the heart of the New Deal,” laws and programs enacted in the 1930s under President Roosevelt to help workers during the Great Depression.

Justice Kennedy indicated that a loss for workers would not prevent them from acting in concert because they would still be able to join together to hire the same lawyer to bring claims, even though the claims would be arbitrated individually.  That would provide “many of the advantages” of collective action, Kennedy said.

The National Labor Relations Board maintains that the waivers violate federal law and let companies evade their responsibilities under workplace statutes.  Workers have fought back against the waivers, arguing that the cost of pursuing heir cases individually in arbitration is prohibitively expensive.

A ruling is expected by the end of June.