The Supreme Court began its new Term yesterday with oral arguments in cases involving whether arbitration agreements permitting only individual (non-class) arbitrations are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act, or prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act as an improper restriction on collective action. It is a case that essentially pits one federal statute against another. The decision could impact the enforceability of arbitration provisions with class action waivers in other contexts where there is another relevant federal statute.

The position in favor of the employers was perhaps most persuasively articulated by Jeffrey Wall, the Principal Deputy Solicitor General, when he said “It is a fundamental attribute of arbitration, and this Court said it three times, to pick the parties with whom you arbitrate. And our simple point is this case is at the heartland of the FAA. It is, at best, at the periphery of the NLRA, on the margins of its ambiguity, and you simply can’t get there under the court’s cases.” Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan seemed to push strongly against that position, suggesting that the right to collective action was at the heart of the NLRA.

The justices were so eager to get their questions and comments in that Justices Alito and Kagan had to reserve in advance the opportunity to ask questions and Chief Justice Roberts stepped in to referee that process. Perhaps the Court could develop a new electronic system for that process, with justices pressing a button to create a waiting line of sorts to ask questions.

Justice Kennedy, who is often the swing vote in these types of cases, seemed to be focused on whether it would make a difference if a small number of employees retained the same lawyer and sought arbitration individually. His questions and comments could be read to suggest that as long as that type of action were permitted, there would not be a conflict with the NLRA. Justice Breyer also seemed to focus on whether the answer to the question presented was not tied to a prohibition on class actions, but rather whether prohibiting employees from joining together even in a non-class action context would violate the NLRA, which he seemed to think would be prohibited.  Chief Justice Roberts posed a hypothethical in which the rules of the arbitration forum (selected by the employer) allowed a class arbitration, but only if there were 51 or more people who joined. The NLRB’s lawyer said that would be permissible. Justice Alito then asked about whether it would be permissible if the rules of the arbitration forum prohibited class arbitration, and the NLRB’s lawyer appeared to agree that that would be permissible, just as if there were no class actions allowed in court. If those propositions are correct, an employer could potentially reach the same outcome simply by selecting a a particular arbitration forum with a particular set of rules. Justice Sotomayor pointed out that many union contracts provide exclusively for arbitration, suggesting that the Court may not want to reach a result that could invalidate those. Paul Clement, arguing for the employers, pointed out that the notion of a class arbitration was unheard of when the FAA was enacted in 1925 (and the same would be true with respect to the NLRA).

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Photo of Wystan Ackerman Wystan Ackerman

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you…

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you have something to say.  For those looking for my detailed law firm bio, click here.  If you want a more light-hearted and hopefully more interesting summary, read on:

People often ask about my unusual first name, Wystan.  It’s pronounced WISS-ten.  It’s not Winston.  There is no “n” in the middle.  It comes from my father’s favorite poet, W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden.  I’ve grown to like the fact that because my name is unusual people tend to remember it better, even if they don’t pronounce it right (and there is no need for anyone to use my last name because I’m always the only Wystan).

I grew up in Deep River, Connecticut, a small town on the west side of the Connecticut River in the south central part of the state.  I’ve always had strong interests in history, politics and baseball.  My heroes growing up were Abraham Lincoln and Wade Boggs (at that time the third baseman for the Boston Red Sox).  I think it was my early fascination with Lincoln that drove me to practice law.  I went to high school at The Williams School in New London, Connecticut, where I edited the school newspaper, played baseball, and was primarily responsible for the installation of a flag pole near the school entrance (it seemed like every other school had one but until my class raised the money and bought one at my urging, Williams had no flag pole).  As a high school senior, my interest in history and politics led me to score high enough on a test of those subjects to be chosen as one of Connecticut’s two delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program, which further solidified my interest in law and government.  One of my mentors at Williams was of the view that there were far too many lawyers and I should find something more useful to do, but if I really had to be a lawyer there was always room for one more.  I eventually decided to be that “one more.”  I went on to Bowdoin College, where I wrote for the Bowdoin Orient and majored in government, but took a lot of math classes because I found college math interesting and challenging.  I then went to Columbia Law School, where I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the minions who spent their time fastidiously cite-checking and Blue booking hundred-plus-page articles in the Columbia Law Review.  I also interned in the chambers of then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor when she was a relatively new judge on the Second Circuit, my only connection to someone who now has one-ninth of the last word on what constitutes the law of our land.  I graduated from Columbia in 2001, then worked at Skadden Arps in Boston before returning to Connecticut and joining Robinson+Cole, one of the largest Connecticut-based law firms.  At the end of 2008, I was elected a partner at Robinson+Cole.

I’ve worked on class actions since the start of my career at Skadden.  Being in the insurance capital of Hartford, we have a national insurance litigation practice and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on some prominent class actions arising from the 2004 hurricanes in Florida and later Hurricane Katrina, including cases involving the applicability of the flood exclusion, statutes known as valued policy laws, and various other issues.  My interest and experience in class actions gradually led me to focus on that area.

In Connecticut courts I’ve defended various kinds of class actions that go beyond insurance, including cases involving products liability, securities, financial services and consumer contracts.

My insurance class action practice usually takes me outside of Connecticut.  I’ve had the pleasure of working on cases in various federal and state courts and collaborating with great lawyers across the country.  While class actions are an increasingly large part of my practice, I don’t do exclusively class action work.  The rest of my practice involves litigating insurance coverage cases, often at the appellate level.  That also frequently takes me outside of Connecticut.  A highlight of my career thus far was working on Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Knowles, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Class Action Fairness Act case.  I was Counsel of Record for Standard Fire on the cert petition, and had the pleasure of working with Ted Boutrous on the merits briefing and oral argument.

I started this blog because writing is one of my favorite things to do and I enjoy following developments in class action law, writing about them and engaging in discussion with others who have an in interest in this area.  It’s a welcome break from day-to-day practice, keeps me current, broadens my network and results in some new business.

When I’m not at my desk or flying around the country trying to save insurance companies from the plaintiffs’ bar, or attending a conference on class actions or insurance litigation (for more on those, see the Seminars/Programs page of this blog), I often can be found playing or reading with my young daughter, helping my wife with her real estate and mortgage businesses, reading a book about history or politics, or watching the Boston Red Sox (I managed to find bleacher seats for Game 2 of the 2004 World Series when Curt Schilling pitched with the bloody sock).  When the weather is good I also love to take the ferry to Block Island, Rhode Island and ride a bike or walk the trails there. If you go, I highly recommend the Clay Head Trail.