On February 9, 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that an arbitrator, rather than a judge, must decide whether an arbitration agreement allows the parties to have a class action arbitration. As a result, it reversed the District of New Jersey’s decision which had ruled that the case must proceed to arbitration as individual claims, rather than as a class action.
I represent the plaintiffs in the case, Jose Ivan Vilches, Francis Sheehan, Jr., and Jack Costeria. They each worked for the Travelers Companies, Inc., and related companies as appraisers in New Jersey. They filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and other appraisers who worked for Travelers, seeking damages for unpaid overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the New Jersey Wage & Hour Law (NJWHL).
When they began working for Travelers, Mr. Vilches, Mr. Sheehan and Mr. Costeria each signed agreements which require them to pursue their legal claims against Travelers through arbitration. Those agreements do not say, one way or the other, whether they can bring a class action in arbitration. Travelers later modified its arbitration policy to say that employees cannot bring class action cases. However, Mr. Vilches, Mr. Sheehan and Mr. Costeria never agreed to that new policy.
Last year, the District of New Jersey granted Travelers’ motion to compel arbitration. The court also ruled that the plaintiffs were bound by the arbitration policy which prohibited them from bringing a class action.
But on appeal, in an unpublished opinion in Vilches v. Travelers Companies, Inc., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the District Court should not have decided whether the arbitration agreement the plaintiffs agreed prohibited them from bringing a class action wage and hour case. Rather, since the question involves interpreting the arbitration agreement they signed when they were hired to determine whether that agreement permits class action arbitration, the Third Circuit concluded that the arbitrator rather than a judge must answer that question. As a result, the Third Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling, and referred the case to arbitration to decide whether the case can proceed as a class action.