Uber Scores Victory Compelling Arbitration in Wage & Hour Misclassification Suit

Just a few days after being in the news and facing consumer boycotts for allegedly seeking to profit as a result of a taxi boycott of JFK International Airport related to President Trump’s immigration Executive Order, Uber received good news when it received a pro-employer legal ruling in a suit brought against the company by its New Jersey drivers.

In a published opinion filed on January 30, 2017, Hon. Freda L. Wolfson, U.S.D.J. of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey held that a proposed class of Uber drivers must arbitrate their claims that Uber misclassified them as independent contractors, failed to pay overtime compensation, and required drivers to pay business expenses purportedly incurred for Uber’s benefit.  In Singh v. Uber Technologies Inc., No. 16-03044 (D.N.J. January 30, 2017), the District Court made two significant findings that are favorable to employers: (1) employment agreements incorporating so-called “clickwrap” or hyperlinked agreements by reference are enforceable—whether or not the employee actually reviews the agreement—so long as the employer provides reasonable notice that the terms and conditions of that agreement apply; and (2) Uber’s agreement with its drivers is not considered a contract involving “transportation employees,” and therefore is not subject to the exemption provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which the court construed narrowly.

In Singh, plaintiff registered with the Uber App (the “App”) in order to become a driver with Uber’s “uberX” platform. Registration required him to electronically accept an Agreement provided by Uber’s technology service provider Raiser, LLC (the “Raiser Agreement”).  When plaintiff logged onto the App, he was able to review the Raiser Agreement by clicking a hyperlink to the Raiser Agreement within the App.  To advance within the App past the hyperlink and actively use the App, plaintiff had to twice confirm that he reviewed and accepted the Raiser Agreement by clicking “YES I AGREE.”

The first page of the Raiser Agreement also contained a paragraph, written in large bold and capital text, indicating that a voluntary arbitration agreement was contained therein.  The arbitration provision required Uber drivers—if they do not opt out within a 30-day period—to individually arbitrate all disputes arising out of, or relating to, the Raiser Agreement, or their relationship with Uber, including disputes alleging breach of contract, wage and hour, and compensation claims on an individual and class or collective basis.  Importantly, the Raiser Agreement’s 30-day opt out provision noted that the arbitration provision was not mandatory, and should the driver choose to opt out of arbitration, Uber would not retaliate against him or her.  Plaintiff was also permitted to spend as much time as he found necessary in reviewing the Raiser Agreement on his smartphone or other electronic devices before accepting it.

Following the filing of litigation by plaintiff, Uber moved to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration.  In his opposition, the plaintiff first asserted that because Uber only provided a hyperlink, or “access” to the Raiser Agreement, as opposed to providing the document itself, he should not be bound to the Raiser Agreement’s arbitration provision.  In rejecting this argument, the District Court noted that for hyperlinked agreements to bind parties, they must provide “reasonably conspicuous notice of the existence of” the terms of the agreement, citing favorably to ADP, LLC v. Lynch, No. 16-01111 (D.N.J. June 30, 2016), a decision that our firm helped to achieve on behalf of a long-time client.  The District Court determined that since the plaintiff was required to review and agree to the hyperlinked Raiser Agreement before utilizing the App, and the link was prominently displayed, he was provided with sufficient notice of the terms and conditions and therefore manifested intent to be bound by the agreement.

The District Court also held that the parties’ agreement is subject to the FAA, granting the court authority to compel arbitration. Plaintiff argued that his employment with Uber fell within the exemption contained in Section 1 of the FAA, which excludes from the FAA’s ambit contracts involving “transportation employees.”  However, the court noted even if plaintiff was an Uber employee (as opposed to an independent contractor, as Uber argued), Section 1 of the FAA only excludes “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”  The court found that although the Third Circuit has yet rule on the issue, virtually every other Circuit Court having considered the issue found that the exclusion is to be narrowly construed as only applying “to those employees who are actually engaged in the movement of goods, as opposed to the transportation of people, in interstate commerce.”  Coupled with Congress’s intent to only exclude contracts involving certain categories of workers in this way from the application of the FAA, the District Court held that plaintiff’s job was “too far attenuated from the types of employees to whom the FAA’s exclusion is intended to apply.”

Finally, the District Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the Raiser Agreement violated Section 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  While noting that it is an open question whether “an employee may enter into an arbitration agreement requiring the resolution of labor disputes on an individual basis” (indeed, the Supreme Court recently granted certiorari to review this exact issue), the court found it did not need to reach this issue because Uber did not “restrain, or coerce” the plaintiff into being bound by the arbitration agreement contained within the Raiser Agreement because it was optional.

The court’s decision in Singh shows that if crafted correctly, employers are permitted to execute agreements with their employees in more contemporary fashion, and with dispute resolution provisions that are fair and efficient for all parties.

For questions about Singh v. Uber Techs. Inc. and its implications on your company’s arbitration agreements, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq., a Partner in the firm’s Employment Law and Appellate Practice Groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 533-0777.  Please also sign-up our free Labor & Employment Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to keep you up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments effecting your workforce.

Third Circuit Allows “Subgroup” Disparate-Impact Claims to Proceed Under The ADEA

Employers are well aware of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), which protects individuals over the age of forty, as well as its disparate-impact provision, which makes it unlawful for an employer to adopt a facially-neutral policy that adversely affects an individual employee’s status “because of such individual’s age.” However, in a precedential opinion filed on January 10, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the ADEA allows plaintiffs to proceed with a disparate-impact claim whereby only a “subgroup” or segment of employees over the age of forty are alleged to have been disfavored relative to younger employees.

In Karlo v. Pittsburgh Glass Works, LLC, No. 15-3435, the defendant-employer underwent several reductions in force (“RIFs”) to offset disappointing sales during the height of the recession. Several employees who were terminated in one particular RIF, all of whom were over fifty years old, brought a putative ADEA collective action against the employer asserting, among other things, a disparate-impact claim. The district court thereafter decertified the plaintiffs’ collective action, which was “to be comprised of employees terminated by the RIF who were at least fifty years old at the time.” Additionally, the district court granted the defendant-employer’s motion for summary judgment as to the disparate-impact claim, holding that plaintiffs’ “fifty-and-older” disparate-impact claim was not permitted under the ADEA.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment as to the disparate-impact claim. The court noted that disparate-impact claims may proceed under the ADEA “when a plaintiff offers evidence that a specific, facially neutral employment practice caused a significantly disproportionate adverse impact based on age.” In Karlo, the plaintiff alleged that the specific RIF disproportionately impacted only a portion of the forty-and-older employee population: employees older than fifty. The Third Circuit found that this claim was cognizable, holding that plaintiffs may demonstrate the impact of facially-neutral policy “with various forms of evidence, including forty-and-older comparisons, subgroup comparisons, or more sophisticated statistical modeling, so long as that evidence meets the usual standards for admissibility.”

The court heavily relied upon the Supreme Court’s decision in O’Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp., which held that the ADEA “does not ban discrimination against employees because they are aged 40 or older; it bans discrimination against employees because of their age, but limits the protected class to those who are 40 or older.” Thus, the court held that ADEA claims by subgroups of those aged forty or older are cognizable because “evidence that a policy disfavors employees” of such a subgroup “is probative of the relevant statutory question: whether the policy creates a disparate impact ‘because of such individual[‘s] age” under the plain language of the ADEA. The court found that it is “utterly irrelevant” whether the employer’s policy benefits younger members of those employees over forty, so long as an employee can show that his or her subgroup was adversely affected.

Following Karlo, employers should review their policies to confirm that they are in compliance with the ADEA and do not unintentionally discriminate against employees who are in “subgroups” over forty years old. For more information on the implications of the Karlo decision, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

Transgender Accommodation Issues at the Forefront of Employment and Education

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a new Fact Sheet, announcing its formal position on bathroom access rights for transgender employees.  The Fact Sheet provides employers with a nuanced look into what practices and procedures the EEOC will be investigating should a charge be brought alleging sex discrimination in the context of bathroom usage by transgendered individuals.

As noted therein, the EEOC defines the term “transgender” as referring to “people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from the sex assigned to them at birth,” and specifically notes that “[a] person does not need to undergo any medical procedure to be considered a transgender man or a transgender woman.”

The EEOC reiterates that it enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in instances of discrimination against transgendered individuals, as Title VII prohibits employer discrimination on the basis of sex where the action is “motivated by hostility, by a desire to protect people of a certain gender, by gender stereotypes, or by the desire to accommodate other people’s prejudices or discomfort.” The EEOC also noted that employers cannot and should not rely on state laws contrary to this guidance.

Bathroom Access Rights for Transgender Employees Under Title VII

The EEOC’s interpretation of “transgender” in the context of Title VII and bathroom usage is based upon two cases before the EEOC: Macy v. Dep’t of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821, 2012 WL 1435995 (Apr. 12, 2012) and Lusardi v. Dep’t of the Army, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133395, 2015 WL 1607756 (Mar. 27, 2015), as well as a recent opinion from the Fourth Circuit in G.G. ex rel. Grimm v. Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd., — F.3d –, 2016 WL 1567467 (4th Cir. 2016).

Lusardi held that prohibiting equal access to a common restroom corresponding to the employee’s gender identity is sex discrimination.  Further, in Macy, the EEOC noted that an employer cannot avoid the requirement to provide equal access to a common restroom for transgender employees by providing single-user restroom access instead.  However, the EEOC advised that an employer can make single-user bathrooms available to all employees who might choose to use them. In G.G., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit followed the Department of Education’s position that sex discrimination under Title IX is prohibited and that educational institutions are to give transgender students access to bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

In the Fact Sheet, the EEOC reaffirms its position that any state law to the contrary of these decisions and interpretations is not a defense under Title VII.  Thus, employers would be wise to update their policies and procedures to conform with the EEOC’s directives as to transgendered individuals, rather than look to their resident state for guidance.

Transgender Access to School Bathrooms

On May 13, 2016, President Obama issued a directive that requires every public school to provide appropriate access for transgender students or risk the loss of federal funds. The directive has received strong backlash from conservative leaders who have accused the President of blackmailing and the federal government of getting involved in local issues.

On the same day, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice (“the Departments”) issued a Dear Colleague letter to assist in ensuring that transgender students can “enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.” Although the joint letter does not carry force of law, the intent is clear: schools must agree or lose federal funding.  Specifically, schools must agree that that it will not exclude, separate, deny benefits, or otherwise treat students differently on the basis of sex in its educational programs or activities unless Title IX so authorizes. Schools are required to treat transgender students according to the gender that they identify as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that the identity is different from previous records.

Much like the EEOC guidance pertaining to employers, the Departments do not require a medical diagnosis or treatment as a prerequisite to be considered transgender; they also explicitly state that accommodating the discomfort of others cannot be justified by excluding or singling out a particular class of students. The Departments provide specific guidance on sex-segregated activities and facilities and reiterate that schools may provide separate facilities (including housing) but must allow transgender student to access those which align with the gender that which the student identifies. Records must be kept consistent with the gender that which the student identifies with as well. There are some limitations. The Departments note that non-vocational elementary and secondary schools and private undergraduate institutions are permitted under Title IX to set their own sex-based admissions policies.

New York City Commission on Human Rights’ Transgender Guidance

On May 19, 2016, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) issued new guidelines requiring employers and landlords to implement transgender pronouns (“ze/hir”) as requested by transgender workers or tenants. Failure to comply may open organizations and individuals up to $250,000 in fines if that failure is motivated by malicious intent.

NYCCHR specifically notes that “harassment motivated by gender is a form of discrimination” and outlines examples of violation of its guidance in the context of failure to use an individual’s preferred name or pronoun, refusing to allow individuals to utilize single-sex facilities and programs consistent with an individual’s preferred gender, sex stereotyping, imposing different uniforms or grooming standards based on sex or gender, providing employee benefits that discriminate based on gender, considering gender when evaluating requests for accommodation, and engaging in discriminatory harassment and retaliation.

For more information regarding the EEOC’s Fact Sheet, related guidelines, and best practices with respect to transgender individuals in the workplace, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

Federal Trade Secrets Act Now Law: What Companies Should Know

On May 11, 2016, President Obama signed into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”).[i]  The measure had previously been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives 410-2 on April 27, 2016, quickly following the U.S. Senate’s unanimous passage of the bill on April 4, 2016.[ii]  The DTSA amends the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 to create a federal private right of action for trade secret misappropriation.  Its passage represents a major overhaul of intellectual property law in the United States, as companies were previously left to seek redress for trade secret misappropriation under a patchwork of state laws, the majority of which were adoptions of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”).[iii]  While the DTSA mirrors many of the provisions and remedies found in the UTSA, which New Jersey and Pennsylvania have versions of, it does not do away with those state law protections, but rather provides additional tools for companies to utilize in protecting their intellectual property.

Here are some beneficial takeaways for companies:

A. DTSA Definition of a Trade Secret

The DTSA creates a broad, universal definition for the term “trade secret,” encompassing “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information, including patterns, plans, compilations, program devices, formulas, designs, prototypes, methods, techniques, processes, procedures, programs, or codes, whether tangible or intangible, and whether or how stored, compiled, or memorialized physically, electronically, graphically, photographically, or in writing” provided that:

  1. The company has taken reasonable measures to keep the information secret, and
  1. The information derives independent economic value to the company from not generally being known and not being readily ascertainable by others.

B. DTSA Definition of “Misappropriation”

The DTSA also details when “misappropriation” has occurred—i.e., when a trade secret holder may seek redress—as follows:

  1. When a trade secret has been acquired by someone who knew or should have known that the trade secret was obtained through “improper means,” or
  1. When a trade secret has been disclosed or utilized, without consent of its owner, by someone who knew or had reason to know either that (a) it is a trade secret or (b) it was obtained through “improper means.”

The term “improper means” is defined in the DTSA to include “theft, bribery, misrepresentation, breach or inducement of a breach of duty to maintain secrecy, or espionage through electronic or other means.”  However, the DTSA leaves an exception in the term for “reverse engineering, independent deviation, or any other lawful means of acquisition.”

C. Federal Cause of Action

While the majority of states have enacted the UTSA, there are slight differences between several of the state laws, and New York and Massachusetts have chosen not to adopt the UTSA.  Thus, companies seeking redress for trade secret misappropriation can now bring a suit in federal court without the requirement of diversity of citizenship between the parties.  Importantly, the DTSA does not replace or preempt the states’ existing trade secrets laws.  Thus, it provides more options to trade secret holders, who can now bring an action in federal court to assert parallel federal and state rights.  Note that while federal courts are normally the preferred venue for employers in employment discrimination suits, the same calculus does not necessarily hold as to equity matters, where state courts, for example in New Jersey with its chancery courts, are often the preferred venue for seeking to enforce restrictive covenants.

D. Remedies for Trade Secret Holders

The DTSA provides for several different measures of damages once misappropriation has been found.  These include the actual damages caused by the misappropriation, unjust enrichment damages, reasonable royalties in lieu of other damages, exemplary damages for willful or malicious misappropriation, and attorneys’ fees if the trade secret is found to have been misappropriated willfully or maliciously.  Notably, similar to the state statutes based upon the UTSA such as the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act, N.J.S.A. 56:15-1 et seq. (“NJSTA”), and Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act, 12 Pa.C.S. 5301 et seq. (“PUTSA”), the DTSA allows for attorneys’ fees to be awarded if the claim of misappropriation was made in bad faith.  This reverse fee-shifting often leads to hesitation by companies and their attorneys in utilizing these statutes because of the possibility that a court may award fees if it holds that the claim was made in bad faith.  The same reluctance will attach to the use of the DTSA.

 E. Unique Provisions of the DTSA

  1. Early Seizure: Under extraordinary circumstances, a trade secret holder may apply ex parte to a court to seize the property that encompasses the trade secret “to prevent [its] propagation or dissemination.” This provision—certainly the DTSA’s most controversial—gives trade secret holders a remedy akin to a preliminary injunction by which they can prevent dissemination of a trade secret early in a case.  Such an application will be granted when a trade secret holder can show that immediate and irreparable harm will occur if a seizure is not ordered, that the harm to the alleged individual who misappropriated the trade secret is less than the harm to the holder, and that the holder is likely to succeed in their case on the merits.
  1. Remedies Against Former Employees: The DTSA makes clear that any injunction granted by a court with respect to trade secret misappropriation shall not be entered where it “prevent[s] a person from entering into an employment relationship,” or “otherwise conflict[s] with an applicable State law prohibiting restraints on the practice of a lawful profession, trade or business.” Moreover, the DTSA states that any “conditions placed on such [new] employment shall be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation” and not simply “information the person knows.”  These provisions address a frequent criticism often levied at restrictive covenants that prevent former employees from working for competitors in a certain geographic area for a certain time period—that they are preventing someone from earning a living.  The same rationale is the reason why non-solicitation agreements are more likely to be enforced by some courts as opposed to non-competition agreements, which restrict a former employee from working for a competitor.
  1. Whistleblower Immunity: The DTSA provides a safe harbor for employees who make a disclosure of a trade secret to the government “for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law,” as well as for employees who confidentially disclose a trade secret in an anti-retaliation action against their employer. Importantly, the DTSA provides that notice of this immunity must be provided by employers in any contract or agreement with an employee that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information.  This may be accomplished by cross-referencing a separate policy document.  A failure to do so could result in exemplary damages and attorneys’ fees should the employee win on his or her anti-retaliation action.  Employers should immediately add this immunity language to all new or updated restrictive covenant agreements, non-solicitation agreements, and confidentiality agreements going forward from May 11, 2016, in order to ensure conformity with the DTSA.

F. How the DTSA Compares to State Equivalent Statutes in the Region

As the DTSA does not do away with state equivalent statutes, it is important to note that there remain benefits to utilizing the state statutes for companies operating in the region.

For example, the NJSTA is broader than many other state adoptions of the UTSA.  This is because where other states’ adoption of the UTSA may have pre-empted common law claims for trade secret misappropriation, the NJTSA included an express provision stating that:

The rights, remedies and prohibitions provided under this act are in addition to and cumulative of any other right, remedy or prohibition provided under the common law or statutory law of this State and nothing contained herein shall be construed to deny, abrogate or impair any common law or statutory right, remedy or prohibition . . . .

In interpreting this provision, at least one court has refused to dismiss common law counts brought in addition to a count for violation of the NJTSA.[iv]  Likewise, the PUTSA contains additional avenues for redress apart from the DTSA because its provisions have been interpreted to permit the issuance of preliminary and permanent injunctions preventing a former employee from accepting employment with a competitor where it can be shown that the employment will result in the trade secret’s utilization or disclosure.[v]

By contrast, as New York does not have an equivalent statute adopting the UTSA, its common law interpretation of trade secret misappropriation is very fact-intensive, as its courts have adopted the definition of a trade secret from the Restatement of Torts.  New York defines a trade secret as “any formula, pattern, device or compilation of information which is used in one’s business, and which gives him an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know or use it,” and the factors that New York courts utilize in deciding a trade secret claim include:

(1) the extent to which the information is known outside of [the] business; (2) the extent to which it is known by employees and others involved in [the] business; (3) the extent of measures taken by [the business] to guard the secrecy of the information; (4) the value of the information to [the business] and [its] competitors; (5) the amount of effort or money expended by [the business] in developing the information; (6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others.[vi]

As the DTSA’s definition is more straight-forward, its enactment may make it easier for New York companies to demonstrate a trade secret and misappropriation thereof than under New York’s existing common law.

Finally, companies should still be aware that in other states, such as New Jersey, even if information does not rise to the level of a trade secret, it may still be protected under the individual state’s common law.[vii]

For questions about the Defend Trade Secrets Act and its implications, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq., a Partner in the firm’s Employment Law and Appellate Practice Groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 533-0777.

 

[i] https://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2016/05/11/president-obama-signs-s1890-defend-trade-secrets-act

[ii] https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1890

[iii] http://www.uniformlaws.org/shared/docs/trade%20secrets/utsa_final_85.pdf

[iv] See SCS Healthcare Mktg., LLC v. Allergan USA, Inc., 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2704, at *19 (N.J. Super. Ct. Ch. Div. Dec. 7, 2012).

[v] See, e.g., Solar Innovations v. Plevyak, 2013 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1230 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013).

[vi] See Restatement of Torts § 757 cmt. b, at 5 (1939) (quoted in Ashland Mgmt. v. Janien, 82 N.Y.2d 395, 399, 624 N.E.2d 1007, 1008, 604 N.Y.S.2d 912, 913 (N.Y. 1993)).

[vii] See e.g., Ingersoll-Rand v. Ciavatta, 110 N.J. 609, 626 (N.J. 1988); Platinum Mgmt., Inc. v. Dahms, 285 N.J. Super. 274, 295 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1995).