Eight months after the Supreme Court weighed in on the case, a federal judge has dismissed a class-action lawsuit against the Verona-based Epic Systems over its overtime pay policies, ending a four-year-long effort by Epic employees to collect wages they say the company owes them in public court.
Even though the court case is over, an attorney representing the plaintiffs said that her firm, Hawks Quindel, will continue to represent any employees who wish to keep up their fight for overtime pay in private arbitration.
“We’re glad to have confirmation that it’s time to go ahead in arbitration,” said Caitlin Madden. “We’re glad to be able to focus our energies there.”
Arbitration — a legal proceeding that occurs in private, outside of the courts system — was at the crux of both the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the ultimate cause for the case’s dismissal.
After workers filed the class action suit in February of 2015, alleging that the company had miscategorized its salaried technical writers as exempt from overtime pay, Epic moved to dismiss the case. The company pointed to contracts it required its workers to sign that stipulated such wage disputes be taken up in arbitration.
The contracts also stipulated that arbitration claims could only be pursued as individuals, not as a group.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit contended that the contracts were illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, and thus invalid. However, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in May that such “no-class” arbitration agreements were in fact legal.
The ruling placed new limits on the abilities of workers to sue their employers, and was described by some legal scholars as a blow to workers' rights.
Even after the high court’s ruling, plaintiffs in Lewis v. Epic continued to try to nullify the arbitration contracts by arguing that the agreements could be considered “unconscionable” under state law — in other words, one-sided or unfair.
“We felt that given that Epic workers had a choice of quitting their jobs, or keeping this agreement, we felt that that was making it unconscionable,” said Madden.
The plaintiffs also argued that the email workers received detailing the nature of the contracts was misleading.
However, in her ruling on Friday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb disagreed. “Plaintiff could have rejected the terms of the agreement and found employment elsewhere,” she wrote in her ruling, going on to say that she did not find the email introducing the contract confusing.
Madden said that many of the technical writers who participated in the lawsuit are taking their claims to arbitrations. She also said that the nature of the Supreme Court ruling means that other workers who would otherwise would benefit from a class action suit, won't be able to.
“The main blow is for workers who don’t have the time and inclination to not pursue these claims. The big impact will be on low-wage workers — cleaners, servers,” she said.
Madden said that while she remains disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling, and hopes that federal legislators will pass a bill to make no-class arbitration illegal.
Epic Systems declined to comment on the dismissal of the case, instead forwarding statements released at the time of the Supreme Court ruling, including one by Epic’s CEO Judy Faulkner.
“It is important that employers protect an employees’ right to file complaints, while also providing for a fair forum in which those grievances are addressed,” wrote Faulkner. “When it comes to grievances regarding wages and hours, we believe individual arbitration agreements strike that reasonable balance and are pleased with the court’s decision in support of this.”
Another class-action lawsuit against Epic — nearly identical, only on behalf of quality assurance employees and not technical writers — remains in federal court, although Madden said she anticipates a similar ruling from Judge Crabb.