Corrections Officers Required To Arbitrate FLSA Claim

Corrections officers working for Butler County, Pennsylvania are covered by a collective bargaining agreement between the County and District Council 84 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The grievance procedure of the contract calls for the arbitration of “all disputes relating to the application or interpretation of the CBA and/or any dispute concerning the wages, hours, and working conditions of employees covered by this CBA.

A group of corrections officers sued the County in federal court, alleging that the County required them to take a one-hour meal break, but during that one hour, they were “on call.” While in on-call status, the officers were required to remain within the prison and in their uniforms, but were not paid for fifteen minutes of this one-hour meal break.

The Court found that the arbitration clause in the contract required the officers to arbitrate their FLSA dispute. The Court found that “there is a federal preference for enforcing parties’ agreements to submit disputes to arbitration and this preference applies to the employment arena. Courts should defer to an arbitral decision where the employee’s claim is based on rights arising out of the collective bargaining agreement, but different considerations apply where the employee’s claim is based on rights arising out of a statute designed to provide minimum substantive guarantees to individual workers.

“The United States Supreme Court has held that a CBA provision which clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate statutory rights claims is enforceable as a matter of federal law. The Supreme Court has also held that when considering a collective bargaining agreement, there is a presumption of arbitrability in the sense that an order to arbitrate the particular grievance should not be denied unless it may be said with positive assurance that the arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute.

“Here, the officers contend that their CBA is not a clear and unmistakable waiver of their right to sue in federal court under the FLSA. The argument is unconvincing. The CBA provides in relevant part that ‘all disputes concerning the wages, hours, and working conditions of employees’ are subject to the grievance procedure. Although this provision does not mention the FLSA, it does specifically state that any dispute concerning wages and hours is subject to the four-step procedure (which, in step four, includes arbitration). The parties to this CBA chose to enumerate the types of disputes that would be submitted to arbitration. Disputes regarding hours and wages were listed among those disputes.

“The Court finds that Plaintiffs must first exhaust their administrative remedies in accordance with the four-step procedure outlined in the CBA before bringing their lawsuit here. Congress and the United States Supreme Court have repeatedly held that arbitration provisions are to be respected by the Courts.”

Babcock v. Butler County, 2012 WL 1655737 (W.D. Pa. 2012).

Note: The Babcock decision breaks new ground. Though the Supreme Court has been more and more inclined to require the arbitration of disputes, it has never held that FLSA claims are subject to arbitration. The Supreme Court has also held that FLSA claims cannot be waived through the collective bargaining process, a suggestion that implies that an arbitration decision that does not award full FLSA damages would be unenforceable.