A federal judge has recently ruled that he had no choice but to dismiss the wage theft claims of thousands of Chipotle employees because of the Supreme Court’s decision from last year in Epic Systems v. Lewis. In order to keep or get their jobs with Chipotle, the company forced these employees to give up their right to band together in a class action against the company. Many of these employees did not even realize they were giving up this right.
Now, in order to pursue their claims, these workers will have to file claims individually against the company through arbitration. Their claims range from $50 to a few thousand apiece. The company obviously knows that someone with a small claim is not going to shoulder the burden of pursuing a claim against the company. That is the whole point of the class action waiver—to allow the company to get away with wage theft. Luckily for these employees, the attorneys representing the class are willing to represent these individuals in arbitration.
As a result of the Epic Systems decision, lawyers that represent workers are going to have to find ways to combat wage theft without the efficient mechanism of a class action. One possible way they can do that is through the use of a legal argument called “offensive collateral estoppel.” Theoretically, using this legal argument, attorneys for workers can (1) bring one worker’s claim against a company that has engaged in widespread wage theft, (2) get a ruling from an arbitrator in the worker’s favor on that claim, and (3) then use that ruling to argue that every subsequent worker who brings the same claim against the company should prevail. Even if this legal argument works, it is way more difficult and cumbersome for workers and their attorneys. Again, that is the whole point. Companies want to make it as difficult as possible for workers to hold them accountable for wage theft—and SCOTUS has become complicit in this scheme.
The best way to address this problem is through new federal legislation. It is well known that workers’ wages have been stagnant for decades. Giving them more power to fight wage theft could help address this problem, or at least keep it from getting worse.