WASHINGTON, May 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a blow to the rights of workers on Monday by allowing companies to require them to sign away their ability to bring class-action claims against management, agreements already in place for about 25 million employees.
The justices, in a 5-4 ruling with the court's conservatives in the majority, endorsed the legality of the growing practice by companies to compel workers to sign arbitration agreements waiving their right to bring class-action claims on various disputes, primarily over wages and hours.
The ruling could apply more broadly to discrimination claims like those raised by women as part of the #MeToo movement raising awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace but the court did not explicitly address that issue.
Craig Becker, a former member of the U.S. National Labor Relations Board and now general counsel of the AFL-CIO union federation, said the decision will have a "chilling effect" on employees coming forward to complain of mistreatment.
High-profile men accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct
High-profile men accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct
Movie producer Harvey Weinstein is accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, including a number of well-known celebrities, over the past several decades.
Matt Lauer was fired from 'Today' after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct that allegedly included giving a co-worker a sex toy and dropping his pants in front of a female employee in his office.
Actor Jeffrey Tambor has been accused of sexual assault by two women from the Amazon series, "Transparent."
Eleven women have come forward accusing President Donald Trump of unwanted touching or kissing. Trump has called the sexual harassment claims 'fake news.'
(Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Al Franken is accused of kissing and groping a woman without her consent during a United Service Organizations (USO) tour in 2006.
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Director Woody Allen has been accused of sexual assault by his daughter, Dylan Farrow. She says she experienced inappropriate behavior by her adoptive father on several occasions.
Hundreds of women accused longtime Hollywood writer and director James Toback of sexual harassment.
(TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Comedian Louis C.K. has been accused of forcing women to watch him masturbate, according to the New York Times.
(Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Director Bret Ratner has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, including actresses Olivia Munn and Natasha Henstridge.
(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of making a sexual advance towards him when he was 14 years old.
Roger Ailes, the former president of Fox News Channel, was accused of sexually harassing former anchor Gretchen Carlson and several other women from the network.
(Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Several women accused TV host Charlie Rose of sexual misconduct, including groping and lewd phone calls.
(Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)
Bill Cosby has faced sexual assault allegations from about 60 women, including several women who claim he drugged them.
(Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
Four women, including several that were also fellow Scientologists, have accused actor Danny Masterson of sexual assault, according to HuffPost.
(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
Mark Schwahn, the former "One Tree Hill" showrunner, was accused of sexual harassment by a large number of the show's cast and crew.
(Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)
Roy Moore faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with underaged girls.
Bill Clinton faced numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct while he was president of the United States, with accusers including Juanita Broaddrick, who accused him of rape, Kathleen Willey who said he groped her and Paula Jones who said he exposed himself to her without consent.
(Photo by Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Actor Casey Affleck settled lawsuits out of court wth two women who accused him of sexual harassment.
(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Film Independent)
Bill O'Reilly has reportedly made numerous settlements with women who accused him of sexual harassment.
(Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Anthony Weiner, a former Democratic congressman was sentenced to 21 months in prison in September 2017 after pleading guilty to sexting a teenage girl.
(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Veteran journalist Mark Halperin has been accused of sexually harassing women while he worked at ABC News.
(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Singer R. Kelly is accused of holding women against their will in houses in Illinois and Georgia in a reported 'sex cult.'
(Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
Former Fox Host Eric Bolling was accused of sending unsolicited lewd text messages to female colleagues.
(Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)
Director Roman Polanski fled the US after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Several other women have also come forward to accuse him of sexual assault.
Chef John Besh stepped down from the company he founded after female employees reported facing sexual harassment there.
(Photo by Mireya Acierto/Getty Images for NYCWFF)
Photographer Terry Richardson was labeled the 'Harvey Weinstein of Fashion' by the Sunday Times amid widespread accusations of sexual harassment by models.
(Photo by Eugene Gologursky/WireImage)
Singer Kesha accused Lukasz Gottwald aka Dr. Luke of drugging and sexually assaulting her on multiple occasions.
(Photo by Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)
Former champion boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a Miss Black America contestant in 1992.
Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar has been accused of sexual abuse by dozens of his former patients and athletes.
(JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Music mogul L.A. Reid left his position as Epic Records CEO/Chairman in 2017 amid harassment claims by a female assistant.
(Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
Amazon Studios chief Roy Price resigned following reports that he harassed a producer and ignored an actress' allegation of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein.
(Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)
Several women have accused former President George H.W. Bush of groping them during photo ops.
Chris Savino (right), creator of 'The Loud House' was suspended by Nickelodeon after being accused of making unwanted advances toward multiple women.
(Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SCAD)
Actor Steven Seagal was accused of sexual misconduct by Inside Edition's chief investigative correspondent Lisa Guerrero.
(Photo by Paul Archuleta/Getty Images,)
Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director of National Public Radio, was accused of inappropriate conduct with two women in 1990s.
Dustin Hoffman was accused of sexually harassing a production assistant when he was 48 and she was a high school senior.
Jeremy Piven was accused by actress Ariane Bellamar of groping her on two separate occasions. Piven 'unequivocally' denied the allegations.
Ben Affleck apologized for acting 'inappropriately' towards Hilarie Burton during an appearance on MTV's "Total Request Live" in 2003.
Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman he went on a date with.
Andy Dick was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct on set, including groping people’s genitals, unwanted kissing/licking and sexual propositions.
(Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images)
Rep. Ruben Kihuen, (D) Nevada, was accused of making repeated, unwanted propositions for dates and sex to a woman that once worked on his campaign.
(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Actor Ed Westwick was accused by actress Kristina Cohen of raping her in his home.
David Guillod, producer of 'Atomic Blonde,' is accused of drugging and sexually assaulting several woman.
(Photo by Jennifer Lourie/Getty Images)
Andrew Kreisberg, the showrunner for "Supergirl," was suspended in November 2017 amid numerous sexual harassment allegations by members of his staff.
(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Actor Tom Sizemore was reportedly told to leave a film set in 2003 after an 11-year-old actress told her mother that he had touched her genitals.
Steve Jurvetson left his own venture capital firm after allegations of sexual harassment
(Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
A former model accused George Takei of sexually assaulting him 36 years ago.
(Photo by Tara Ziemba/FilmMagic)
Olympic gold medalist Hope Solo accused former FIFA president Sepp Blatter of sexually assaulted her at an award ceremony in 2013.
A former writer for 'Mad Men' said the show's creator Matthew Weiner told her that she owed it to him to let him see her naked.
Ron Jeremy has been accused of sexually assaulting more than a dozen women and the allegations span more than 30 years.
(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
Multiple women accused producer Adam Fields of touching them inappropriately and sexually propositioning them.
(Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has been accused of unwanted sexual advances by former staffers.
(Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, was accused of crossing the line with employees, including unwanted hugs.
(Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
Singer Nick Carter was accused of rape by a former member of the all-girl teen band Dream, Melissa Schuman.
(Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images)
A singer accused billionaire Richard Branson of sexual assault during an event as his Necker Island in the Caribbean. Branson says he has no recollection of the matter.
Talent agent Adam Venit is accused of grabbing actor Terry Crews' genitals.
(Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
Jeordie White (aka Twiggy Ramirez), Marilyn Manson former longtime bassist, was accused of rape by singer Jessicka Addams.
(Photo by Chris Weeks/WireImage for Bragman Nyman Cafarelli)
Lockhart Steele, Vox Media's editorial director was fired after a former employee accused him of sexual harassment.
(Photo by Hal Horowitz/WireImage for Haute Magazine)
Producer Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein's brother, has also been accused of sexual harassment.
(Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company)
Jesse Lacey of the band, Brand New, was accused of sexual misconduct, including soliciting nude photos from a teen girl in the past.
(Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Redferns)
Senior Correspondent for E! News Ken Baker California was accused of sexual harassment by two women.
(Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
American film director Oliver Stone was accused of groping model and actress Carrie Stevens in the 1990s.
(Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
Reporter Glenn Thrush was suspended by the New York Times after several women accused him of acting inappropriately when they were young journalists.
(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Veteran radio host Garrison Keillor was fired by Minnesota Public Radio following claim of improper behavior.
(Photo by Al Pereira/WireImage)
CNN producer Teddy Davis was fired after multiple accusations of harassment.
(Photo via Twitter)
Producer Russell Simmons stepped down from his companies following sexual assault and harassment accusations from two women.
Longtime conductor James Levine was suspended by New York's Metropolitan Opera after sexual abuse claims.
(Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)
Dylan Howard, editor in chief of the National Enquirer, was accused of sexual misconduct by several former employees, including forcing them to watch porn and openly discussing his sexual partners.
"X-Men" director Bryan Singer was accused of raping a 17-year-old boy on a yacht in a lawsuit filed in December.
Harold Ford, Jr.
(Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Chef Mario Batali has been accused by multiple women of "inappropriate touching in a pattern of behavior that spans at least two decades."
(Photo by Donna Ward/Getty Images)
PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley's show was suspended amid misconduct allegations made against him.
Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb was fired from his job as an ESPN contributor amid accusations of sexual harassment by a wardrobe stylist at the network.
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Sen. Jeff Klein (D-New York), was accused of forcibly kissing a former female staffer back in 2015.
(Photo by Mark Sagliocco/FilmMagic)
Ross Levinsohn, Los Angeles Times CEO and publisher, has reportedly been a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits and would rate the "hotness" of his female colleagues, according to a report by NPR.
(Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A woman accused magician David Copperfield of drugging, sexually assaulting her when she was teen model in the 80s, according to The Wrap.
James Franco was accused by several women of sexually inappropriate behavior. He was also criticized for wearing a "Time's Up" pin to the Golden Globes hours before the accusations against him surfaced.
(Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)
Barry Lubin, also known as Grandma the clown, resigned from Big Apple Circus after admitting to pressuring a 16-year-old girl into posing for pornographic photos in 2004.
(Photo by David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Arizona Wildcats head football coach Rich Rodriguez was fired amid troubling off-field allegations. His former administrative assistant says Rodriguez inappropriately grabbed and touched her.
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
President Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of sexual assault by pro-Trump singer Joy Villa. She claims he hit her on the buttocks during an event at Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
(Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
Steve Wynn, Chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of peple. The Wall Street Journal the casino mogul regularly pressured employees to perform sex acts.
Music exec and 'The Four' judge Charlie Walk was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee. Life Lab founder Tristan Coopersmith penned an open letter about Walk in January claiming he sent her lewd comment and cornered her in the bedroom he shared with his wife.
(Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Vh1 Save The Music)
Several women filed sexual harassment complaints against Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle, according to the Washington Post.
(Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Actor Scott Baio, was accused of molesting is former 'Charles in Charge' co-star Nicole Eggert when she was a minor.
Paris Dennard, GOP commentator
(Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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"It will cripple enforcement of all the major employment laws," Becker added.
Growing numbers of employers, alarmed by a rise in class-action claims brought by workers on wage issues, have demanded that their workers sign waivers. Class-action litigation can result in large damages awards by juries and is harder for businesses to fight than cases brought by individual plaintiffs.
Republican President Donald Trump's administration last year reversed the government's stance in the case, siding with the companies. The Justice Department said it was pleased with Monday's ruling. Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration had supported a decision made by the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 invalidating such employment agreements. The board at the time had a Democratic majority.
The ruling is the latest in a series of pro-business decisions by the conservative-majority Supreme Court in recent years curbing class-action claims of various types and endorsing arbitration to resolve contractual disputes. Companies have said arbitration is quicker and cheaper than litigation in court.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump's appointee to the court, wrote the ruling, joined by the four other conservative justices. Gorsuch wrote that federal arbitration law does not conflict with the National Labor Relations Act, which outlines the right of workers to act collectively.
"The policy may be debatable but the law is clear: Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written," Gorsuch wrote.
Workers have fought back against the waivers, arguing that the cost of pursuing their cases individually in arbitration is prohibitively expensive. The ruling does not affect workers represented by unions.
Writing in dissent on behalf of the court's four liberals, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the ruling "egregiously wrong" and urged Congress to take action to protect workers' rights.
'TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT'
"The court today holds enforceable these arm-twisted, take-it-or-leave-it contracts -- including the provisions requiring employees to litigate wages and hours claims only one-by-one. Federal labor law does not countenance such isolation of employees," Ginsburg said in a statement she read in court.
Ginsburg said she does not believe the ruling would apply to certain claims alleging discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion or national origin covered by Title VII of the landmark federal Civil Rights Act.
Civil rights advocates were not so sure.
"Today's decision will make it easier for employers to escape liability for widespread discrimination and harassment. No American should be forced to sign away their right to invoke the meaningful protections afforded by our nation's critical civil rights laws," said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The ruling came in the biggest business case of the court's current term, which began in October runs through the end of June.
The court in the coming weeks is due to rule in another big workers' rights case involving a conservative challenge to fees that public-sector workers like police and teachers who are not union members are forced to pay to unions in certain states to cover the expenses of collecting bargaining.
The three consolidated cases decided on Monday involved professional services firm Ernst & Young LLP, gas station operator Murphy Oil USA Inc and healthcare software company Epic Systems Corporation.
"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," Epic CEO Judy Faulkner said in a statement.
The NLRB argued that the waivers violate federal labor law and let companies evade their responsibilities under workplace statutes.
About one in four private-sector non-union employees have signed arbitration agreements that include class-action waivers, according to the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
One U.S. law firm, Ogletree Deakins, seized on the ruling by launching a service it said will help employers create arbitration agreements containing class-action waivers for employees in less than five minutes.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)