The Supreme Court issued another arbitration decision today in New Prime v. Oliveira.  And like last week’s decision in Henry Schein, it was unanimous (but Kavanaugh did not participate).  Today’s New Prime decision has two key holdings:  First, it is for courts, and not arbitrators (regardless of any delegation clause) to determine whether the Federal Arbitration Act applies.  Second, the Federal Arbitration Act does not apply to interstate transportation workers.  Those are pretty technical and dry, at least on the surface.

The Oliveira case did not start out as a dry arbitration case.  It started out as a class action by drivers for an interstate trucking company, all of whom were classified as independent contractors by the company, and all of whom alleged wage violations.  In response, the company moved to compel arbitration.

But the drivers had a great case for not arbitrating: the Federal Arbitration Act itself.   Section 1 carves out “contracts of employment of . . . workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”  The drivers argued that they were workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.  The company’s rebuttal was two-fold: 1) the arbitrator should decide that issue, based on the parties’ delegation clause, and 2) the carve-out only applies to employees, not independent contractors.  Those arguments lost; Mr. Oliveira won at both the district court and in the First Circuit.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Gorsuch agreed with the lower courts.

With respect to the “who decides” question, the Court emphasized that Section 1 “warns” that nothing in the Act shall apply to those interstate workers.  So, the enforcement of Sections 2, and the authority to stay a case and compel arbitration in Sections 3-4, simply don’t apply.  The Court emphasizes the “statute’s sequencing” in its analysis — basically commenting that you don’t get to take advantage of step four of the FAA until you have passed step one.  So, you can throw your delegation clause out the window when the question is whether the FAA applies at all.

With respect to the substantive question, the Court concluded that Section 1’s exemption is not only for those who meet the current definition of “employee,” but it also encompasses independent contractors.  Why?  Because… dictionaries.  In determining the plain meaning of the text of Section 1 when it was adopted, the Court reviewed a lot of old dictionaries and legal authorities and concluded “the evidence before us remains that, as dominantly understood in 1925, a contract of employment did not necessarily imply the existence of an employer-employee or master-servant relationship.”   Therefore, the federal court lacked authority to order arbitration.

This decision raises many questions for me.  For example:

  • Did SCOTUS grant cert in these two easy cases (Henry Schein and New Prime) just to have some unanimous opinions?  Oliveira had already won at the district court and appellate court, so it’s not like SCOTUS needed to jump to his rescue.  (I expect Lamps Plus not to be unanimous…)
  • Why does it follow logically that if the FAA does not apply, then there is no authority to order arbitration?  The parties still have a contract that calls for arbitration, that the drivers are breaching by pursuing their case in court, and there can be remedies for breaching that contract…
  • Why would this exception be limited to interstate transportation workers?  If the text of the exception includes “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” that could blow a huge hole in SCOTUS’s arbitration jurisprudence.  With the case law on federal preemption in mind, pretty much every worker is engaged in interstate commerce…  And Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Epic Systems suggested that the legislative intent was to exclude all workers from the FAA.  If so, this case turns into a backdoor Arbitration Fairness Act.
  • Why can’t these opinions be more engaging?  I swear that Justice Gorsuch was purposely trying to put us to sleep with this one.

I am sure there will be good articles discussing these questions and more in the upcoming days.  Send them my way if you are so inclined!

The Federal Arbitration Act has been in effect for nearly 100 years (92, to be precise).  Nevertheless, the First Circuit found two issues of first impression to address this month.  In Oliveira v. New Prime, Inc., 2017 WL 1963461 (1st Cir. May 12, 2017), the court refused to compel arbitration of a class action complaint, because it interpreted Section One of the FAA to exempt contracts for independent transportation contractors.

Mr. Oliveira brought a putative class action suit against the interstate trucking company for which he worked–Prime–for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, Missouri minimum wage statute, and other labor laws.  Prime moved to compel arbitration under the FAA.  In response, Plaintiffs argued that the FAA had no application to their contracts because they are transportation workers. Prime argued that that issue–the applicability of the FAA–should be decided by an arbitrator.  Furthermore, it argued that the FAA does not exempt independent contractors and these workers had been classified as independent contractors.  The district court agreed it must decide the threshold question, but then ordered discovery on the question of whether the named plaintiff was an independent contractor.

On appeal, the First Circuit decided to tackle both the tough legal issues head on, and not wait to see if discovery mooted either of them.

First, it analyzed whether an arbitrator or a court should decide whether the FAA applies to a plaintiff’s contract.  It noted that the 8th Circuit had concluded an arbitrator should decide, while the 9th Circuit had concluded a court should decide.  Finding the 9th Circuit’s analysis more persuasive, it held that “the question of whether the [Section] 1 exemption applies is an antecedent determination that must be made by the district court before arbitration can be compelled under the FAA.”

Second, it interpreted the language in Section 1 in order to answer the question of whether the exemption “extends to transportation-worker agreements that establish or purport to establish independent-contractor relationships.”  (Recall that the truckers were arguing they were exempt from the FAA, whether they were independent contractors or not.)  The FAA says it does not apply to “contracts of …any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” and the Supreme Court interpreted that language in 2001 to mean that “contracts of employment of transportation workers” are exempted from the FAA.  After noting that multiple courts have found the exemption does not extend to independent contractor relationships, the First Circuit brushed that aside with this gem: “Interpreting a federal statute is not simply a numbers game.”

Instead of playing a numbers game, the First Circuit played a “pull out the antique dictionary” game.  It looked at definitions of contracts of employment from 1925, when the FAA was enacted, and concluded the phrase means any agreement to perform work, and is broad enough to include independent contracting.  Therefore, because Prime had conceded Mr. Oliveira was a transportation worker, “the contract in this case is excluded from the FAA’s reach.”

However, the court inserted a footnote allowing that a state arbitration act may provide a basis to compel arbitration in a future scenario like this one. . . which raises interesting preemption issues.