Supreme Court Backs Airport Worker, Applies Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 1 Exemption
By Russ Bleemer and R. Daniel Knaap
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed unanimously a Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a worker who loads or unloads goods from vehicles that engage in interstate commerce, but does not physically transport goods, is exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act as a “worker engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” under FAA Sec. 1, resolving a circuit split.
Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, No. 21-309 (today’s decision is available here), involves a Fair Labor Standards Act suit brought by Illinois respondent Latrice Saxon against petitioner Southwest Airlines Co., her employer. Southwest was initially successful, moving to dismiss under the FAA despite Saxon’s argument that she, as a ramp supervisor, is exempt from the FAA under FAA Sec. 1. Case No, 19-cv-0403 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 8, 2019) (available here). The District Court had followed the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But the Seventh Circuit reversed, agreeing with Saxon that airplane cargo loaders are engaged in interstate commerce, even though she was located solely at Chicago Midway International Airport. Saxon, in the Seventh Circuit’s view, consequently is a transportation worker whose employment contract is exempt from the FAA. 993 F.3d 492 (7th Cir. 2021) (available here).
That view was affirmed today in the 8-0 opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, erasing the circuit split with the Fifth Circuit. Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t participate.
Southwest “maintain[ed] that §1 ‘exempts classes of workers based on their conduct, not their employer’s,’ and the relevant class therefore includes only those airline employees who are actually engaged in interstate commerce in their day-to-day work,” according to today’s opinion.
The view that the localized worker was not engaged in interstate commerce and was therefore subject to arbitration was soundly rejected in today’s opinion. The case may have implications for app-based companies, like Amazon and Lyft, who strongly urged the Court to back Southwest in amicus briefs and reject the use of the FAA Sec. 1 carve-out exemption from arbitration for Saxon.
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The Court has usually been focused on getting cases into arbitration, and that hasn’t meant success for individuals fighting arbitration and seeking court processes.
Yet the three arbitration cases decided this term, all based in employment matters, backed the workers. In addition to affirming today’s employee victory in the Seventh Circuit, last month, the Court ruled in favor of a Taco Bell worker resisting her employer’s motion to compel arbitration in a unanimous opinion by Justice Elena Kagan. The Court found that a party need not show it was prejudiced by the moving party’s actions, but instead focuses on the employer’s actions to indicate whether the employer had waived its right to arbitration. Details on Morgan v. Sundance Inc., No. 21-328 (available at https://bit.ly/3NywXj5) are available on CPR Speaks here.
In the first of the 2021-2022 arbitration cases to be decided, the Court embraced a narrow construction of subject-matter jurisdiction in arbitration matters. The March 31 decision reversed a Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that a federal trial court had jurisdiction under Sections 9 and 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act to confirm and overturn arbitration awards. The decision in Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (available here) potentially gave the employee, who filed suit over workplace discrimination, a new shot at overturning an arbitration award in state court.
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So in today’s case, the Court also backs a worker trying to avoid arbitration, following similarly the 2019 New Prime v. Oliveira case, where Justice Neil Gorsuch, in his first Supreme Court arbitration opinion, read FAA Sec. 1 to exempt an independent contractor/interstate truck driver from arbitration. The Court has limited the exemption from FAA application to transportation workers “engaged in” interstate commerce only in Circuit City Stores Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105 (2001) (available at https://bit.ly/2HhwYLu). But since then, the Court has only recognized an FAA Sec. 1 exemption for an independent contractor—a long-haul truck driver—in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, 139 S. Ct. 532 (2019) (available here).
Today’s decision revisits the limited scope of the FAA Sec. 1 exemption, and says it applies to the original plaintiff/respondent in the case.
First, Justice Thomas notes that Saxon, who is a Southwest ramp supervisor located solely at Chicago Midway, belongs to a class of workers who physically load and unload cargo on and off airplanes, using plain language and textual analysis to put the respondent/original plaintiff in the FAA Sec. 1 exemption. He finds that such workers are “as a practical matter, part of the interstate transportation of goods.” (Citation omitted.)
He used the Circuit City Sec. 1 analysis holding that the exemption applies only to transportation workers to establish the backing for Saxon’s position, finding, “Cargo loaders exhibit this central feature of a transportation worker.”
In analyzing the nature of interstate commerce in a key part of the opinion, Thomas notes, “any class of workers that loads or unloads cargo on or off airplanes bound for a different State or country is ‘engaged in foreign or interstate commerce’”—a point sure to refocus attorneys on the employment arbitration policies of app-based commerce. Amazon, for example, strongly urged the Court to reverse and back Southwest in an amicus brief, available here. (See the docket link above for more amicus briefs supporting both sides.) In a footnote, the Court notes that the issues most important to delivery companies weren’t needed to be addressed to decide Southwest Airlines.
Still, Thomas stopped short of including all airline industry employees as “transportation workers” for purposes of the FAA Sec. 1 exemption, which states, “nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”
In a painstaking dictionary analysis, Thomas notes that seamen and railroad workers are not industry-wide categories, and therefore don’t include the entire industry workforces. The implication is that a job-by-job, task-by-task analysis with the effects on interstate commerce, will be required for exempting workers from arbitration under FAA Sec. 1.
At the same time, the Thomas opinion rejects three Southwest points that sought to keep Saxon out of the exemption and require her to arbitrate under her employment agreement. Similar to the opinion’s rejection of the generalized interpretation of transportation workers that would include all airline workers by Saxon, the Court also states that the idea that the employee must ride on transportation in interstate commerce is too broad a reading of the FAA Sec. 1 language.
Next, Thomas notes that the goods that Saxon loaded only in Illinois were destined for interstate commerce, pointedly rejecting other Southwest-cited cases where the Court found localized activity was not in interstate commerce.
Finally, the opinion rejects a “statutory purpose” argument by Southwest, which claimed that the Seventh Circuit’s Sec. 1 interpretation hurts the pro-arbitration lean of the rest of the statute, particularly FAA Sec. 2, which “broadly requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements in any ‘contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce.'”
“Here,” countered Justice Thomas, “§1’s plain text suffices to show that airplane cargo loaders are exempt from the FAA’s scope, and we have no warrant to elevate vague invocations of statutory purpose over the words Congress chose.”
The opinion concludes, “Latrice Saxon frequently loads and unloads cargo on and off airplanes that travel in interstate commerce. She therefore belongs to a ‘class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce’ to which §1’s exemption applies.”
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While the nation awaits decisions on abortion and gun rights, the decision comes in an unprecedented time for arbitration at the Court. While there are usually one or two arbitration decisions per term, the Court has heard six cases—two consolidated–on how arbitration works during the 2021-2022 term, four of which were argued in March alone. Highlights of the cases can be found on CPR Speaks, here, including with the preview and argument reports for the three cases already decided, including today’s case. Detailed oral argument coverage for Southwest Airlines v. Saxon can be found on CPR Speaks here; and the preview with background can be found here. The remaining two 2021-2022 Supreme Court arbitration cases are expected to be decided before the current term ends at the end of this month.
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Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR; Knaap, a law student at Columbia University Law School in New York, is a 2022 CPR Summer intern.