U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert to Decide “Who Decides” “Independent Contractor” Employment Arbitration Case

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

On February 26, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, Case No. 17-340, a 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals decision in which the appeals court ruled on two questions: (1) Whether, under a contractual arrangement where the parties have delegated arbitrability questions to the arbitration, a court facing a motion to compel arbitration must first decide whether the US Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) covers or excludes the dispute or instead leave that question to be decided first by the arbitrators and (2) does the provision of Sec. 1 of the FAA excluding contracts of employment of transportation workers  from arbitration apply to an agreement that purports to establish an independent contractor relationship rather than an employer-employee relationship.

This case raises two questions of first impression in this circuit. First, when a federal district court is confronted with a motion to compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA or Act), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, in a case where the parties have delegated questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator, must the court first determine whether the FAA applies or must it grant the motion and let the arbitrator determine the applicability of the Act? We hold that the applicability of the FAA is a threshold question for the court to determine before compelling arbitration under the Act. Second, we must decide whether a provision of the FAA that exempts contracts of employment of transportation workers from the Act’s coverage, see id. § 1 (the § 1 exemption), applies to a transportation-worker agreement that establishes or purports to establish an independent-contractor relationship. We answer this question in the affirmative.

Oral argument in the matter will occur during the Fall term of the Supreme Court.

The underlying contractual agreements are easily summarized (footnotes omitted):

Among the documents Oliveira signed was an Independent Contractor Operating Agreement (the contract) between Prime and Hallmark.3 The contract specified that the relationship between the parties was that “of carrier and independent contractor and not an employer/employee relationship” and that “[Oliveira is] and shall be deemed for all purposes to be an independent contractor, not an employee of Prime.”4 Additionally, under the contract, Oliveira retained the rights to provide transportation services to companies besides Prime,5 refuse to haul any load offered by Prime, and determine his own driving times and delivery routes. The contract also obligated Oliveira to pay all operating and maintenance expenses, including taxes, incurred in connection with his use of the truck leased from Success. Finally, the contract contained an arbitration clause under which the parties agreed to arbitrate “any disputes arising under, arising out of or relating to [the contract], . . . including the arbitrability of disputes between the parties.”6

Ultimately, Oliveira filed a class action in US District Court against Prime notwithstanding the arbitration clause.  Oliveira alleged that Prime violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219, as well as the Missouri minimum-wage statute, by failing to pay its truck drivers minimum wage. Oliveira also asserted a class claim for breach of contract or unjust enrichment and an individual claim for violation of Maine labor statutes.  Prime moved to compel arbitration under the FAA.

The provision of the FAA at issue in this dispute is Section 1, which excludes from the coverage of the FAA “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

Section 1 of the FAA provides that the Act shall not apply “to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Id. § 1. The Supreme Court has interpreted this section to “exempt[] from the FAA . . . contracts of employment of transportation workers.”

On the “who decides” issue, the Court of Appeals held in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira that the courts, rather than the arbitrators, are the proper place to decide whether these disputes are covered by, or exempted from, the FAA.  Having decided the “who decides” question to place the resolution in the courts, the appellate judges then concluded that, on the particular facts of the case, “a transportation-worker agreement that establishes or purports to establish an independent-contractor relationship is a contract of employment under § 1,” and thus excluded from the FAA.

Given the dramatic increase in “independent contractor” agreements in the workplace over the last decades, this case may determine whether a large variety of labor disputes are heard in court or may instead be subjected to mandatory arbitration agreements.  The Scotusblog.com case page with the appellate decision and cert filings is here – http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/new-prime-inc-v-oliveira/.

 

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

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