Looking for Definitions, the Supreme Court Weighs the Limits of the Federal Arbitration Act’s Sec. 1 Exemption

By Russ Bleemer

Today’s Federal Arbitration Act oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court gives the justices the opportunity to refine the meaning of the first section of the nearly century-old law designed to discourage bias against arbitration.

They struggled with that task in trying to set the limits of the types of workers who would be exempt from arbitration under the law, at the same time sounding skeptical that a residual exemption would not provide the exemption to some transportation workers.

The justices explored the classes of workers currently exempt from arbitration under the FAA, and discussed expansions to particular jobs in relation to the statute’s wording.  At times the justices appeared sympathetic to arguments from both sides as they tried to divine current application to commercial airline workers—job categories that didn’t exist when the FAA was enacted in 1925.

Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, No. 21-309,  presents a Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 1 question:

Whether workers who load or unload goods from vehicles that travel in interstate commerce, but do not physically transport such goods themselves, are interstate ‘transportation workers’ exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act.

The statute’s defines its application to maritime transactions and commerce. The key section before the Court this morning is the conclusion that notes “nothing [in the statute] shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

The Court has interpreted the law to mean that the exception from FAA application is only for transportation workers “engaged in” interstate commerce. Circuit City Stores Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105 (2001) (available at https://bit.ly/2HhwYLu).

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case (available at https://bit.ly/3rRA8Ln) held that the plaintiff was a transportation worker, and therefore exempt from the FAA, and didn’t have to arbitrate her Fair Labor Standards Act claim.

Petitioner Southwest Airlines requires all workers who aren’t covered by collective bargaining agreements to arbitrate workplace disputes, according to court papers which also note that the original plaintiff worked only locally—a “ramp agent supervisor” at Chicago’s Midway Airport.  

For background, see Russ Bleemer, Supreme Court Preview: An Airline and an Employee Will Argue Over the Reach of an Exclusion from the Federal Arbitration Act, CPR Speaks (March 25) (available here).

Southwest Airlines’ lawyer said the FAA carves out the employee, who did not travel, for not being in interstate commerce, and therefore out of the flow of interstate commerce, following “from Circuit City and Section 1’s text and structure.”

Shay Dvoretzky, a Washington, D.C., partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, told the Court that meant that “an exempted class of workers must perform work analogous to that of seamen and railroad employees,” whose employment was characterized by working on moving ships and trains.

Jennifer Bennett, the lawyer for respondent Latrice Saxon, who heads the San Francisco office of Gupta Wessler, said that railway workers’ class was informed by the treatment of seamen in the statute and the “residual” wording of Sec. 1—“any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce”—and that covered the original plaintiff, who therefore was not obligated to arbitrate her case under her employment agreement because of the exemption.

* * *

Dvoretzky opened on behalf of Southwest Airlines noting that petitioner Saxon was like a stevedore, land-based shipping industry cargo loaders who don’t travel, originally perceived as separate from the statute’s arbitration exemption.  “Seamen”, he said, was a term of art, with a long case history, and was based on the fact that they went on “long voyages,” unlike stevedores.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told Dvoretzky that he was “very precise” in “emphasizing border crossing in . . . determining interstate commerce” in his opening and in his court papers, and asked whether a border crossing was required for the worker to be in interstate commerce under FAA Sec. 1.

No, Dvoretzky replied, the question “is whether movement of people or goods through the channel of interstate commerce is central to the job of the class of workers.” The inquiry, he explained, was “the job of the class of workers”—here, the ramp agent supervisor. “They all have the same job description,” he said, “and their job description doesn’t involve getting on the plane.”

But Dvoretzky initially added that the work, following Congress’s lead, would have to cross the border.  Even if not going across borders, he said, seamen as a class have the central characteristic of traveling on a ship.  He contrasted the ramp agent supervisors, with their own class characteristics, and which doesn’t include traveling across borders.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she didn’t see any difference between the FAA Sec. 1 definition of railway workers, which includes cargo loaders, and stevedores in the shipping industry. Dvoretzky countered that the view incorporated the “the fundamental characteristic of seamen is predominantly spending time on the ship.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch turned to the FAA Sec. 1 language, and asked repeatedly what evidence Dvoretzky could use to indicate that some railway workers were not covered by the statutory exclusion. “I know you like to talk about people who travel,” said Gorsuch, “What about the fellow who unloads cargo that’s come in interstate commerce from the railroad and hands it off to a carrier locally.  . . .  [W]hy isn’t the same person unloading cargo from a plane in the same position?”

Dvoretzky said those workers weren’t covered by the FAA Sec. 1 exemption. He said there are many types of railway workers, suggesting that many would not be part of the class of workers in the statute.

Gorsuch pressed for more. Dvoretzky conceded there was nothing that directly answers the FAA Sec. 1 definition limits, but insisted there were multiple solid indicators: statutory context, which shows that less than all railroad employees were included; the treatment of “seamen” engaged in interstate context, not all maritime employees; and the texts “engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” and “class of workers,” noting “the workers in particular have to be engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

Gorsuch responded, “I’m going to take all that as, ‘No, we don’t have any evidence.  . . .’”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh pressed the point in a different way, noting an old case just before the 1925 FAA enactment that similarly classified workers loading and unloading shipments under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act to be a part of interstate commerce.

The question began a long exchange. Dvoretzky strongly contested the FELA cases’ view of interstate commerce as focusing on the businesses themselves, not on the workers.  FAA Sec. 1 provides a narrower standard, he said.

He said that the view that seaman doesn’t include everyone involved in shipping should be applied to railway workers, too, under the FAA Sec. 1 exemption, noting that, for example, railway management is excluded.  “The most natural reading,” he said, “isn’t everybody who works for the railroad.”

Later, at the conclusion of his argument, Kavanaugh returned to the FELA cases, but Dvoretzky deflected, noting that the case’s dormant Commerce Clause challenges were analyzed differently.  Those cases characteristically looked at local laws prejudicing interstate commerce.  “That is simply answering a different question on whether the people doing the loading and unloading are engaged in interstate commerce as [FAA] Sec. 1 uses that term,” he said.

Before Kavanaugh’s final questions, Justice Elena Kagan asked Dvoretzky to concede that if the Court found that baggage handers are included in interstate commerce, Southwest Airlines would lose the case.  But he countered that Congress didn’t mean “to exempt the airline industry,” and returned to stevedores’ exclusion from the seaman definition as the proper ruling point for the Court.

Circuit City, he emphasized, supports the exclusion of the ramp supervisors and baggage handlers. “You still look at ‘engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,’” he said, “which, under Circuit City, is supposed to be a narrow construction.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, returning to the Court after missing last week, hospitalized for an unspecified infection, participating remotely, also pressed Dvoretzky on whether an individual seaman would have to travel interstate or internationally to qualify.  The Southwest Airlines attorney said yes, the seaman would be part of the class even if the worker didn’t make such travels as part of the class of worker specifically cited in FAA Sec. 1.

Kagan returned to particular jobs.  She asked whether railway signal operators would be considered railway employees for the Sec. 1 exclusion, and Dvoretzky said “they’re not riding the train,” so they wouldn’t be included. 

She asked whether the test is that the employee is moving. Yes, replied Dvoretzky, “through the channels of interstate commerce.”

* * *

Respondent’s attorney Bennett, representing original plaintiff Saxon, told the Court that her client engaged in interstate commerce, and made historical arguments via the FAA’s legislative history of the FAA.

“Southwest contends that workers who load and unload airplanes are not part of any class of workers engaged in commerce for purposes of the FAA,” said Bennett in her opening, adding, “There’s no support for this contention in the text of the statute. Southwest can’t point to even a single example from any time period in which the phrase ‘engaged in foreign or interstate commerce’ has ever been given the meaning it proposes.”

She suggested that Congress intended to exempt cargo workers from the statute, at least under the residual clause, discussed above. The Court and Bennett explored—and struggled–putting limits on a definition as to who was included under the exemption, with Bennett conceding that some examples were borderline.

 Bennett told Chief Justice Roberts that railroad ticket workers in 1925 would be exempt-from-arbitration transportation workers under FAA Sec. 1, as well as station employees. “[T]he ordinary meaning was those people who did the customary work of the railroad at that time” were exempt from FAA arbitration, she said.

But she stopped short of office workers, noting that a general counsel, and executives, were not included in the statute, agreeing with her adversary.  Both Bennett and the Court wrestled with airline workers’ fit with the statute.

Justice Gorsuch said that Southwest Airlines’ strongest argument was that “seamen were people who rode the waves and did not include stevedores,” who therefore weren’t in interstate commerce, which would be analogous to Saxon’s airline role in Chicago. Bennett countered on the differences under the statute between railway workers and seamen in separate industries, and said the lack of “commonality” in the statute—referring to the specificity of “seamen”–also pointed to respondent Saxon’s distinct job at an airline.

She conceded that Southwest’s credit card points program workers aren’t doing FAA Sec. 1 transportation work, but under questioning said that schedulers would be doing the customary work under the statute.

Justice Kagan asked about website designers. “That’s a difficult question,” replied Bennett, “but it’s at the outer edge.”

Bennett earlier declined to extend the rule to Lyft and Uber drivers who may not cross state lines, but might pick up goods and travelers who have come from interstate commerce.  She told Gorsuch, that the question would be “[I]s it part of this continuous journey . . . [or] is it really a separate sort of local transportation?”

Both of the shared ride companies, along with Amazon.com, filed amicus briefs in the case asking the court to exclude local workers from the FAA Sec. 1 exemption. (The briefs are available at the Supreme Court docket link above.) But Bennett leaned toward a narrower definition in a discussion with Kagan.

That discussion continued with Kagan and Alito on bright line exemption rules by industry or, alternatively, more narrowly, in interstate commerce for classes of workers under Sec. 1.

Alito asked if the rule covered industries, which besides airlines would be subject to the exemption. Bennett she said two major industries would be trucking and busing, and perhaps space travel, but still likely with the narrower test under FAA Sec. 1. That was followed by a discussion led by Chief Justice Roberts on shipped goods, and the status of warehouse workers.

The exploration of the variations, without definitive views from the Court, suggested that the FAA Sec. 1 exemption fate of local Lyft and Uber drivers, and warehouse and local driver Amazon workers, may be left for future cases.  Bennett pushed for workers at warehouses to be included in the FAA Sec. 1 exemption—” you know, a warehouse that is in the middle of . . . the goods journey.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. questioning potential FAA Sec. 1 exemptions and exclusions, told Saxon attorney Jennifer Bennett that her arguments shifted back and forth, with just about every commercial activity included today, but under a statute which is narrow. He said he couldn’t see how a Queen Mary cruise ship ticket seller could be included, and the FAA Sec. 1 foreign and interstate commerce meaning “has to have a narrower meaning.”

Bennett strongly disagreed.  She said the language wasn’t “surplusage” as Alito suggested, because under Circuit City, being engaged in commerce was in the transportation requirement. She added that the two classes of workers cited in the statute, which also had preexisting dispute resolution statutes, “were commonly understood categories” illustrative of classes of workers.

It wasn’t thoroughly job specific, she explained. “Here, it doesn’t say seamen, you know, flagmen, railroad conductors,” said Bennett, “It says seamen and railroad employees. And so we’re talking about the classes of workers that are specific to the industry.”

She closed noting the distinctions between seamen and railroad employees, and the residual clause.

* * *

Today’s case is expected to be decided before the Court’s term ends at the end of June. The transcript and audio of the Sec. 1782 arguments are available on the Supreme Court’s website here. Justice Amy Coney Barrett was not present on the audio stream today.  The Court earlier announced she took no part in the consideration or decision of the certiorari petition in the case.

* * *

The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR at altnewsletter.com. Andrew Ling, a third-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law, in Austin, Texas, and a CPR 2022 Spring Intern, contributed to the research and writing of this post, which was based on the live audio stream provided by the Court Monday morning, March 28.

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