2021-2022 SCOTUS Arbitration Wrap-Up

June 16 Scotus Arbitration Cases Wrap-Up

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday wrapped up its arbitration docket with a decision in Viking River Cruises v. Moriana, No. 20–1573.

That was the last of five arbitration matters scheduled, argued, and decided in the 2021-2022 Court term. It’s an unprecedented amount of cases in the area closely watched by the CPR and ADR communities, even in a term which, to be sure, has been characterized by controversial cases involving emergency orders on Covid-19 vaccinations, and forthcoming decisions on immigration, gun rights, and abortion.

We were joined today by members of our recurring, occasional YouTube panel to talk about Viking River Cruises and the other cases in an attempt to sum up the substantial and substantive arbitration instruction that has emerged from the nation’s top Court over the past several weeks in the five opinions.

University of North Texas Dallas College of Law Professor of Practice and Assistant Director of Experiential Education Angela Downes and veteran Texas attorney-arbitrator Richard Faulkner provide the insight.

With six SCOTUS subjects, there’s a lot of quick references to the cases.  You can find the background case histories in previews, argument analysis, and dissections of the opinions on CPR Speaks here.

And here’s a quick guide to our CPR Speaks decision analysis for each case (containing links to our historical coverage), in the chronological order of Supreme Court decisions:

  • Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (March 31), on the limits of federal court jurisdiction under the Federal Arbitration Act. (on CPR Speaks here).
  • Morgan v. Sundance Inc., No. 21-328 (May 23), holding that a party resisting arbitration seeking to show its adversary waived its arbitration right need not prove that the adversary prejudiced the party by its actions (here).
  • Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, No. 21-309 (May 30), holding an airport ramp supervisor qualifies for the Federal Arbitration Act Section 1 exemption from arbitration (here).
  • ZF Automotive US Inc. v. Luxshare Ltd., No. 21-401 (June 13) consolidated with AlixPartners LLP v. Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign States, No. 21-518 (June 13), holding that 28 U.S.C. § 1728 cannot be used in aiding discovery efforts for overseas arbitration tribunals (here and here).
  • Viking River Cruises Inc. v. Moriana, No. 20–1573 (June 15), holding that the Federal Arbitration Act mostly preempts California’s Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 in that employees who have agreed to mandatory arbitration must arbitrate their individual PAGA claims (here).

The above video can be found directly on YouTube at https://youtu.be/KFV8xIvA_o8.

[END]

Supreme Court Limits California’s PAGA Law on Employment Claims, Preempting It in Part under the Federal Arbitration Act

By Arjan Bir Singh Sodhi & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this morning that employers may require their workers to arbitrate employment disputes under California’s Private Attorneys General Act, a 2003 law that allows Californians to file suit on behalf of the state for employment-law violations.  

The Federal Arbitration Act, the Court found today in Viking River Cruises Inc. v. Moriana, No. 201573, preempts at least in part the California state PAGA law, which had been the source of tens of thousands of court claims in the face of arbitration requirements, according to an industry interest group formed to fight the PAGA arbitration ban.

This morning’s decision is available on the Supreme Court’s website here.

The dispute traces to the controversial California Supreme Court case of Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles LLC, 327 P.3d 129 (Cal. 2014) (available at https://stanford.io/3ILcTY5), where the state’s top Court held “that an arbitration agreement requiring an employee as a condition of employment to give up the right to bring representative PAGA actions in any forum is contrary to public policy.”

Today’s majority opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. does not fully invalidate PAGA, and takes issue with arguments on both sides. In fact, it leaves wiggle room for the California courts and legislature to tinker with PAGA to provide relief for what it terms “non-individual” claims that the original plaintiff no longer has standing to make under the decision.

But it strikes the Iskanian reasoning, and criticizes the PAGA statute’s orientation, noting that it isn’t clear on individual’s claims as opposed to representative actions.  Alito explains that representative actions under the law are not only those of the “individual claims” of employees who seeks to file suit for workplace claims under the state’s Labor Code, but also representative PAGA claims predicated on code violations “sustained by other employees.” The latter, under Iskanian, may not be subject to mandatory arbitration.

That didn’t sit well with the majority opinion, which contrasts PAGA’s single suit involving many claims but solely by an individual on behalf of the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency, as opposed to class-action cases which may involve many claims but also on behalf of many absent plaintiffs who are certified as a class. 

The bottom line is that the representative aspect of PAGA as it applies to arbitration was stricken in today’s Court decision, an 8-1 decision with two concurring opinions. There was a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, who maintained his longstanding view–a short dissenting opinion that he has issued on at least seven other occasions–that the Federal Arbitration Act doesn’t apply in state courts.

The results already are seen as a relief by California business interests, with the Iskanian arbitration bar eliminated.  Los Angeles-based Anthony J. Oncidi, a partner and co-chair, of Proskauer Rose’s Labor and Employment Department, writes in an email,

Employers all over California are rejoicing today with the news that this peculiar PAGA exemption from arbitration is finally gone. Employers should run, not walk, to take advantage of this significant new development by immediately reviewing and, if necessary, amending their arbitration agreements to encompass PAGA claims. And as for those employers who, for whatever reason, have not yet availed themselves of an updated arbitration program, this is just the most recent reason to consider doing so.

Another management-side attorney, Christopher C. Murray, an Indianapolis shareholder in Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., writes,

Today’s decision is, for now, a victory for employers with well-crafted arbitration agreements containing class action and representative action waivers and severability clauses. However, it’s a nuanced decision that leaves open a number of issues.  One is whether the California legislature can amend PAGA to give a plaintiff standing to bring a representative PAGA action even if the plaintiff cannot pursue an individual claim in the same action. In short, it’s unlikely that today’s opinion will be the final word on representative PAGA actions and arbitration.

[Murray co-chairs the Employment Disputes Committee at the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution-CPR, which provides this blog.]

“While today’s decision is disappointing and adds new limits, key aspects of PAGA remain in effect and the law of our state,” noted California State Attorney General Rob Bonta in a statement this afternoon. He added: “Workers can continue to bring claims on behalf of the State of California to protect themselves and, in many instances, their colleagues all across California. At the California Department of Justice, we will continue to stand with workers to fight for their rights everywhere.” (The full press release is available here.)

Today’s decision may serve to derail efforts to enact PAGA-like statutes in other states. Had the law stood in its entirety and its arbitration end-run survived, labor likely would have reinvigorated pushes in blue states to add similar laws. See, e.g., Dan Walters, “The Fight Over the Private Attorneys General Act,” Orange County [Calif.] Register (April 5) (available at https://bit.ly/3MOO7s5).

The PAGA law, according to employers, negated the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court cases of Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612 (2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2Y66dwK), which authorized mandatory predispute arbitration, and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (available at http://bit.ly/2VcI4mi), which permits mandatory arbitration backed with class waivers in consumer contracts.

The Court heard the oral arguments on March 30, the last of four arbitration cases argued in nine days at the nation’s top court. See Russ Bleemer, “Adding a Claim, and Avoiding Arbitration: The Supreme Court Reviews California’s Private Attorneys General Act,” CPR Speaks blog (March 30) (available at https://bit.ly/3NWMFoQ).

It’s also the last of the five arbitration cases the nation’s top Court has accepted and decided in its 2021-2022 term, following closely on Monday’s decision in consolidated international arbitration cases focused on cross-border discovery issues.  Links to reports on all of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, as well as case previews and in-depth reviews of the arguments, can be found on the CPR Speaks blog here.

* * *

Under the PAGA law, employees may bring forth disputes on behalf of similarly situated workers who also allege employment violations. Angie Moriana, who worked as a sales representative for Viking River Cruises in 2016 and 2017, filed suit against the company in a representative action for alleged violations of California labor laws. Moriana alleged that Viking River Cruises violated California wage and hour laws. She had signed a pre-dispute agreement agreeing to file her claims in arbitration individually, and waiving her ability to bring a class action. As a result, Viking River Cruises sought arbitration.

In Iskanian in 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled that though PAGA suits are filed on behalf of the state, employees cannot forgo their ability to file these claims individually. The California Supreme Court decided Iskanian before the U.S. Supreme Court–showing its broad deference to the Federal Arbitration Act’s recognition of the enforcement of arbitration agreements–decided the Epic Systems mandatory employment arbitration case.

This Iskanian mandatory arbitration bar reasoned that PAGA plaintiffs represent the state as private attorneys general even though the state was not a party to the arbitration agreement. In Epic Systems v. Lewis, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. 

PAGA supporters argued that the law supplements the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency’s limited enforcement capability by allowing employees to enforce the state labor laws.  Employers contended that the inability to arbitrate workplace disputes cost money and jobs.

During the March 30 Supreme Court oral arguments (full CPR Speaks coverage at the link above), the court’s liberal justices were more animated, and appeared to back the California Supreme Court prohibiting mandatory arbitration of PAGA claims. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan questioned why the state’s choice to enforce its workplace regulations should be overridden by the FAA, a statute now nearly a century old.

The Court conservatives did not share the same doubts. Contrary to Moriana’s assertion that requiring arbitration essentially waives a PAGA claim, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated that a PAGA plaintiff does have a right to pursue the substantive claim, although through a different means. Today’s opinion author, Justice Alito, appeared to imply that the court’s Epic Systems decision supported finding arbitration agreements enforceable in the face of PAGA allegations.

* * *

Alito continued that line of reasoning in this morning’s decision, invoking the Court’s arbitration precedents, and discussing the expected characteristics of arbitration as a bilateral process, not a representative or class proceeding.

Alito criticized the California statute’s structure—”a PAGA action asserting multiple code violations affecting a range of different employees does not constitute ‘a single claim’ in even the broadest possible sense”—and noted that the law prohibited dividing the matter into the constituent individual and representative claims.

The opinion focused on the definitions of representative claims in bilateral arbitration.  It states that while precedents don’t hold “that the FAA allows parties to contract out of anything that might amplify defense risks,”  the practice makes “it . . . impossible to decide representative claims in an arbitration that is ‘bilateral’ in every dimension.” Alito wrote, “[O]ur cases hold that States cannot coerce individuals into forgoing arbitration by taking the individualized and informal procedures characteristic of traditional arbitration off the table.”

The federal-state law conflict, however, was elsewhere.  The majority opinion–in a section where Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, did not join with the majority—finds a conflict between PAGA and the FAA in PAGA’s “built-in mechanism of claim joinder.”  The Court says that Iskanian’s mandate of joinder of “aggrieved” employees’ “personally suffered” Labor Code violations “as a basis to join to the action any claims that could have been raised by the State in an enforcement proceeding” coerced parties’ PAGA claims out of arbitration.

The majority invoked its historic view of arbitration, holding that “state law cannot condition the enforceability of an arbitration agreement on the availability of a procedural mechanism that would permit a party to expand the scope of the arbitration by introducing claims that the parties did not jointly agree to arbitrate.”

Alito adds that PAGA allowed parties to avoid their agreement to arbitrate their individual claims after the fact and demand court or arbitration that exceeds the scope of the original agreement: “The only way for parties to agree to arbitrate one of an employee’s PAGA claims is to also ‘agree’ to arbitrate all other PAGA claims in the same arbitral proceeding.” [Emphasis is in the opinion.]

That aspect of the California law did not survive. “We hold that the FAA preempts the rule of Iskanian insofar as it precludes division of PAGA actions into individual and non-individual claims through an agreement to arbitrate,” Alito wrote. The agreement’s severability clause, the opinion concludes, allows Viking River Cruises to compel individual arbitration of respondent Moriana’s claims.

The opinion also dismisses Moriana’s non-individual claims, holding that, with the dismissal, Moriana no longer had standing, leaving those claims–still valid in the majority’s view–in limbo. Instead of court or arbitration, however, the opinion targets the law. Alito concludes, “PAGA provides no mechanism to enable a court to adjudicate non-individual PAGA claims once an individual claim has been committed to a separate proceeding.”

* * *

In her concurrence, Justice Sotomayor picks up on the majority’s closing point as well as followed from her oral argument concerns about whether the FAA could eliminate claims chosen by the California Legislature for its constituents via PAGA.

First, she asserts that the majority “makes clear that California is not powerless to address its sovereign concern that it cannot adequately enforce its Labor Code without assistance from private attorneys general.”

But then, returning to Alito’s closing point that the nonindividual claims have no outlet due to Moriana’s apparent lack of standing under California law, Sotomayor agrees, noting that there are options:

Of course, if this Court’s understanding of state law is wrong, California courts, in an appropriate case, will have the last word. Alternatively, if this Court’s understanding is right, the California Legislature is free to modify the scope of stat­utory standing under PAGA within state and federal con­stitutional limits.

Viking River Cruises, says Washington, D.C., arbitrator Mark Kantor, who closely follows the Court’s arbitration jurisprudence and previewed the case for CPR Speaks here, “leaves considerable scope for the California legislature to rework PAGA to reestablish a representative action that could survive FAA preemption and make a waiver of PAGA unenforceable, although possibly enforceable in an arbitral forum if the relevant employment agreements calls for arbitration.”

* * *

Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s additional opinion is brief but goes further–concurring in the judgment, at the same time stepping away from much of the majority’s discussion of representative and individual actions.

She concurs with Section III of the opinion, the FAA-PAGA conflict because of the California law’s mandatory joinder provisions that would bring representative claims to arbitration. Joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, Barrett writes that she agrees “that reversal is required under our precedent because PAGA’s procedure is akin to other aggregation devices that cannot be imposed on a party to an arbitration agreement,” citing four seminal Supreme Court cases including Epic Systems and AT&T Mobility (see above).

But her one-paragraph concurrence concludes, and could add fuel to moves by the California Legislature to reform PAGA in light of today’s decision:

I would say nothing more than that. The discussion in Parts II and IV of the Court’s opinion is unnecessary to the result, and much of it addresses disputed state-law questions as well as arguments not pressed or passed upon in this case.*

That asterisk is to a footnote, in which Justice Barrett adds, “The same is true of Part I,” which described the PAGA, Iskanian, and case histories.

Chief Justice Roberts dissented from the footnote, and joined in the Alito majority opinion for Parts 1 and III.

* * *

Sodhi, a former CPR intern, last month received his LLM at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, at Malibu, Calif.’s Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.  Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR.

[END]

Will the 11th Circuit Maintain N.Y. Convention Deference for Arbitration Award Enforcement?

By Xin Judy Wang

A three-judge Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has made the unusual move of urging the full circuit to convene en banc to overturn its precedents addressing vacatur of arbitral awards.

Part of a minority among circuits, an Eleventh Circuit panel on May 27 limited the basis for vacating an international arbitral award only to the seven grounds enumerated in Art. V of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, best known as the New York Convention. Deference to the New York Convention makes Alabama, Florida, and Georgia—the states covered by the Eleventh Circuit–attractive forums for international arbitration.

But this deferential position may soon change.

In Corporacion AIC, S.A. v. Hidroelectrica Santa Rita S.A., the Eleventh Circuit panel reluctantly affirmed the district court’s determination that it cannot vacate an international arbitral award on the “exceeding powers” ground. No. 20-13039 (11th Cir. May. 27, 2022) (available at https://bit.ly/3zuLRDi).

Stating it was “powerless to change the course as a three-judge panel,” the opinion, by Senior Circuit Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat, encouraged the appeals court to convene en banc to overturn its precedents, “and hold that under a correct understanding of Supreme Court precedent the exceeding powers ground is a valid basis for vacatur under both the New York Convention and the [Federal Arbitration Act].”

* * *

The parties to the dispute are two Guatemalan companies, Corporacion AIC, or AICSA, and Hidrolectrica Santa Rita, referred to as HSR below. The parties signed a March 2012 contract to construct a hydroelectric power plant in Guatemala, but had to discontinue the project when HSR issued a force majeure notice in response to fierce opposition by the local community—excusing performance and canceling the contract.

HSR then sought reimbursement for advance payments and commenced arbitration proceedings in the International Court of Arbitration. The arbitration, held in Miami, resulted in an order that AICSA return about $7 million and about €435,000 to HSR. AICSA was allowed to keep its earnings pursuant to the contract, about $2.5 million and about €700,000.

Dissatisfied with the decision, AICSA filed suit in Florida’s Southern U.S. District Court, petitioning to vacate the award because “the arbitration panel had exceeded its powers.”

The “exceeding powers” ground is not enumerated in the New York Convention. Instead, it comes from 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(4)–the Chapter 1 Federal Arbitration Act provision on overturning awards. The district court denied the petition, citing Eleventh Circuit precedents that the New York Convention–codified by FAA Chapter 2–exclusively governs vacatur of an international arbitral award. 

* * *

The Eleventh Circuit first adopted its deferential position in the 1998 case Industrial Risk Insurers v. M.A.N. Gutehoffnungshutte GmbH, 141 F.3d 1434 (11th Cir. 1998) (available at https://bit.ly/3O8XAf6). In Industrial Risk, the appellate court explained that the New York Convention’s defenses against enforcing an international arbitral award are “exclusive.” On similar facts of foreign parties arbitrating in Florida, the circuit declined to consider a ground of vacatur not explicitly mentioned in the New York Convention.

The circuit last confirmed this deference in  Inversiones y Procesadora Tropical INPROTSA, S.A. v. Del Monte Int’l GmbH., 921 F.3d 1291 (11th Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3HfcoWY). Also addressing an arbitration between two foreign corporations in Florida, the panel confirmed the binding force of Industrial Risk in the circuit.

In the opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Tjoflat critiqued Industrial Risk, noting that the decision did not consider whether a non-enumerated vacatur ground from domestic law may be used under New York Convention Art. V(1)(e), which states,

(1) Recognition and enforcement of the award may be refused, at the request of the party against whom it is invoked, only if that party furnishes to the competent authority where the recognition and enforcement is sought, proof that:

. . . .

(e) The award has not yet become binding on the parties, or has been set aside or suspended by a competent authority of the country in which, or under the law of which, that award was made. [Emphasis added in this post.]

The panel reads V(1)(e) as allowing national courts to vacate an award based on domestic grounds when the forum is either the seat of arbitration or when its law is applied.

* * *

According to the Corporacion AIC panel, this reading of V(1)(e) depends on recognizing the distinction between primary and secondary jurisdiction. A forum has primary jurisdiction when it is the location of the arbitral award or when its law is used to decide the arbitration dispute.

A forum has secondary jurisdiction when the forum’s court is not the seat of arbitration and thus may only refuse to enforce, rather than annul an award. Therefore, when, as here, the United States is the arbitration seat, a U.S. forum has primary jurisdiction to vacate the award on domestic grounds.

The panel opinion draws support from the Supreme Court case BG Group PLC v. Republic of Argentina, 572 U.S. 25 (2014) (available at https://bit.ly/3OwTopJ)  (Argentina sought to vacate an award on the basis that the arbitrators lacked jurisdiction and thus “exceed their powers” under FAA 10(a)(4)). In BG Group, the Court noted that for a motion to vacate a U.S. award, federal courts should normally interpret a treaty’s intent by applying presumptions supplied by U.S. law. The Corporacion AIC panel reads this comment as a “[nod] to the idea of primary jurisdiction” by conferring a special reviewing power to the arbitration forum.

The panel boosts this distinction by pointing to a country’s heightened interest in the outcome of an award when that country’s laws are being used or when it is the location of arbitration. It goes on to suggest that a state should have a mechanism to ensure an award’s validity when the award is issued in its jurisdiction. Limiting grounds of vacatur strictly to those enumerated in the Convention would constitute “meddling with national procedure for handling domestic awards,” citing a Second Circuit case, Yusuf Ahmed Alghanim & Sons v. Toys “R” Us Inc., 126 F.3d 15, 22 (2d Cir. 1997) (available here).

More specifically, the Corporacion AIC panel reads BG Group to have applied the “exceeding power” ground in its vacatur analysis (the Supreme Court opinion stated that it could not “agree with Argentina that the arbitrators exceeded their powers in concluding they had jurisdiction.”) Though not the key BG Group opinion focus, the Eleventh Circuit panel reads this comment as the Supreme Court’s implicit endorsement of applying vacatur grounds not expressly mentioned in the New York Convention.

This is not the first time the Eleventh Circuit has adopted such a reading of BG Group. In the 2017 case Bamberger Rosenheim Ltd., (Israel) v. OA Dev. Inc., (United States), the circuit cited BG Group and “assumed without deciding” that FAA Chapter 1 applied to international arbitral awards. 862 F.3d 1284, 1287 n.2 (11th Cir. 2017) (available at https://bit.ly/3O950yG).

* * *

Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote a Corporacion AIC concurrence taking a different path that reached back to the Convention’s 1958 adoption. He agreed with the majority opinion that Industrial Risk and Inversiones were wrongly decided, and the appeals court should apply FAA § 10 grounds to vacate a New York Convention award.

The disagreement lies in his rationale. He applied FAA § 10 not because the vacatur standards are incorporated into the New York Convention through Art. V(1)(e), but rather that § 10 should apply, as domestic law, directly to the vacatur of an international award made in the United States.

The New York Convention draws from two earlier treaties, the 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses and the 1927 Geneva Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The former mandated award enforcement only in the seat of arbitration, and the latter broadened its scope by providing for award recognition and enforcement in countries other than the seat.

The problem with the two Geneva Treaties was “double exequatur,” referring to the Geneva Convention’s requirement that an award can only be recognized and enforced (in countries other than the seat) if it was already “final in the country in which it ha[d] been made.” This created an extra hurdle for international enforcement of arbitral awards. The New York Convention eliminated the double exequatur by no longer requiring the seat’s recognition for enforcement elsewhere.

Circuit Judge Jordan recognized this significant modification but maintained that the New York Convention left intact the binary framework of the Geneva Treaties. There remain different responsibilities and authorities between the arbitral seat and other states. The arbitral seat can vacate an award, but other States may only recognize and enforce an award (which parallels the majority opinion’s definition of primary and secondary jurisdiction). Jordan drew attention to the Convention’s text–Art. V(1) starts with “Recognition and enforcement of the award may be refused.  …” Therefore, Art. V(1)(e) only addresses recognition and enforcement in other states. Jordan’s opinion states that the New York Convention (and its counterpart,  FAA Chapter 2) do not enumerate the grounds on which a court can vacate an international arbitral award.

Accordingly, to “fill the gap” of the New York Convention, vacatur should be governed by domestic law. Jordan cited the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court international arbitration case of GE Energy Power Conversion Fr. SAS Corp. v. Outokumpu Stainless USA, 140 S. Ct. 1637 (available at https://bit.ly/3xKmpHJ) (“the New York Convention was drafted against the backdrop of domestic law” and “the Convention requires courts to rely on domestic law to fill [its gaps]”).

Circuit Judge Jordan also looked to the United Kingdom and Switzerland’s permission to challenge international arbitral awards on native grounds.  He suggested that the FAA’s 9 U.S.C § 208, on the FAA’s application, was drafted to reflect this binary framework. Courts, the concurrence suggests, should apply domestic law for award vacatur for arbitrations held in the United States (§ 208 – “Chapter 1 applies to actions and proceedings … to the extent that chapter is not in conflict with this chapter or the [New York Convention]. . . .”).

* * *

As recognized by Circuit Judge Jordan’s concurrence, the number of international arbitrations has been rising in the Eleventh Circuit. The circuit’s deference to the New York Convention for award enforcement likely plays an important role in its popularity.

It is unusual for a panel to urge a rehearing en banc to overturn circuit precedents, especially when the majority and concurrence provide two different routes for the basis of overturning the precedents. How Corporacion AIC will continue to develop in the circuit or at the U.S. Supreme Court will significantly affect international arbitration in the circuit and beyond.

Attorneys for the parties did not immediately reply to email requests for comment.

* * *

The author, who will be a second-year student at Columbia University Law School in New York this fall, is a 2022 CPR intern.

[END]

Supreme Court Bars Discovery Assistance for Private Overseas Arbitration Panels Under U.S. Law

By Tamia Sutherland & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning restricted the use of 28 U.S.C. § 1782 for discovery in international proceedings to “[o]nly a governmental or intergovernmental adjudicative” body, but not cross-border arbitration matters.

The unanimous 9-0 decision in consolidated cases by Justice Amy Coney Barrett—her first arbitration opinion as a member of the nation’s high Court—clarifies the use of the 1964 law, which recently split the federal circuit courts over its reach for arbitration parties.

“Interpreting §1782 to reach only bodies exercising governmental authority is consistent with Congress’ charge to the Commission,” wrote Barrett–referring to the 1960’s Commission on International Rules of Judicial Procedure, to improve U.S. laws reaching overseas–in today’s decision in ZF Automotive US Inc. v. Luxshare Ltd.No. 21-401, which was consolidated with and covers AlixPartners LLP v. The Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign StatesNo. 21-518.

The opinion can be found here.

The issue was whether 28 U.S.C. § 1782 can be invoked in international arbitrations to obtain U.S.-style discovery for evidence. This inquiry looked at whether the statutory language—“foreign or international tribunal”—extends to arbitration panels.

The opinion had little problem removing arbitration discovery requests from a private arbitration tribunal in ZF Automotive, where a federal district court permitted discovery under the statute in the U.S. for parties in the court’s jurisdiction. The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a ZF Automotive request to stay the order.

Today’s opinion, however, states that the legislative history behind the statute, as well as a comparison to the domestic-focused Federal Arbitration Act, which allows far narrower discovery than Section 1782, puts the law’s focus on discovery for governmental bodies, not private arbitration tribunals.

The Court had more difficulty with the AlixPartners case, which involved the government of Lithuania. But the Barrett opinion says that the parties’ actions under a bilateral investment treaty are the key here–the parties were acting more like private parties than governmental entities in setting up an ad hoc ADR process. 

“An ad hoc arbitration panel, by contrast, is not a pre-existing body, but one formed for the purpose of adjudicating investor-state disputes,” wrote Barrett, “And nothing in the treaty reflects Russia and Lithuania’s intent that an ad hoc panel exercise governmental authority.”

AlixPartners focused on investor-state arbitration, in which one of the parties is the Lithuanian government. In AlixPartners, the respondent is a Russian entity representing investors pursuing claims before an ad hoc UNCITRAL-rules arbitral tribunal against Lithuania for the investors’ financial losses resulting from the insolvency of a Lithuanian bank. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals permitted discovery, finding that the ad hoc panel qualified under Section 1782 as a “foreign or international” tribunal rather than a private arbitration matter.

The Barrett opinion notes that the inclusion of arbitration in the BIT did not automatically make the process a governmental proceeding meriting the use of Section 1782. “Instead,” wrote Barrett, “it reflects the countries’ choice to offer investors the potentially appealing option of bringing their disputes to a private arbitration panel that operates like commercial arbitration panels do.”

[The publisher of this blog, CPR, urged the Court in an amicus brief to hear the AlixPartners case last year, without taking a merits position on the case. Details are available here.]

In ZF Automotive, a private commercial contract with ZF Automotive’s German parent required that disputes be arbitrated before the German Arbitration Institute, an arbitration provider. The ZF Automotive case, however, was brought in Detroit before the commencement of the Germany private international arbitration. 

The U.S. District Court allowed the requested discovery.  On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, ZF Automotive, in an unusual move, petitioned for certiorari before judgment to bypass waiting for the Sixth Circuit to decide its appeal. The Sixth Circuit, as noted, declined to stay the lower court’s order. Respondent Luxshare had requested and was granted discovery for the arbitration, in which it alleged fraud against ZF Automotive, under Section 1782. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on Dec. 10, and reversed the lower court decision today.

During a two-week, four-argument deep dive into arbitration law and practice in March (see this CPR Speaks link for previews, argument summaries, and reports on the decisions issued so far here), the Supreme Court heard these Sec. 1782 consolidated arguments as well as an oral argument from the U.S. Solicitor General’s office.

Veteran Assistant Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler’s contention that the Court should be cautious in accepting respondents’ arguments because any expansion of the scope of Section 1782’s reach should be addressed by Congress is reflected in the decision-making process, and the U.S. government’s brief is cited by Justice Barrett. Full details on the March 23 ZF Automotive oral arguments are available on this CPR Speaks blog here.

* * *

Sutherland, a former year-long 2021-2022 CPR intern, will be a third-year law student at the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C. this fall. Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR and John Wiley & Sons.

[END]

Supreme Court Backs Airport Worker, Applies Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 1 Exemption, and Sends Employment Dispute to Court

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

[END]

Airbnb’s Clickwrap Agreement Prevails in Florida’s Top Court, Sending Hidden Camera Dispute to an Arbitrator

By Russ Bleemer

A highly anticipated Florida Supreme Court case on the effect of incorporating arbitration rules into a consumer contract was decided this morning in favor of the app provider, Airbnb, sending a decision about whether a case is arbitrated to an arbitrator, instead of a court.

Today’s opinion in Airbnb v. Doe, No. SC 20-1167, means that the inclusion of the American Arbitration Association rules, which are referenced in Airbnb’s “clickwrap” agreement—linked and behind the box that is checked before purchasing access to one of the company’s rental accommodations listings—are considered a part of the customer’s obligations under their contract with Airbnb.

The decision is posted on the Court’s website here.

The Florida case is important because the U.S. Supreme Court last year balked at addressing the incorporation question.  Today’s 6-1 opinion by Florida Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston notes that in endorsing the incorporation concept, it is following every U.S Circuit Court opinion on the subject.

The opinion reverses a detailed decision on the effects of clickwrap agreements and ambiguities in incorporating arbitration rules. The 2-1 Second Florida District Court of Appeals found the reference vague and not in line with Supreme Court caselaw that requires the reference to an arbitration rule to be clear and unmistakable. John Doe & Jane Doe v. Natt & Airbnb Inc., 299 So. 3d 599 (Fla. 2d DCA 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3BPYPcu).

* * *

In June 2020, the nation’s top Court agreed to hear a case on the effect of a carve-out from arbitration in a sales contract between two medical devices companies.  At the same time, the Court denied a separate cross-petition in the same case on challenging the determination of arbitrability of the case on a question of incorporation by reference of AAA rules.

When the December 2020 argument in Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 19-963, was held, the Court got stuck, repeatedly, on the incorporation by reference point.  It appeared that the effect of the delegation of the arbitrability question—whether the incorporation of the rules was effective to put the decision of arbitrability, as well as the decision about the carve-out, in the arbitrator’s hands–depended on an analysis of whether that delegation was “clear and unmistakable,” the issue the Court had rejected.

A month later, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted. See Russ Bleemer, “Scotus’s Henry Schein No-Decision,” CPR Speaks (Jan. 25) (available here).

So this morning’s Florida Supreme Court decision will be seen as a reaffirmation of what many drafters consider standard drafting practice in incorporating a set of rules into their arbitration contracts–though after the Florida Second District fairness opinion associated with the app and the delegation, drafters likely will proceed with heightened awareness that the arbitrability provisions will be a potential target for parties who don’t want to arbitrate. Today’s case provides guidance for the U.S. Supreme Court’s “clear and unmistakable” arbitration delegation requirement.

* * *

Justice Polston signaled his strong support of the effectiveness of Airbnb’s contractual incorporation by reference of the AAA rules at the Nov. 2 oral arguments in the case.  See Arjan Bir Singh Sodhi, “Florida’s Top Court Takes on ‘Who Decides?’ in Airbnb Arbitration Case,” CPR Speaks (Nov. 5) (available here).

Today, he followed up with a majority opinion that eviscerated the state appeals court decision, relying instead on the reasoning in the dissent by Florida Second District Court of Appeal Judge Craig C. Villanti. (See appeals court opinion link above.)  “Here,” Polston wrote, “Airbnb and the Does clearly and unmistakably agreed that an arbitrator decides questions of arbitrability.”  He continued:

Airbnb’s Terms of Service explicitly incorporate by reference the AAA Rules: “The arbitration will be administered by the American Arbitration Association (‘AAA’) in accordance with the Commercial Arbitration Rules and the Supplementary Procedures for Consumer Related Disputes (the ‘AAA Rules’) then in effect.” The Terms of Service also provide a hyperlink to the AAA Rules and a phone number for the AAA. Further, the incorporated AAA Rules specifically provide that “[t]he arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope, or validity of the arbitration agreement or to the arbitrability of any claim or counterclaim.” (Emphasis added.) The Terms of Service incorporate the AAA Rules, and the express language in the AAA Rules empowers the arbitrator to decide arbitrability. Accordingly, consistent with the persuasive and unanimous federal circuit court precedent, we conclude that incorporation by reference of the AAA Rules that expressly delegate arbitrability determinations to an arbitrator clearly and unmistakably evidences the parties’ intent to empower an arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge LaBarga dissented. He wrote,

Because the arbitrability provisions relied upon by the majority to reach its decision in this case were buried within voluminous pages of rules and policies incorporated only by reference in a clickwrap agreement, the parties’ agreement to defer the consequential decision of arbitrability to the arbitrator was anything but clear and unmistakable.

Agreeing with and quoting heavily from the now-quashed appeals court decision, LaBarga wrote, “Unsuspecting consumers should not be expected to find the proverbial needle in the haystack in order to make a clear and unmistakable decision about arbitrability—that choice should be conspicuously located in the clickwrap agreement for the consumer to consider.

The case began when an anonymous Texas couple filed a complaint against Airbnb and the condominium owner who had listed the Florida property on the Airbnb platform. The complaint included intrusion against the condominium owner, and constructive intrusion against Airbnb, as well as loss of consortium against both the condominium owner and Airbnb. The plaintiffs had rented the condominium for three days in May 2016 from the Airbnb website, and later learned that the owner had installed hidden cameras and recorded the couple without their knowledge.

The plaintiffs filed their complaint in the Manatee County, Fla., circuit court. Airbnb moved to compel to settle the dispute through an arbitration proceeding. Airbnb claimed that the Does are bound to an arbitration proceeding under the signed terms and conditions when they accepted the app’s clickwrap agreement—that is, the legal contract in the Airbnb online software in which the customer indicates acceptance by typing in yes, or selecting a particular icon or link before they may use the service.

Today, the Florida Supreme sent the decision on how their case will proceed to an AAA arbitrator.

* * *

The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR at altnewsletter.com.

[END]

Supreme Court Rejects Federal FAA Jurisdiction for Arbitration Award Enforcement and Challenges

By Russ Bleemer & Andrew Ling

The Supreme Court embraced a narrow construction of subject-matter jurisdiction in arbitration matters today, reversing a Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a federal trial court had jurisdiction under Sections 9 and 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act to confirm and overturn arbitration awards.

Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (today’s decision available here), means that award enforcement processes and efforts to overturn tribunal decisions will continue to be directed state courts as a matter of state contractual law. In other words, FAA Sections 9 and 10 jurisdiction is in state court, and the “look through” federal court jurisdiction analysis steps accorded to FAA Sec. 4–which provides federal courts jurisdiction on getting parties into arbitration–will not apply.

The Fifth Circuit had said that federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to confirm or vacate an arbitration award under FAA Sections 9 and 10 when the underlying dispute was on a federal question.  The opinion, now reversed, was based on Vaden v. Discover Bank, 556 U. S. 49 (2009) (available at https://bit.ly/3Ca42MA), where the Supreme Court assessed whether there was a jurisdictional basis to decide an FAA Section 4 petition to compel arbitration.

Today’s decision on the arcane subject of jurisdiction clarifies Vaden‘s application with a textual analysis on how FAA Sec. 4 differs from Sections 9 and 10.

The decision comes amidst an unprecedented time for arbitration at the Court. While Court watchers’ eyes have been on the confirmation process for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to succeed retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer, over the past 10 days, the Court has heard four oral arguments covering five arbitration cases.  Highlights of the cases can be found on CPR Speaks, here. The March arbitration cases are expected to be decided before the current Supreme Court term ends in June.

This morning’s 8-1 decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, declines to extend Vaden to the FAA’s award enforcement and challenge sections. It states, “The question presented here is whether that same ‘look-through’ approach to jurisdiction applies to requests to confirm or vacate arbitral awards under the FAA’s Sections 9 and 10. We hold it does not. Those sections lack Section 4’s distinctive language directing a look-through, on which Vaden rested. Without that statutory instruction, a court may look only to the application actually submitted to it in assessing its jurisdiction.”

Badgerow involves a FINRA arbitration brought by Louisiana petitioner Denise Badgerow, a financial adviser, against the principals of her former employer, REJ Properties Inc. She maintains she was harassed on the job, and filed a complaint with FINRA claiming her employer and its principals violated federal securities laws, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, and the rules of FINRA, which regulates the actions of broker-dealers.

After losing the arbitration, Badgerow brought a new claim in a Louisiana state court to vacate the FINRA award that dismissed her complaints. The principals removed the case to Louisiana Eastern U.S. District Court, and both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit upheld federal jurisdiction. REJ Properties and its parent, Ameriprise Financial Inc., an NYSE-traded financial services company, were not part of the state court claim nor today’s Supreme Court decision.

The decision this morning is surprising in light of the Nov. 2 oral arguments. Badgerow’s attorney, Daniel L. Geyser, a Dallas partner in Haynes and Boone, faced strong skepticism from the Court on why the sections on enforcing and overturning awards should be treated differently for federal jurisdictional purposes than the earlier section on compelling parties into arbitration.  See CPR Speaks coverage here.

But the Court today accepted Geyser’s argument that the Sec. 4 language, which specifically says that parties seeking to compel arbitration proceed in federal court, isn’t present for the award enforcement and challenges of the statute’s later sections. “We have no warrant to redline the FAA, importing Section
4’s consequential language into provisions containing nothing like it,” wrote Kagan, adding, “Congress could have replicated Section 4’s look-through instruction in Sections 9 and 10.”

In an email, Geyser writes, “We’re very grateful for the win, and delighted for our client.  We think the Court’s opinion is an important contribution in clarifying the jurisdiction rules for everyday filings under the FAA.”

Walters’ attorney, Washington, D.C.-based Williams & Connolly partner Lisa Blatt, did not immediately reply to an email request for comment.

The opinion concludes noting that “Congress chose to respect the capacity of state courts to properly enforce arbitral awards. In our turn, we must respect that evident congressional choice.”

The Court used the opinion to resolve a circuit split and clarify that the “look through” test needs textual support in the FAA. Under Vaden, a federal court should “look through” the Federal Arbitration Act claims to the “substantive controversy” to determine if they could have been brought in federal court for disputes under Section 4.

* * *

Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s 13-page dissent said that the divergent jurisdiction tests for the different Federal Arbitration Act sections was confusing. “Although this result may be consistent with the statute’s text,” he wrote, “it creates what Vaden feared—curious consequences and artificial distinctions.  . . . It also creates what I fear will be consequences that are overly complex and impractical.”

Instead, Breyer writes that he would use the Vaden look-through approach “to determine jurisdiction under each of the FAA’s related provisions—Sections 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11.”

* * *

For more on the procedural history of the case, see Bryanna Rainwater & Russ Bleemer, “Next at the Supreme Court: Badgerow’s Attempt to Reevaluate FAA Jurisdiction,” CPR Speaks (September 15) (available here).

* * *

Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR at altnewsletter.com. Ling, a third-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law, in Austin, Texas, is a CPR 2022 Spring Intern.

[END]

Adding a Claim, and Avoiding Arbitration:  The Supreme Court Reviews California’s Private Attorneys General Act

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday examined California’s law allowing individuals to stand in for the state and file suits on behalf of coworkers against their employers even when they have arbitration obligations in the employment contracts.

California’s Private Attorneys General Act unquestionably has affected individualized arbitration processes under the Federal Arbitration Act, as a result of the California Supreme Case of Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles LLC, 327 P.3d 129 (Cal. 2014) (available at https://stanford.io/3ILcTY5), which authorizes California employees to avoid mandatory arbitration employment contracts requirements by filing representative suits under the PAGA law.  The Court had held that PAGA was not preempted by the FAA.

Employers have said that tens of thousands of suits have been filed under PAGA by employees with arbitration contracts.

That’s not a good look for a Supreme Court which has struck other laws interfering with the FAA, and was a problem this morning for the Court.  The history of the cases that authorized mandatory individualized arbitration with waivers of class actions–AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (available at http://bit.ly/2VcI4mi), and the case that extended the authorization to employment cases that followed, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612 (2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2Y66dwK)–loomed over the arguments.  

California employers want to halt the law being used as an end-run around their workplace dispute programs, which has been used to force them into class processes they seek to avoid with mandatory arbitration dispute resolution procedures. Employment attorneys and consumer advocates have countered that PAGA is a crucial state law that allows people to vindicate their employment rights.

The Court wasn’t called upon to remove the PAGA law today. But there also likely won’t be a compelling reason to keep PAGA claims out of arbitration, or at least, allow the possibility, even though the agreement at issue barred them entirely. Ultimately, the decision will focus on the Court’s Concepcion and Epic Systems arbitration-supportive history.

As a result, in Viking River Cruises v. Moriana, No. 20-1573, the advocates and the Court wrestled with the nature of the PAGA claim—as a procedural move that allows for a different legal claim or claims, or a substantive right under state law.

The Concepcion and Epic Systems cases divided the Court 5-4. It’s a different Court today, with wider ideological lines, but the Court’s three liberal justices are still inclined to back class processes. The justices who were in opposition in Concepcion and Epic Systems—Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—were most animated today.  They provided the toughest questions to Viking River’s Paul D. Clement, a former U.S. Solicitor General and a partner in the Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis, asking him to justify how the Court can police the laws California provides to its residents for use in vindicating their rights.

The Court’s conservatives mostly took a backseat this morning.

Clement, arguing in the nation’s top Court for the second time in nine days in an arbitration case (details on the previous case on CPR Speaks here), conceded that the state had properly installed the PAGA law, but also insisted that Concepcion had been violated.  He said the law violations that were the basis of original plaintiff Angie Moriana’s claims would have been easily addressed by an arbitrator, even with an award going to the state under PAGA.  But forcing the PAGA claim into courts opens up a flood of claims on behalf of many potential workplace plaintiffs without the guidance of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23’s protections for defendants.

Moriana’s lawyer, Scott Nelson, an attorney at Washington, D.C.’s Public Citizen Litigation Group, faced challenges on the FAA end-run by PAGA users by telling the Court that his client’s objection was to Viking River arbitration provisions that explicitly required waiving PAGA claims altogether. Nothing in the FAA, he said, requires the enforcement of such an agreement.

* * *

Paul Clement in his petitioner’s argument faced an immediate challenge from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who said that respondent Moriana wasn’t acting for herself, but as a delegee of the California Attorney General, securing a recovery for the state and her fellow employees. Clement responded that the setting the chief justice described wasn’t “the critical feature of PAGA.” He objected to Moriana bringing the PAGA claim on the part of the Viking River sales force as a whole, later explaining that the law’s use contravened the customary nature of arbitration as an individualized process.

Justice Elena Kagan interrupted, and confronted Clement with an objection echoed by her fellow liberal justices. The state, said Kagan, has determined that it needed law for policing that it did not have the capacity to do on its own.  “So this is a state decision to enforce its own labor laws in a particular kind of way that the state has decided is the only way to adequately do it,” she said.

Clement agreed: “At the end of the day, that’s right,” he said. But he insisted that Concepcion set the path for parties to agree to arbitrate such disputes, and the state must conform to the Court’s decision.

Kagan asked whether he thought there would have been views when the FAA was passed in 1925 that the then-new law would preclude the state from structuring its own law enforcement for its labor laws. Clement conceded it was an interesting question what sort of class actions could have been foreseen, but he said, “[C]ertainly, if we take Concepcion and Epic [Systems and Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407 (2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2GxwFbC)] as a given, and nobody has asked [the Court] to overrule those cases here. . . This Court said that state policy had to yield. I don’t think the state policy here is any more sacrosanct.”

Clement also noted for the first of repeated mentions that the California law is an outlier. While other states have considered the California law, he said its form is unique, and Clement emphasized that no other states joined in support of California as an amicus. (For details on the 22 amicus filers, as well as case background, see yesterday’s CPR Speaks preview of the argument, here.)

Clement lamented PAGA’s similarity to class actions on two points in particular, the potential dollar amounts that the claims put before the defendants, and the burdensome class discovery. Given the high stakes and the discovery, he said, “if I’m a defendant and you’re telling me I can’t escape this kind of aggregate litigation, . . . then I’m going to pick litigation every time, because I get lots of additional judicial review”  and remedies, and the result means that “arbitration is going to whither on the vine.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor disputed Clement’s characterization of arbitration claim handling, noting that arbitration historically has handled complex cases, and the Court has backed its use in cases involving racketeering, antitrust and disparate impact claims. She said it’s parties that choose whether to have arbitration class actions, not the Court.

Clement countered that the key question, as raised by Justice Kagan, wasn’t complexity but it was the operation of the PAGA statute as the mechanism providing a cause of action and specifying penalties under it. He said that the FAA doesn’t preempt the statute itself, but the arbitration right under the contract has been cut off.  

Sotomayor pointedly stated that the goal was destroying the state’s mechanism for enforcing labor law violations, and Clement pushed back and said that the plaintiff’s claims could be brought in arbitration. He later noted that the critical part wasn’t calling PAGA a state claim, nor the classification of the claim as a substantive or procedural right, but the fact that the state claim let in many claims that are not customary in bilateral arbitration.

* * *

Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson said in response to the chief justice that the multiple claims of his client, respondent Angie Moriana, could be arbitrated as to her individual claims, and she could pursue others  on her own but under PAGA on behalf of the state and other workers.

He told Justice Amy Coney Barrett in response to a question that the most important part of his client’s claim wasn’t just that the PAGA claim belongs to California, but also that the FAA can’t override the right to pursue the claim that California has provided.

Nelson maintained that the PAGA action is not the kind of aggregated multiparty action on which the Court focused in Concepcion and Epic Systems, but rather the state’s right to civil penalties through its individual representatives. PAGA, he explained, can be brought by the state’s representative as an equally bilateral arbitration or litigation between the representative and the defendant.

The agreement waives Moriana’s right to pursue a statutory remedy, emphasized Nelson.  But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was skeptical, and said that under the arbitration agreement, “she doesn’t have a right to pursue a substantive claim in court, but she does have a right to pursue the substantive claim just in arbitration. I thought that was sort of at the core of our precedents.  . . . Arbitration gets at the remedy. ”

Nelson responded that “the substantive claim . . . is the claim to recover civil penalties for these violations which are available only via PAGA, and the arbitration agreement explicitly prohibits the assertion” of a PAGA claim and a representative claim.  He said that the California Labor Code claim could be pursued in arbitration, but not the PAGA claim for damages.

Justice Breyer pressed Nelson on whether the California rule had special implications for arbitration, and whether the PAGA case could be brought in court if the Supreme Court held PAGA targeted arbitration. Nelson responded that if the law “is inconsistent with the nature of arbitration, then that’s what creates a problem.  . . . [W]hat the state has said is for contracts, whether they are part of an arbitration agreement or not, you can’t waive the right to bring a PAGA claim in an employment agreement before the claim arises. So [it] applies to every kind of agreement.”  

Justice Brett Kavanaugh concluded Scott Nelson’s argument by asking him to react to Viking River attorney Paul Clement’s point that California is alone on having the PAGA law. “It’s certainly true that California is the only state that has this mechanism,” said Nelson, adding “It’s somewhat ironic that one of the arguments made in favor of this Court’s review was that if you let California do it, everyone will do it. Now California is the only state that wants to do it.”

* * *

In his rebuttal, Kirkland & Ellis’s Clement said that the big problem with the law was that the representative could submit a claim on behalf of all of the employees “for all these disparate violations,” and in considering the scope of such an action, “then there is nothing left of Concepcion. ….. It’s too naked a circumvention.”

He re-emphasized his point about California’s outlier status in producing laws that are anti-arbitration. He noted that the substantive-procedural distinction can’t be used to avoid Concepcion/Epic Systems arbitration requirements.

Clement’s last point was on what he termed “practicalities.” He said that if respondent Moriana’s only claim was on timing of her final paycheck, “an arbitrator could dispatch that case in about an hour,” cutting her a check, and cutting a check for the state as well. But to do that in arbitration with many claims would require a claims administrator.  

Before Concepcion, he said, little attention was paid to the 2004 PAGA statute. Now, since Concepcion, Clement concluded, 17 PAGA complaints are being filed daily.

* * *

The official question presented to the Court today is

Whether the Federal Arbitration Act requires enforcement of a bilateral arbitration agreement providing that an employee cannot raise representative claims, including under PAGA.

A decision is expected before the current Court term concludes at the end of June. For more background on Viking River, see Mark Kantor, “US Supreme Court to Review Whether Private Attorney General Action Can Be Waived by an Arbitration Agreement,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 16) (available here).

Today’s case concludes a run of four U.S. Supreme Court arbitration cases in nine days. Previews and analysis of the cases can be found on this CPR Speaks blog using the search function in the upper right, and searching for “Supreme Court” and/or “arbitration.” An overview and an analysis of the 2021-2022 Supreme Court arbitration docket, including the cases argued over the past two weeks, can be found at Russ Bleemer, “The Supreme Court’s Six-Pack Is Set to Refine Arbitration Practice,” 40 Alternatives 17 (February 2022), and Imre Szalai, “Not Like Other Cases: SCOTUS’s Unique Arbitration Year,” 40 Alternatives 28 (February 2022), both available for free at https://bit.ly/3GDEJEK. Argument coverage is available on CPR Speaks, here.

The audio stream archive and the transcript of the March 30 Viking River Cruises argument can be found on the Supreme Court’s website here.

* * *

The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation at altnewsletter.com for CPR.

[END]

The Fight over Arbitration and Class-Action Access Returns to the Supreme Court Tomorrow on California’s PAGA Law

By Russ Bleemer

Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in Viking River Cruises v. Moriana, No. 20-1573, will sort the relationship between the Federal Arbitration Act and California’s Private Attorneys General Act. The case concludes a Supreme Court run of five arbitration cases in four oral arguments over nine days.

The Court tomorrow will likely revisit its extensive history on federal preemption of state laws in deciding whether the state law will continue to allow individuals with arbitration agreements to file suits in courts.

The issue is crucial for California employers, which have argued that the law is used as an end-run around their workplace dispute programs that forces them into class processes they seek to avoid with mandatory arbitration dispute resolution procedures.

Employment attorneys and consumer advocates have countered that PAGA is an essential state law that allows people to vindicate their employment rights.

The result is a return to the nation’s top Court on the broad issue of arbitration fairness. The fight over whether the California representative-class PAGA cases may continue in the place of individual arbitration—business groups say there have been tens of thousands of such cases—is also an amicus battleground among the nation’s leading business and consumer advocacy groups.  The amicus participants include business and consumer groups that have faced off in Washington, D.C., and federal and state courts nationwide on arbitration fairness issues for decades.

There are 22 amicus briefs filed.  Friend of the Court briefs on behalf of business petitioner Viking River Cruises, which is trying to overturn the PAGA law, have been filed by the California New Car Dealers Association; the Washington Legal Foundation and Atlantic Legal Foundation, nonprofit public interest law firms focusing on free marker principles, both based in Washington; the Employers Group, a 126-year-old California-based industry organization; Uber Technologies Inc. and Postmates LLC; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, California Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center; the Retail Litigation Center Inc. and the National Retail Federation; the California Employment Law Council, a 29-year-old nonprofit that lobbies and advocates on behalf of employers; the Civil Justice Association of California, a 43-year-old tort reform organization; the Restaurant Law Center; and the California Business and Industrial Alliance, a five-year-old trade group of business executives and entrepreneurs formed specifically to fight the PAGA law.

Backing Angie Moriana, a sales representative for the cruise line who brought several wage claims against her employer, are consumer and employee association representatives including the National Academy of Arbitrators, a 75-year-old nonprofit professional organization; Steve Chow (who, according to his filing, is “a first-generation American who owns and operates three convenience stores in the San Francisco Bay Area” and who “writes in favor of [PAGA]. Mr. Chow cannot afford to require his few employees to arbitrate, and the [FAA] might not apply to his small business anyway.”); the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); the California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. (a 56-year-old legal services organization) and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (a legal nonprofit that represents California immigrant farmworkers and others in class processes, including PAGA cases, in front of state agencies); a group of 10 civil procedure and arbitration law professors; the California Employment Lawyers’ Association, the National Employment Law Project, and the National Employment Lawyers’ Association, all nonprofit worker advocacy groups; Public Justice, a Washington nonprofit law firm and consumer advocacy group; the Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund (a 36-year-old Washington, D.C., nonprofit “dedicated to preserving effective anti-fraud legislation at the federal and state levels,” focusing on whistleblower statutes); the State of California (which in its statement of interest in the case notes, “In the State’s experience, PAGA is an important law enforcement tool enacted to address serious and widespread violations of the California Labor Code”); “Arbitration Scholar” Imre Stephen Szalai, a Loyola University New Orleans College of Law professor filing his own brief [Szalai recently wrote on the Court’s arbitration caseload for CPR Speaks’ publisher CPR’s monthly newsletter Alternatives; see link below]; Tracy Chen, “in Her Representative Proxy Capacity on Behalf of the State of California” (noting in her interest statement that she is “a proxy of the State of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency . . .pursuant to PAGA” and a plaintiff in a securities industry class action case seeking employer reimbursement of investment adviser fees), and the American Association for Justice, the Washington-based trial lawyers’ professional organization.

The PAGA law enables an individual employee to seek a court judgment for breach of California labor laws as a “private attorney general” on behalf of the state of California.

The question presented to the Supreme Court is

Whether the Federal Arbitration Act requires enforcement of a bilateral arbitration agreement providing that an employee cannot raise representative claims, including under PAGA.

The controversial California Supreme Case of Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles LLC, 327 P.3d 129 (Cal. 2014) (available at https://stanford.io/3ILcTY5), authorizes California employees to avoid mandatory arbitration employment contracts requirements by filing representatives suits under the PAGA law.  California’s top court held that PAGA was not preempted by the FAA.

As the Supreme Court itself points out in a prelude to the Viking River Cruises question presented, Iskanian has authorized Californians to avoid the Court’s ruling backing mandatory individualized arbitration in consumer cases in the seminal matter preceding Iskanian, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (available at http://bit.ly/2VcI4mi), and the case that extended the authorization to employment cases that followed, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612 (2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2Y66dwK).

For more background on Viking River, see Mark Kantor, “US Supreme Court to Review Whether Private Attorney General Action Can Be Waived by an Arbitration Agreement,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 16) (available here).

The audio stream of Wednesday’s argument will be available on the U.S. Supreme Court’s home page at 10 a.m. Eastern, here. Tomorrow afternoon, the Court will make available an archive of the stream and a transcript of the argument here.

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A preview and an analysis of the 2021-2022 Supreme Court arbitration docket, including the cases argued this week and last week, can be found at Russ Bleemer, “The Supreme Court’s Six-Pack Is Set to Refine Arbitration Practice,” 40 Alternatives 17 (February 2022), and Imre Szalai, “Not Like Other Cases: SCOTUS’s Unique Arbitration Year,” 40 Alternatives 28 (February 2022), both available for free at https://bit.ly/3GDEJEK. Argument coverage is available on CPR Speaks, here.

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The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation at altnewsletter.com for CPR.

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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.

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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.

[END]