On January 15, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, a case concerning the enforceability of arbitration agreements.

Petitioner New Prime Inc. (“New Prime”) is an interstate trucking company that engaged Dominic Oliveira to perform work as a driver pursuant to an “Independent Contractor Operating Agreement,” containing both an arbitration clause and a delegation clause giving the arbitrator authority to decide threshold questions of arbitrability.

Oliveira filed a putative class action against New Prime in federal court in Massachusetts alleging failure to pay truck drivers minimum wage pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act and Missouri and Maine labor laws. New Prime filed a motion to compel arbitration under Section 4 of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). In response, Oliveira argued that New Prime cannot compel arbitration because Section 1 of the FAA excludes “contracts of employment of . . . seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” commonly known as the transportation workers exclusion.

The district court determined that although the parties agreed to arbitrate gateway questions of arbitrability, the applicability of the transportation worker exclusion is not a question of arbitrability that the parties may delegate to an arbitrator. The court concluded that the exclusion does not extend to independent contractors and therefore ordered the parties to conduct discovery as to whether Oliveira was an independent contractor or an employee.

On appeal, the First Circuit agreed that applicability of the transportation worker exclusion is an “antecedent determination” that must be made by the court before arbitration can be compelled under the FAA. However, the First Circuit overturned the district court’s holding that the exclusion does not apply to independent contractors, relying on the ordinary meaning of the statutory phrase “contracts of employment” at the time Congress enacted the FAA.

The Supreme Court focused on two legal issues:

  1. Should a court determine whether a Section 1 exclusion to the FAA applies before ordering arbitration where the parties’ contract contains a delegation clause?
  2. Does the transportation worker exclusion apply to independent contractors as well as employees?

The Court answered both inquiries in the affirmative. On the question of arbitrability, the Court reasoned that courts do not have limitless power to compel arbitration of all private contracts. Rather, Section 2 of the FAA states that such power is limited to arbitration agreements involving commerce or maritime transactions, which is informed by Section 1. Thus, in order to properly assert its power to compel arbitration, a court must first determine whether the FAA applies to the contract at issue. The Court rejected the proposition that courts are barred from making this threshold determination when the parties’ contract contains a delegation clause, emphasizing that a delegation clause is “merely a specialized type of arbitration agreement,” enforceable only to the extent that the “involving commerce” requirement under Section 2 of the FAA is satisfied and the exclusion under Section 1 is inapplicable.

On the merits of the New Prime’s Section 1 challenge, the Court looked to the meaning of “contracts of employment” as that phrase was used at the time the FAA was adopted in 1925. The Court sought to avoid ascribing new meaning to “old statutory terms” in a way that would effectively and improperly amend legislation. The Court looked at dictionary entries from the time for this phrase and, in finding none, concluded that the phrase was not a term of art and was construed broadly to cover any “work,” not just work in a formal employer-employee relationship. The Court found further support for this conclusion in early twentieth-century case law and statutes that construe this phrase to cover work agreements involving independent contractors. The Court also noted that Section 1’s statutory text also includes—in close proximity to the phrase “contract of employment”—the term “workers” (i.e., “workers engaged in interstate commerce”). Finally, the Court refused to stray from the statutory text in favor of indiscriminately enforcing the policy behind the FAA, concluding that even a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements has limits, and that courts must respect such limits.

While the New Prime decision is being heralded by some as a great victory to employees, likely because it is the first Supreme Court decision in years to ultimately reject a claim for arbitration, its impact on employers and employees appears to be rather limited in scope. First, the Court took no position as to whether Oliveira was an independent contractor or an employee, as Oliveira assumed for purposes of appeal that his contract established only an independent contractor relationship. Second, the Court did not affirmatively find that Oliveira qualified as a “worker[] engaged in . . . interstate commerce,” as again, the parties did not dispute this point. Third, the Court declined to address New Prime’s argument that courts have inherent authority to stay litigation in favor of the alternative dispute resolution of parties’ voluntary agreement.

Most importantly, the Court’s decision in no way broadens the transportation workers exclusion to cover workers in other industries. The decision does not curtail earlier rulings in which the Court construed Section 1’s language “any other class of workers engaged in . . . commerce” as excluding from the FAA only contracts of employment of transportation workers. Nothing in New Prime suggests that the Court would now deviate from this position. Although there is no longer a distinction between employee and independent contractor for purposes of Section 1, New Prime does not allow all contractors to suddenly bypass arbitration and vindicate their rights in court because this exception is limited to transportation workers.

The Court’s decision resolves only questions of federal law, meaning that courts presented in the future with arbitration agreements involving transportation workers will need to determine the enforceability of the agreements under state law. This issue will turn on state arbitration statutes, as well as contract law, public policy, and other considerations. Significant variation by jurisdiction seems likely.

Three months ago, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, holding that the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) does not prevent the use of arbitration agreements with class and collective action waivers covered by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). (See our discussion of Epic here.) The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has now similarly concluded in Gaffers v. Kelly Services, Inc.that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) does not bar such arbitration arrangements. While this is not a surprising outcome in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the decision underscores the influence that Epic has had and will continue to have as courts evaluate efforts to evade promises to arbitrate.

Case Background

A former employee of a business that provides outsourcing and consulting services sued the company in an FLSA collective action in the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging failure to pay virtual call center support workers for time spent logging into and out of the network and addressing technical problems. More than 1,600 workers opted into the lawsuit. Although the named plaintiff did not agree to arbitrate disputes with the company, approximately half of the opt-in plaintiffs did, and their agreements specified that arbitration would be on an individual basis.

The company moved to compel individual arbitration for those opt-in plaintiffs who signed arbitration agreements. The plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that the NLRA and the FLSA render the arbitration agreements unenforceable. The district court denied the motion to compel arbitration, and the company appealed.

The Sixth Circuit’s Decision

1. Under Epic, the NLRA does not render the agreements unenforceable.

The Sixth Circuit noted at the outset that Epic “answers half of this case.” (Slip Op. at 1-2.) In light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, the plaintiffs’ NLRA-based challenge to the arbitration agreements with class action waivers was unavailing. “[A]s it relates to the NLRA, the Supreme Court heard and rejected these arguments last term in Epic.” (Id. at 3.)

2. The FLSA’s collective action provision does not conflict with the FAA.

The Court then turned to the plaintiffs’ FLSA-based contentions. Their first argument was that “the FLSA’s collective-action provision and the Arbitration Act are irreconcilable and that the former therefore displaces the latter.” (Slip Op. at 3.) Relying on Epic, the Court explained that “a federal statute does not displace the Arbitration Act unless it includes a ‘clear and manifest’ congressional intent to make individual arbitration agreements unenforceable.” (Id.) That standard, as the court saw it, requires that Congress “do more than merely provide a right to engage in collective action. Instead, Congress must expressly state that an arbitration agreement posed no obstacle to pursuing a collective action.” (Id. (citation omitted).)

The FLSA “provides that an employee can sue on behalf of himself and other employees similarly situated.” (Slip Op. at 3.) Thus, “it gives employees the option to bring their claims together” but “does not require employees to vindicate their rights in a collective action, and it does not say that agreements requiring one-on-one arbitration become a nullity if an employee decides that he wants to sue collectively after signing one.” (Id.) The Court, therefore, was able to “give effect to both statutes: employees who do not sign individual arbitration agreements are free to sue collectively, and those who do not sign individual arbitration agreements are not.” (Id.)

3. These arbitration agreements are outside the FAA’s savings clause.

The Sixth Circuit then focused on the plaintiffs’ second FLSA-based argument: that the arbitration agreements fall within the FAA’s savings clause. That portion of the law “allows courts to refuse to enforce arbitration agreements ‘upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.’” (Slip Op. at 4 (quoting 9 U.S.C. § 2).) Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that “because the FLSA gives the employees a right to pursue a collective action, the agreements that the employees signed . . . requiring them to pursue individual arbitration are illegal and therefore unenforceable.” (Id.)

The Court explained that the savings clause “includes an ‘equal-treatment’ rule: individuals can attack an arbitration agreement like they would any other contract, but they cannot attack the agreement simply because it is one involving arbitration.” (Slip Op. at 5.) The court pointed out that under Epic, defenses that “interfere with the ‘fundamental attributes of arbitration’ are . . . insufficient.” (Id. at 5 (quotation omitted).) As shown in Epic, “one of arbitration’s fundamental attributes is its historically individualized nature.” (Id.) Thus, objecting to an agreement because it requires individualized arbitration “does not bring a plaintiff within the territory of the savings clause[,]” or else litigants “could use this contract defense to attack arbitration itself.” (Id.) As the court observed, “[t]hat selective treatment is exactly what Epic says is not allowed.” (Id.)

What the Decision Means for Employers

The Sixth Circuit’s holding confirms that the Supreme Court set a high bar in Epic for parties to argue that statutes other than the FAA provide a basis for courts not to enforce arbitration agreements. A number of significant issues remain for the courts to decide, however, including the applicability of the FAA to independent contractor agreements in the transportation industry (set for oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court on October 3, 2018), as well as whether claims under California’s Private Attorneys General Act must now be arbitrated. In addition, employers must remain mindful that courts continue to scrutinize arbitration agreements for elements of substantive and procedural unconscionability. Whether and to what extent Epic may affect how courts evaluate unconscionability remains to be seen.