ARBITRATION-FEDERAL ARBITRATION ACT-CONTRACTS OF EMPLOYMENT

February 8th, 2019 by Rieders Travis in Contracts

New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, 2019, U.S. LEXIS 724 (January 15, 2019) Gorsuch, J.-The Federal Arbitration Act requires courts to enforce private arbitration agreements. But like most laws, this one bears its qualifications. Among other things, §1 says that “nothing herein” may be used to compel arbitration in disputes involving the “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers. 9 U.S.C. §1. And that qualification has sparked these questions: When a contract delegates questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator, must a court leave disputes over the application of §1’s exception for the arbitrator to resolve? And does the term “contracts of employment” refer only to contracts between employers and employees, or does it also reach contracts with independent contractors? Because courts across the country have disagreed on the answers to these questions, we took this case to resolve them. 

New Prime is an interstate trucking company and Dominic Oliveira works as one of its drivers. But, at least on paper, Mr. Oliveira isn’t an employee; the parties’ contracts label him an independent contractor. Those agreements also instruct that any disputes arising out of the parties’ relationship should be resolved by an arbitrator—even disputes over the scope of the arbitrator’s authority. Eventually, of course, a dispute did arise. In a class action lawsuit in federal court, Mr. Oliveira argued that New Prime denies its drivers lawful wages. The company may call its drivers independent contractors. But, Mr. Oliveira alleged, in reality New Prime treats them as employees and fails to pay the statutorily due minimum wage. In response to Mr. Oliveira’s complaint, New Prime asked the court to invoke its statutory authority under the Act and compel arbitration according to the terms found in the parties’ agreements. Given the statute’s terms and sequencing, we agree with the First Circuit that a court should decide for itself whether §1’s “contracts of employment” exclusion applies before ordering arbitration. After all, to invoke its statutory powers under §§3 and 4 to stay litigation and compel arbitration according to a contract’s terms, a court must first know whether the contract itself falls within or beyond the boundaries of §§1 and 2. The parties’ private agreement may be crystal clear and require arbitration of every question under the sun, but that does not necessarily mean the Act authorizes a court to stay  litigation and send the parties to an arbitral forum. When Congress enacted the Arbitration Act in 1925, the term “contracts of employment” referred to agreements to perform work. No less than those who came before him, Mr. Oliveira is entitled to the benefit of that same understanding today. Accordingly, his agreement with New Prime falls within §1’s exception, the court of appeals was correct that it lacked authority under the Act to order arbitration, and the judgment is affirmed.

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