US Supreme Court Holds That Airline Cargo Loaders Are Exempt From Arbitration

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The US Supreme Court has held that airline cargo loaders who load and unload cargo from planes that travel across state lines are exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) because they belong to a “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” under § 1 of the FAA. Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon (June 6, 2020).

Background

Latrice Saxon worked for Southwest Airlines and was responsible for training and supervising teams of ramp agents who load and unload airplane cargo on Southwest planes that travel across state lines. Saxon brought a collective action alleging failure to pay proper overtime wages FLSA in the Northern District of Illinois. However, Saxon had signed an arbitration agreement requiring her to arbitrate her wage disputes, and Southwest moved to dismiss the lawsuit and to compel arbitration under the FAA.

Saxon opposed the motion, invoking § 1 of the FAA, which exempts “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” She argued that ramp supervisors, like seamen and railroad employees, were an exempt “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” but the district court agreed with Southwest and found that only employees involved in “actual transportation,” not those who merely handle goods, fell within § 1 of the FAA. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the District Court’s decision, holding that “[t]he act of loading cargo onto a vehicle to be transported interstate is itself commerce.” The Seventh Circuit’s decision conflicted with an earlier decision of the Fifth Circuit, Eastus v. ISS Facility Services, Inc., 960 F. 3d 207 (2020), and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the conflict between the two circuits.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that loaders who load and unload airplane cargo that travels intrastate play a direct role in the interstate transportation of goods and therefore belong to a “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” under § 1 of the FAA. The Court engaged in a two-step analysis. First, it considered how to define the relevant “class of workers.” The Court rejected Saxon’s argument that the “class of workers” should be defined as virtually all airline employees, which would include shift schedulers or those who design Southwest’s website. Rather, the Court held that the inquiry must focus on the job duties of the employees themselves, rather than the employer’s business and that Saxon “belongs to a class of workers who physically load and unload cargo on and off airplanes on a frequent basis.”

Next, the Court considered whether that class of airplane cargo loaders “engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” It determined that “one who loads cargo on a plane bound for interstate transit is intimately involved with the commerce of that cargo” and that workers like Saxon who load and unload airplane cargo that travels in interstate commerce are exempt from the FAA.

Takeaway for Employers

Though the Court did find a class of workers exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act, it expressly rejected the assertion that this exemption should apply to all employees of an employer engaged in foreign or interstate transportation. It went on to provide examples of positions that would not satisfy the exemption, such as workers engaged in the sale of interstate asphalt or workers who supply janitorial services to a corporation engaged in interstate commerce.

Employers engaged in interstate or foreign transportation commercial should consult legal counsel if they plan to utilize arbitration agreements as part of their dispute resolution process.

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