Supreme Court Ruling May Stop Enforcement of Some Contractors’ Arbitration Agreements

New Prime v Olivieri double decker bus

The year 1925 was a banner year for transportation. Walter Percy Chrysler founded the Chrysler Corporation, London introduced its first double decker bus, and Malcolm Campbell became the first person to exceed 150 mph in an aero-engined car, accomplishing the feat at Pendine Sands in Wales. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Meanwhile, back in the States, American courts had developed a habit of not enforcing arbitration agreements, and Congress was determined to change that. In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which is the law that allows parties to agree to arbitrate disputes and which tells courts to respect those agreements, subject to a few limited exceptions.

Those exceptions were at issue in the Supreme Court case of New Prime v. Olivieri, decided last week in an 8-0 decision. 

The Court ruled that:

(1) If there is a question about whether the FAA applies to an arbitration agreement, a court — not an arbitrator — decides whether the FAA protects the arbitration agreement. 

(2) The FAA’s exception — which says the FAA does not cover workers in the transportation industry — applies not just to employees in the transportation industry but also independent contractors. In other words, the FAA does not protect arbitration agreements entered into by independent contractors in the transportation industry.  

For business owners who wish to use arbitration agreements with their workers, what does this ruling mean?

I.  Who decides who decides?

Sometimes an arbitrator decides whether a dispute is subject to arbitration, and sometimes a court decides. Last month in the Henry Schein case, the Supreme Court held that an arbitrator can decide, in most instances, whether a dispute is covered under an arbitration agreement.

But last week’s New Prime case draws a distinction about who decides if the issue is whether the FAA applies to the dispute.

So, to simplify: On the issue of who decides whether a dispute is subject to an arbitration agreement, what’s the rule now? 

1. If the issue is whether the FAA protects the arbitration agreement, a court decides whether the FAA applies or not. (That’s the New Prime decision.)

2. If the FAA does apply and the issue is whether a particular dispute is subject to the agreement to arbitrate, then the arbitrator decides whether a dispute is subject to the agreement to arbitrate — assuming that the arbitration agreement has delegated to the arbitrator the ability to decide. (That’s the Henry Schein decision.)

The last sentence in Point 2 is the reason companies should consider adding a clause to their arbitration agreements saying that the arbitrator decides questions of arbitrability.

II.  How does the New Prime ruling apply to arbitration agreements with independent contractors? 

For independent contractors not in the transportation industry, this ruling does not apply. Arbitration agreements with independent contractors are generally enforceable and are protected by the FAA.

But how do we know the FAA doesn’t apply to all independent contractors in interstate commerce?

To answer that question, we need to head back to the Year 2001, a year after the electronic calendar shifted away from 19xx and technically-inclined doomsday prophets foretold of planes falling out of the sky. Shortly after mankind endured this potential calendar-caused calamity, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Circuit City Stores v. Adams.

The issue in Circuit City was whether the FAA applies to arbitration agreements between employers and employees. There is a carve out provision in the FAA, saying that the law favoring arbitration does not apply to “to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

The issue in Circuit City was whether the carve out for “contracts of employment” of “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” was intended to be broad and apply to all employees in interstate commerce or just those in the transportation industry. What was the intended meaning of “workers engaged in … interstate commerce”?

In Circuit City, the Court ruled that:

(1) the FAA generally does apply to arbitration agreements between employers and employees, but

(2) the FAA does not apply to workers in the transportation industry.

The Court decided that the phrase “workers engaged in … interstate commerce” was intended to refer only to workers in the transportation industry, not all workers. Arbitration agreements with employees in industries other than transportation would be enforceable under the FAA.

But that decision left open an important issue: What about independent contractors in the transportation industry? Do they have “contracts of employment”? Does the FAA apply to their arbitration agreements or not?

Fast forward to last week’s New Prime case.

The Supreme Court ruled that when the FAA was written in 1925, the phrase “contracts of employment” was understood to mean all work engagements, not just employer-employee relationships. Our understanding of the word “employment” has changed over time and, if that phrase were used in a statute today, it would likely refer only to true employer-employee relationships. But in 1925, it meant all work.

The Court therefore ruled that the FAA’s carve out applies to all workers in the transportation industry, regardless of whether such workers are employees or independent contractors. This means that arbitration agreements signed by employees or independent contractors in the transportation industry are not covered by the FAA, and therefore their agreements to arbitrate disputes are not protected by the FAA. Those disputes might have to go to court.

So what happens now?

First, the ruling is narrower than it may seem. The Court ruled only that the FAA did not apply to independent contractors’ arbitration agreements in the transportation industry.  It did not rule that these arbitration agreements were automatically void.

Many states have their own statutes that protect arbitration as a means for resolving disputes. Companies with workers in the transportation industry should check whether there is a state law that can be applied to protect these arbitration agreements.  If it would be reasonable to apply that state’s law, then companies should consider choosing that state’s law in the arbitration agreement’s Choice of Law provision. The right state’s law might still be able to save the arbitration agreement. We can expect further litigation on this subject, but here’s a tip for now. Try to pick a state with a favorable arbitration statute if your workers are in the transportation industry.

Second, we can expect the next battle to be over the meaning of the phrase, “transportation industry.” Does the “transportation industry” include only workers who transport goods across state lines? Or does the “transportation industry” include independent contractor drivers who transport passengers across town (such as ride share) or who deliver your pizza?

In Circuit City, the Supreme Court looked favorably on other court decisions that had defined the “transportation industry” to mean those workers “actually engaged in the movement of goods in interstate commerce.” If that holds true, then local drivers of passengers and late-night food cravings should be considered not part of the “transportation industry.” The FAA, therefore, would still apply to those workers.

But we can expect the plaintiffs’ bar to argue for a broad interpretation of the “transportation industry.” We can now expect to see arguments that rideshare drivers and local delivery drivers are in the “transportation industry” and that their arbitration agreements are not protected by the FAA. I think that argument is incorrect, but I do expect to see it.

I would expect Courts of Appeal (and perhaps eventually the Supreme Court) to adopt a narrow view of the “transportation industry,” meaning that the FAA still applies to independent contractors who transport people or make local deliveries. I expect the courts to rule that the carve out from the FAA exempts only those workers (employees and contractors) who routinely transport goods across state lines.

For now, here’s what you need to know:

  • Arbitration agreements with independent contractors in the “transportation industry” are not protected by the FAA. It may be more difficult to enforce those arbitration agreements unless they are governed by the law of a state with its own arbitration statute.
  • Arbitration agreements with independent contractors outside of the transportation industry should remain enforceable under the FAA.

And the bottom line for me is that maybe it’s time for self-driving cars.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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