Use a Sea Slug’s Secret Superpower When Drafting IC Arbitration Clauses

Witness: The severed head of a sea slug. Image by Sakaya Mitoh, who performed this awesome experiment.

Did you know that sea slugs have superpowers?

According to researchers at the Nara Women’s University in Japan, if you sever the head of a certain type of slug, the slug can grow a new body, organs and all. I like that as the basis for a new Marvel character. Or maybe the slug is a distant cousin to Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.

The moral of the story is that when a slug loses its head, all is not lost. (This is how sea slugs survived the French revolution.) The same may be true in the context of arbitration agreements for independent contractors. (Come on, that’s a really good segue, isn’t it?)

For independent contractors in the transportation industry, arbitration agreements may be unenforceable under federal law. But all is not lost. In some states, state arbitration law can save the day. That means it’s important to know your state laws and to draft choice of law clauses carefully.

Here’s what I mean:

For companies that work extensively with independent contractors, there are lots of good reasons to require that disputes are resolved in arbitration, not in court. One of the biggest advantages of arbitration is the ability to include a class action waiver, requiring any claimant to bring a case on an individual basis only. No class actions. Class claims are the sexiest of all claims to plaintiff’s lawyers. Individual claims are not nearly as lucrative. Or sexy.

The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) embraces arbitration as an enforceable way to resolve disputes. But there’s a big exception to the FAA. It doesn’t apply to transportation workers “engaged in … interstate commerce.” The meaning of that phrase is unclear, and there are lots of lawyers fighting about its scope. Different courts have come to different conclusions, especially regarding last mile delivery drivers and rideshare. Eventually, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on exactly what this phrase means.

But in the meantime, what if your contractors are arguably “engaged in … interstate commerce”? Are you stuck with a lengthy legal battle over whether your arbitration agreement is enforceable under the FAA?

Not necessarily. Don’t forget about state law. Several states have their own laws embracing arbitration as an enforceable way to resolve disputes, and these state laws generally do not have exceptions for transportation workers.

New York is a good example. Courts in New York have upheld arbitration agreements, even when the workers were arguably transportation workers not covered by the FAA.

Choose your state law carefully, especially if your arbitration agreement might be subject to the FAA’s exception for transportation workers. It’s common to include a “choice of law” clause in contracts, but those clauses are often dropped into contracts without anyone thinking about why a certain state’s law should apply. Those clauses really do matter, and the choice of law section should be carefully considered.

When it comes to arbitration agreements, the choice of law clauses should not be viewed as a boilerplate clause to toss in without careful thought.

The ability to choose a particular state’s law is a real superpower. Use it like a sea slug!

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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