Arbitrator or Court: Who Decides Who Decides?

New prime v olioviera - who decides who decides

Who decides who decides? That’s as fun to write as it is to think about.

On TV, sometimes the parties agree that Judge Judy can decide. (Here’s how that works.) But sometimes, the parties disagree over who decides. What happens then? Who decides who decides?

That’s an issue the Supreme Court is going to consider, as it relates to arbitration agreements for independent contractors in the transportation industry.

The dispute stems from an arbitration agreement between Dominic Oliviera, an independent contractor (although he’s not so sure of that), and New Prime, Inc., a trucking company. Their arbitration agreement says that all disputes go to arbitration, including those about the scope of what gets arbitrated. In other words, the arbitrator gets to decide whether something is subject to arbitration. (That’s not an unusual clause, by the way.)

Our protagonist Mr. O tried to bring a lawsuit, claiming wage and hour violations by New Prime. In response, New Prime pointed to the contract and said the issue had to be arbitrated. Not to be outwitted, however, Mr. O then pointed to an exception in the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA is the federal law favoring arbitration of disputes, but the FAA contains an exception. The FAA doesn’t apply to employees in the transportation industry.

I hope I haven’t bored you because here’s where it gets interesting.

If the FAA exception applies, Mr. O doesn’t have to arbitrate and he can go to court with his wage and hour claims instead.

But the exception only applies (it seems) if he is an employee. If he’s an independent contractor, the FAA should still apply, which means that New Prime can still force him into arbitration.

Now here’s where it gets really weird.

The agreement says that the arbitrator gets to decide whether the matter is subject to arbitration. But Mr. O says he’s an employee and therefore he’s not bound by the arbitration agreement. If he’s not bound by the arbitration agreement, then New Prime can’t force him to go to the arbitrator to decide whether the dispute is subject to arbitration. So, who decides who decides?

Still with me? Here’s the bottom line. There are two important questions that the Supreme Court has agreed to consider in this case:

(1) Whether a dispute over applicability of the Federal Arbitration Act’s Section 1 exemption is an arbitrability issue that must be resolved in arbitration pursuant to a valid delegation clause; and
(2) whether the FAA’s Section 1 exemption, which applies on its face only to “contracts of employment,” is inapplicable to independent contractor agreements.

For businesses using mandatory arbitration agreements, these are important issues.

Last week, in this post, we addressed Issue #2. But Issue #1 is also pretty important for businesses with arbitration agreements in the transportation industry. If the validity of those agreements is contested, who decides whether they are valid?

If the arbitrator gets to decide what is subject to arbitration, the realist deep inside you (he’s roommates with the pessimist) expects that the arbitrator will keep the case. In other words, the most likely ruling by the arbitrator — who is paid by the parties by the hour to conduct the arbitration — is that the matter is going to be subject to arbitration. After all, that’s what the contract says, and if the contract didn’t apply, then the arbitrator never would have gotten involved in the first place.

This case won’t be decided until next year.

For more information on independent contractor issues and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2018, join me in Cincinnati on March 28 for the 2018 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: A Time for Change. Attendance is complimentary, but advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend,, and list my name in your RSVP so I can be sure to look for you.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Go Carts or Bumper Cars? NLRB Asks Court to Fix Its Browning-Ferris Blunder

Browning-Ferris joint employment go cartThe two most fun activities at amusement parks (aside from skee-ball) are Go Carts and Bumper Cars. This is scientific fact. Go Carts are fun because you can go fast, weave around, and drive in circles — all without getting honked at. Bumper Cars are fun because, well, you get to bump people.

The NLRB seems stuck on the Go Cart track, going round and round, when it would rather be in the Bumper Cars.

Last week, we reported on the Board’s sudden decision to vacate its important Hy-Brand decision, issued in December 2017. Hy-Brand was important to businesses because the decision restored sanity and workability to the NLRA’s test for joint employment.

But by vacating the Hy-Brand decision, the dreadful Browning-Ferris standard went back into effect, Continue reading

Browning-Ferris Is Back! NLRB Flip-Flops Again, Reinstates 2015 Joint Employment Decision!

989BD1FE-B520-4198-87E3-1A61F3AD50E0Holy smokes, Batman! This morning I wrote that the NLRB’s new joint employment test, from its December 2017 decision in Hy-Brand, was safe.  I was completely wrong.

A few hours ago, the NLRB reversed itself, vacated its order in Hy-Brand, and reinstated Browning-Ferris.  Whaaaaaat?

The NLRB issued this press release today:

The National Labor Relations Board (3-0, Member Emanuel did not participate) today issued an Order vacating the Board’s decision in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd. and Brandt Construction Co., 365 NLRB No. 156 (2017), in light of the determination by the Board’s Designated Agency Ethics Official that Member Emanuel is, and should have been, disqualified from participating in this proceeding. Because the Board’s Decision and Order in Hy-Brand has been vacated, the overruling of the Board’s decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015), set forth therein is of no force or effect.

The sudden self-reversal was prompted Continue reading

Is NLRB’s Joint Employment Decision In (“the”) Jeopardy?


[Note to self & readers, 4:45pm 2/26/18: I spoke too soon. Hours after I published this post, the NLRB reversed itself and vacated the Hy-Brand decision, which means the 2015 Browning-Ferris joint employment standard is back. Read more here.]

Here’s the original post, but sadly my predictions below turned out to be wrong…

There are many inspectors whose names we know for their diligent (and entertaining) crime-fighting exploits. There’s Inspector Clouseau, from the Pink Panther series; Inspector Gadget, from the Inspector Gadget series; and now Inspector David Berry, from the “Office of Inspector General” [sic] at the NLRB. (I do not know what happened to the “the” in such Office’s name, but sources tell me it was stolen by Ohio State University. More on that below.)

On February 9, Inspector Berry released a memo arguing that Continue reading

NLRB Smells Something Rotten, Seeks Input on Major Misclassification Decision


Screenshot from

A flight from Dubai to Amsterdam made an emergency landing last week after a fight broke out over a passenger’s excessive flatulence. The two Dutchmen sitting next to the flatulator asked him to cut it out, but he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) stop spreading his perfumery around the cabin. A fist fight broke out and the pilot diverted the flying stinkship to Vienna, where several passengers were removed. Read more here.

Something smells rotten to the NLRB as well, four months after an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled that independent contractor misclassification, by itself, can be an unfair Continue reading

Bad News for Businesses: California May Rewrite Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee

Shark california independent contractor misclassification

California businesses already have to cope with the threat of earthquakes, wildfires, Sharknados, and the craziest employment laws in all the land. The California Supreme Court may be about to make things even harder for businesses that use independent contractors.

For years, disputes over whether someone is an independent contractor or employee under California wage and hour law have been analyzed under the test used in S.G. Borello & Sons, which is a hybrid test combining elements of the Right to Control Test with elements of the Economic Realities Test. It is a multi-factor balancing test.

That may be about to change.

Continue reading

Will Changes to the Tax Code Reduce Claims of Independent Contractor Misclassification?

Unicorn independent contractor misclassification

Ha ha. Wishful thinking.

By now, we’ve all heard that the new tax code provides a 20% tax deduction for many small businesses, including potentially independent contractors. (More info here.) As a result, some workers might prefer to be called contractors instead of employees to take advantage of the new deduction. Contractor status may be particularly appealing to workers who don’t need health insurance or other employee benefits. But, as we covered here, it doesn’t matter what a worker wants. The facts of the relationship determine a worker’s classification, no matter what the parties want it to be.

Don’t expect this change in the tax law to mean that independent contractor misclassification claims are going away. They’re not. Continue reading