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Wonder Bread truck drivers seek exemption from mandatory arbitration

The U.S. Supreme Court building.

Bissonnette v. LePage Bakeries Park St. brings the justices yet another case under a statute with which they are all too familiar – the Federal Arbitration Act. As regular readers will know, the court in the last few decades has heard numerous cases under the FAA. The great majority of those cases have involved arguments, by workers or customers, that for one reason or another courts should not enforce a pre-dispute arbitration agreement against them. And in almost all of those cases the justices, often by closely divided votes, have accepted the arguments of businesses to force them into arbitration.

This case involves a different part of the statute, which carves out an exemption for transportation workers –specifically, for “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Because workers in this type of litigation always prefer to avoid mandatory arbitration, workers typically argue that they are transportation workers, and thus that they are covered by the exemption, so that the FAA does not force them into arbitration. In that context, focusing on the language of the exemption, the justices have been much more receptive to the pleas of employees.

The workers in this particular case (including Neil Bissonnette) are commercial truck drivers, who transport packaged goods manufactured by Flowers Foods, best known for its production of Wonder Bread. When Bissonnette (among others) filed a class action lawsuit against Flowers and LePage Bakeries, a Flowers distributor, Flowers and LePage argued that the FAA compelled arbitration (which would vitiate the class action).

The lower courts agreed, reasoning that because the truck drivers do not work in the transportation industry, the exemption does not protect them from the FAA.

The drivers stand or fall on their reading of the text. They argue that commercial truck drivers are directly parallel to “seamen” and “railroad employees,” a “class of workers engaged in … commerce,” just a different mode of commerce than sea or rail. Notably, because the statute refers to a “class of workers engaged in … commerce,” the drivers argue that the characteristics of their employer are irrelevant. All that matters is that the workers themselves are engaged in the interstate transportation of goods, just like seamen and railroad employees.

The employers rely much more on the background of the FAA and of the exemption. Their brief begins with a lengthy historical argument that the motivation for the exemption was a set of separate regulatory regimes protecting seamen and railway workers (federal maritime legislation and the Railway Labor Act), legislation that has no parallel for workers like the truck drivers before the court. Against that backdrop, the employers argue that the nature of their business is central to the application of the exemption. And because they are not in the transportation industry – but rather baking – those that transport their goods cannot be transportation workers, and the exemption from the FAA cannot reach them.

To bring that contextual argument into the words of the statute, the employers rely on the interpretive canon of “eiusdem generis,” a maxim the justices previously have used to interpret this same statute. The rule of eiusdem generis counsels that a catchall at the end of a phrase (“workers engaged in … commerce”) should be interpreted as falling within the “same class” as the specific examples that it follows – here, “seamen” and “railroad employees.” Because seamen and railroad employees are in the transportation industry, the employers argue, the court should not read the catchall to run more broadly to reach workers outside that industry.

The drivers pointedly note the odd consequences of applying the employers’ reading in a world in which retailers like Amazon and Walmart operate multinational delivery networks. To take the employers at their word, all the truck drivers for Amazon would be covered by the FAA, because Amazon is not in the transportation industry, although their competitors at Federal Express, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service would not.

The justices have a lot of experience with the FAA, so my guess is they’ll get pretty quickly to the point in the argument on Tuesday and that we’ll have a good line on the outcome by the end of the argument. You’ll hear more from me then.

Recommended Citation: Ronald Mann, Wonder Bread truck drivers seek exemption from mandatory arbitration, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 16, 2024, 2:50 PM),