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Justices exempt bakery-truck drivers from arbitration requirement

The justices on Friday ruled in favor of a group of truck drivers who transport goods for Wonder Bread in their arbitration dispute. Bissonnette v. LePage Bakeries Park St. is another of the court’s numerous cases interpreting the Federal Arbitration Act’s command that courts enforce mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements. Bissonnette involves an exception from the FAA for any “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” and the question in Bissonnette  is whether that exception turns on the nature of the work the employees do or instead on the nature of their employer’s business. The workers here drive delivery trucks, carrying (among other things), Wonder Bread. They argue that they are transportation workers, because they drive trucks for a living; the employers argue that they are not, because they work in the bakery industry.

Friday’s decision in favor of the workers came in a short unanimous opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts started by pointing out that the court always has limited the exemption to “transportation workers,” reflecting the court’s view that the “general phrase ‘class of workers engaged in … commerce’ is controlled and defined by reference to the specific categories ‘seamen’ and ‘railroad employees’ that precede it.”

He then noted that the court’s most recent decision in the area (involving baggage handlers for Southwest Airlines) “expressly declined to adopt an ‘industry-wide’ approach of the sort [the employers] advance here,” largely because the statute’s “language focuses on the performance of work rather than the industry of the employer.” Pointing to the examples of Amazon and Walmart – “which both sell products of their own and transport products sold by third parties” – Roberts sugggested that determining whether any particular employer is in the transportation industry often would be fact-intensive, requiring “[e]xtensive discovery” and “[m]ini-trials” that would make FAA litigation unacceptably “slow” and “expensive.”

Finally, Roberts rejected the argument (discussed with some interest by Justice Brett Kavanaugh at the oral argument) that the exemption should be limited to a particular industry because the references in the statute to “seamen” and “railroad employees” matched industry-specific regulatory systems that were in place when Congress adopted the FAA in 1925. Roberts dismissed that argument out of hand, emphasizing how “strange” it would be “to read the conspicuous absence of … industry-specific language in § 1 as a sign that Congress defined the exemption on an industrywide basis.”

In sum, Roberts concluded, “[a] transportation worker need not work in the transportation industry to fall within the exemption from the FAA.” Accordingly, the court unanimously reversed the contrary decision of the court of appeals.

Recommended Citation: Ronald Mann, Justices exempt bakery-truck drivers from arbitration requirement, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 12, 2024, 4:50 PM),