Access to Justice

Bissonnette v. LePage Bakeries Park St., LLC

In Bissonnette v. LePage Bakeries Park St., LLC, the Supreme Court considered whether the Federal Arbitration Act exempts workers who are actively engaged in interstate transportation but are not employed by a company in the transportation “industry.”

Case Summary

Neal Bissonnette and Tyler Wojnarowski are delivery truck drivers for Flowers Foods, Inc., which manufactures baked goods for sale in grocery stores across the country. Alleging that Flower Foods misclassified them—and many others—as independent contractors to avoid complying with state and federal wage laws, Bissonnette and Wojnarowski filed a class action lawsuit against Flower Foods in 2019.

Flowers Foods moved to compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), a hundred-year-old law that generally requires courts to enforce agreements to arbitrate disputes outside of litigation. Both the district court and the Second Circuit sided with Flower Foods and ordered the parties to arbitrate, rejecting Bissonnette and Wojnarowski’s argument that they fall within the FAA’s exemption for “transportation workers” and thus should get their day in court.

Bissonnette and Wojnarowski asked the Supreme Court to hear their case, and the Court agreed to do so. The Court resolved the question of whether, to be exempt from the FAA, a class of workers that is actively engaged in interstate transportation must also be employed by a company in the transportation “industry.”

On November 20, 2023, CAC filed an amicus brief in support of Bissonnette and Wojnarowski, urging the Court to reject the atextual “industry” requirement imposed on the FAA exemption by the court below. Our brief made three main points.

First, our brief explained that the ordinary public meaning of the FAA exemption makes clear that the question of whether a person falls within the exemption turns on whether that person is part of a class of workers who do transportation work, not whether they work for a transportation company. The exemption applies to the “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Dictionaries from the time of the FAA’s enactment in 1925 defined the key words of the exemption’s residual clause—the key clause for purposes of this case, italicized above—by reference to the actual work performed by the class of workers, not the industry of their employers.

For instance, a “worker” was defined as one who “works,” “performs,” “creates,” “produces,” “contrives.” And “engaged” referred to the actual work that the “class of workers” “engaged” in—not the work of their employers. Finally, the term “class” simply denoted a group of persons or things united by a common characteristic or attribute. None of these terms included an implicit “industry” requirement.

Second, our brief explained why the reasoning of the court below with respect to the other words of the FAA exemption was wrong. The court below reasoned that both the terms “seamen” and “railroad employees” locate the “transportation worker” in the context of a transportation industry, and accordingly imposed a transportation-industry limitation on the residual clause. But in fact, in 1925, neither the long-standing definition of “seaman” in the U.S. Code, nor that term’s ordinary meaning as evinced by contemporaneous dictionaries, supported restricting its scope to any particular industry. A seaman was simply a person who worked on a vessel—it did not matter if the vessel owner was a person or company operating in the oil or lumber or even the baked goods industry.

Third, and finally, our brief argued that imposing an atextual “industry” requirement on the FAA exemption’s residual clause would be at odds with the clause’s history. Congress excluded “contracts of employment of seamen” from the FAA to avoid unsettling then-established statutory dispute-resolution schemes like the one for seamen under the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872. The Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872 specified a dispute resolution process that applied to “any question whatsoever” in labor disputes between seamen and management, regardless of the industry of the owner of the ship. If the FAA’s “seamen” exemption had covered only seamen on board vessels owned by companies in the “transportation industry,” many seamen would have been subjected to two conflicting dispute-resolution schemes—the FAA and the Shipping Commissioners Act. As a result, these seamen would have been deprived of important procedural protections offered by the Shipping Commissioners Act—precisely the result Congress sought to avoid when it adopted the FAA exemption for transportation workers.

This case came down to a simple question: are truck drivers transportation workers covered by the FAA exemption’s residual clause? As our brief demonstrated, under the original meaning of that provision, the answer is straightforward—yes.

In April 2024, the Court unanimously ruled in favor of Petitioners, holding that transportation workers do not need to demonstrate that they work in the so-called “transportation industry” in order to be exempt from the FAA. Echoing the straightforward textual analysis we presented in our amicus brief, the Court explained that, as the Chief Justice put it, the exemption “says nothing to direct courts to consider the industry of a worker’s employer.” As a result, the delivery truck drivers in this case—who are plainly engaged in transportation work, albeit for a baked goods company—will be able to get their day in court, rather than being forced into a mandatory arbitration proceeding.

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