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Airplane cargo workers facing forced arbitration get high court pass

The decision broadens the definition of transportation workers, in an expansion of workers’ rights. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court exempted airplane cargo workers from forced arbitration, ruling Monday in favor of a ramp supervisor who sued Southwest Airlines for lost overtime wages. 

Latrice Saxon, whose job entails loading and unloading cargo from planes, initiated the case when Southwest tried to force her into arbitration to sort out her lawsuit over overtime that she said was not paid correctly. 

To the airline's credit, the Federal Arbitration Act requires courts to enforce private arbitration agreements. Saxon claimed, however, that her case met the statute's exemption for seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce from these agreements. 

A federal judge ruled in favor of the airline, but the Seventh Circuit reversed and the Supreme Court unanimously upheld that outcome on Monday.

The question before the court was whether workers who load or unload goods from vehicles that travel in interstate commerce but do not physically transport such goods themselves are interstate transportation workers exempt from the FAA. Companies like Uber, Amazon and Lyft filed amicus briefs in the case, warning the justices of the potential fallout of a decision in this case for large portions of the American workforce that moves goods and people. The justices cited these concerns during oral arguments in March, showing apprehension about making a broad ruling in the case. 

Breaking down each phrase within the statute, the court ruled that airline cargo workers do qualify for the exemption. 

“In sum, text and context point to the same place: Workers, like Saxon, who load cargo on and off airplanes belong to a ‘class of workers in foreign or interstate commerce,’” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.

The decision starts with classifying Saxon as a member of a class of workers. Thomas agreed with Southwest’s argument that section 1 exempts workers based on their conduct, not the conduct of their employers, but said Saxon’s work at Southwest allows her to qualify as a member of a class of workers. 

“Saxon is therefore a member of a ‘class of workers’ based on what she does at Southwest, not what Southwest does generally,” Thomas wrote. 

Then Thomas moves on to say that airplane cargo loaders are engaged in foreign or interstate commerce under section 1. 

“Any class of workers directly involved in transporting goods across state or international borders falls within §1’s exemption,” Thomas wrote. “Airplane cargo loaders are such a class.” 

Thomas applies the court’s 2001 precedent in Circuit City v. Adams to this case. Circuit City used two canons to find that most workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce can be forced into arbitration, confining the section one exemption to transportation workers. 

“While we did not provide a complete definition of ‘transportation worker,’ we indicated that any such worker must at least play a direct and ‘necessary role in the free flow of goods’ across borders,” Thomas wrote. “Put another way, transportation workers must be actively ‘engaged in transportation’ of those goods across borders via the channels of foreign or interstate commerce. Cargo loaders exhibit this central feature of a transportation worker.”

Shay Dvoretzky, a Skadden Arps attorney representing Southwest, did not return a request for comment, nor did Jennifer Bennett, an attorney with Gupta Wessler representing Saxon. 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the case. 

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