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New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira

Justia Summary

Oliveira is a driver for a trucking company, under an agreement that calls him an independent contractor and contains a mandatory arbitration provision. Oliveira filed a class action alleging that the company denies its drivers lawful wages. The company invoked the Federal Arbitration Act, arguing that questions regarding arbitrability should be resolved by the arbitrator. The First Circuit and Supreme Court agreed that a court should determine whether the Act's section 1 exclusion applies before ordering arbitration. A court’s authority to compel arbitration under the Act does not extend to all private contracts. Section 2 provides that the Act applies only when the agreement is “a written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce.” Section 1 provides that “nothing” in the Act “shall apply” to “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” The sequencing is significant. A “delegation clause,” giving the arbitrator authority to decide threshold questions of arbitrability is merely a specialized type of arbitration agreement and is enforceable under sections 3 and 4 only if it appears in a contract consistent with section 2 that does not trigger section 1’s exception. Because “contract of employment” refers to any agreement to perform work, Oliveira’s contract falls within that exception. At the time of the Act’s 1925 adoption, the phrase “contract of employment” was not a term of art; dictionaries treated “employment” as generally synonymous with “work," not requiring a formal employer-employee relationship. Congress used the term “contracts of employment” broadly.

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