In New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, petitioner New Prime Inc. was an interstate trucking company, and respondent Dominic Oliveira was one of its drivers. Oliveira worked under an operating agreement that called him an independent contractor and contained a mandatory arbitration provision. When Oliveira filed a class action alleging that New Prime denied its drivers lawful wages, New Prime asked the court to invoke its statutory authority under the Federal Arbitration Act to compel arbitration.
Oliveira countered that the court lacked authority, because §1 of the Act excepts from arbitration disputes involving “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers. New Prime insisted that any question regarding §1’s applicability belonged to the arbitrator alone to resolve, or, assuming the court could address the question, that “contracts of employment” referred only to contracts that establish an employer-employee relationship and not to contracts with independent contractors. The District Court and First Circuit agreed with Oliveira, and the Supreme Court affirmed, holding that a court should determine whether a §1 exclusion applies before ordering arbitration.
A court’s authority to compel arbitration under the Act does not extend to all private contracts, no matter how clearly the contract expresses a preference for arbitration. In relevant part, §1 states 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.”
For a court to invoke its statutory authority under the Act to stay litigation and force arbitration, it must first know if the parties’ agreement is excluded from the Act’s coverage by the terms of §1. This sequencing is significant, because it means the court and not the arbitrator decides this issue, unlike other issues, which may be delegable to the arbitrator.
The issue for the Supreme Court thus became whether the Act’s term “contract of employment” referred to any agreement to perform work or applied strictly to contracts of employment. The Court held that Oliveira’s agreement with New Prime falls within §1’s exception.
The unanimous opinion relied on the Act’s original meaning for its decision. Citing dictionaries, statutes, and rulings from the era, Justice Gorsuch concluded that “contract of employment” was understood to encompass “work agreements involving independent contractors.” At the time of the Act’s adoption in 1925, the phrase “contract of employment” was not a term of art, and dictionaries tended to treat “employment” more or less as a synonym for “work.” Contemporaneous legal authorities provide no evidence that a “contract of employment” necessarily signaled a formal employer-employee relationship. Evidence that Congress used the term “contracts of employment” broadly can be found in its choice of the neighboring term “workers,” a term that easily embraces independent contractors.
New Prime also made a policy argument that the Court should order arbitration to further Congress’ effort to counteract judicial hostility to arbitration and establish a favorable federal policy toward arbitration agreements. Justice Gorsuch stated that courts, however, are not free to pave over bumpy statutory texts in the name of more expeditiously advancing a policy goal. Rather, the Court should respect “the limits up to which Congress was prepared” to go when adopting the Arbitration Act.
Finally, the Court declined to address New Prime’s suggestion that it order arbitration anyway under its inherent authority to stay litigation in favor of an alternative dispute resolution mechanism of the parties’ choosing.
Justice Ginsburg, in a concurring opinion, explicitly agreed with the Court’s unanimous opinion that words should be interpreted as taking their ordinary meaning at the time Congress enacted the statute. However, she also reasoned that Congress may design legislation to govern changing times and circumstances, perhaps foreshadowing future disputes between judicial philosophies.