Bissonnette v. LePage Bakeries Park St., LLC

Issues 

Does exemption from the Federal Arbitration Act depend on the specific industry that employs transportation workers, or on the nature of the work they perform?

Oral argument: 

This case asks the Court to determine whether the Federal Arbitration Act’s (FAA) exemption includes employees who do not work within the transportation industry but conduct work related to transportation. Employee Petitioners argue that the Court should not adopt the Second Circuit's interpretation that industry is dispositive because doing so would be inconsistent with the ruling in Saxon. Additionally, Petitioners argue that Congress specifically phrased the statute to include all workers whose work aided the transportation industry. Employer Respondents, on the other hand, counter that the Court should consider industry as dispositive because this would be consistent with the ruling in Circuit City. Further, Respondents argue that workers who historically fell under similar acts passed by Congress have been those who worked within the transportation industry and—in the case of seamen—had employment contracts that distinguished them as such. This case touches on important questions regarding discrepant treatment of employees and the availability of arbitration as an alternative to judicial action.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether, to be exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act, a class of workers that is actively engaged in interstate transportation must also be employed by a company in the transportation industry.

Facts 

In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) to enforce employer-employee agreements to arbitrate; however, the act excluded “seamen, railroad employees, and any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Reuters, US Supreme Court to decide scope of arbitration exemption for transportation workers. Previously, the Supreme Court flatly defined this category of exempt workers to be those who worked in the “transportation industry;” however, this classification has since sprouted a split between circuit courts. Id.

Neal Bissonnette and Tyler Wojnarowski (“Bissonnette”) were officially employed as independent contractors who, in addition to performing other tasks, transported goods in trucks for Flowers Food and two of its subsidiaries—LePage and CK Sales—from Flowers’s warehouses to various stores in Connecticut. Reuters, Trucker or baker? Appeals court splits over Supreme Court arbitration precedent. In 2019, Bissonnette brought an action against Flowers Foods and its two subsidiaries (“LePage”) in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, claiming that all three violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and Connecticut Law. Bissonnette v. LePage Bakeries Park St., LLC at 194. Specifically, Bissonnette claimed that all three withheld wages and failed to pay overtime. Id. at 194. LePage, in turn, argued for dismissal and filed a motion to compel arbitration. Id. at 195.

At the District Court, Bissonnette argued that the nature of their work was essential to transportation of Flowers products and therefore they fall within the FAA exemption from arbitration. Id. at 198. Conversely, LePage argued that, by virtue of being independent contractors, Bissonnette were not employed in the “transportation industry.” Id. at 199–200. Further, LePage argued that Bissonnette did much more than simply transport goods and therefore their employment is more managerial rather than related to the transportation industry. Id. The District Court determined that Bissonnettes’ work was not sufficiently involved in the transportation industry and construed the FAA exemption narrowly, granting LePage’s motion to compel arbitration. Id. at 201.

Bissonnette appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, arguing that the District Court erred in finding that Bissonnette were not included under the transportation worker exemption of the FAA. Bissonnette v. LePage Bakeries Park St., LLC at 657. The Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling, holding that Bissonnette worked in the general bakery industry rather than a transportation industry because their customers are not “buying the movement of the baked goods,” they are buying the products themselves. Id. at 661. The Second Circuit explained that workers in the transportation industry were exempt from the arbitration requirement only when their industry “pegs it charges chiefly to the movement of goods or passengers, and the industry’s predominant source of commercial revenue is generated by that movement.” Id.

Accordingly, on March 3, 2023, Bissonnette petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to hear this case. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on September 29, 2023.

Analysis 

CONGRESSIONAL INTENT

Bissonnette argues that in the FAA exemption, Congress emphasizes the kind of work that employees perform rather than the industry that they belong to. Brief for Petitioners, Neal Bissonette, et al. at 19. Specifically, Bissonnette emphasizes the word “engaged in,” and contends that, at the time of the FAA’s enactment, workers fell under the FAA exception if their work contributed to transportation in any way. Id. at 23. For example of the “seamen” exemption, Bissonnette explains that, in addition to transporting goods, seamen also maintained the ship. Id. at 24–25. Moreover, Bissonnette claims that seamen were considered to be workers within the transportation industry even though their work facilitating transportation may not have been the industry’s primary source of revenue. Id. at 22–24. Therefore, Bissonnette posits that, because Congress included seamen in the FAA exemption, Congress must not have intended for industry to be dispositive; rather, as long as workers were contributing to transportation in some way, Congress intended that they be exempt from the FAA. Id. at 28. Bissonnette extends this reasoning to railroad employees as well. Id. at 28–31. Bissonnette claims that the railroad industry was historically associated with construction and maintenance of the rail itself; while workers were indispensable to transportation, it was known that their duties were not limited to only transportation. Id. Therefore, Bissonnette insists that Congress could not have intended for industry alone to be a deciding factor in granting an exemption, it was the work that mattered most. Id. In fact, Bissonnette claims that, historically, industry has been wholly irrelevant in determining whether the FAA exemption applied. Id. at 16–17. Bissonnette explains that many companies in 1925 manufactured, sold, and transported their own goods and therefore did not belong solely to the transportation industry. Id. at 35–37. Bissonnette argues that, if workers from those industries were exempt from the FAA requirement, Bissonnette and Wojnarowski should be as well. Id.

LePage argues that the FAA exemption was written in a way that exempted only certain “categories” of workers, and that industry is therefore indispensable to the exemption determination. Brief for Respondents, LePage Bakeries Park St., LLC at 15. Specifically, LePage contends that, at the time of the FAA’s enactment, Congress had already distinguished classes of workers by industry. Id. at 16–17. LePage emphasizes that, for example, around 1925, Congress passed other statutes that placed seamen in a separate category from fisherman and other maritime professionals because Congress interpreted the term “seamen” to encompass transportation workers. Id. at 17. Further, LePage explains that seamen who worked aboard trading ships had employment contracts that designated them as employees within the transportation industry. Id. at 18. Therefore, LePage contends that Congress could additionally distinguish seamen involved in transportation from other seamen through such contracts. Id. LePage insists that Congress also viewed railroad workers as working in the transportation industry. Id. at 19. In fact, LePage contends that Congress had similarly distinguished railroad workers who engaged in transportation from those who performed maintenance and construction on the rails. Id. LePage also counters that industry has historically been an important consideration for Congress because Congress has repeatedly referred to the railroad industry as being essential to the smooth functioning of interstate commerce. Id. at 22–23. LePage explains that Congress’s many acts reforming the seaman and railroad industry came as responses to brutal working conditions. Id. at 24. Accordingly, LePage argues that because Congress has repeatedly attributed poor working conditions to the “class” of seamen and railroad workers, industry has always been on Congress’s mind when drafting such acts as the FAA. Id. at 24.

JUDICIAL CONSISTENCY

Bissonnette argues that the Court has historically placed more weight on the worker’s duties than on their industry in considering FAA exemption cases. Brief for Petitioners at 19–20. Specifically, Bissonnette cites the case Southwest Airlines v. Saxon which held that Southwest Airline workers who mostly handled luggage were nonetheless exempt from the FAA’s arbitration requirement because their line of work facilitated passengers’ travel. Id. at 33. Bissonnette reasons that industry is not a dispositive factor as long as the employee’s work is indispensable to travel. Id. Accordingly, Bissonnette argues that the Court should apply the same standard to the case at hand as it did in Saxon. Id. at 33. Specifically, Bissonnette insists that, even though Bissonnette and Wojnarowski performed managerial work in addition to their trucking, the managerial work was necessary to facilitate transportation and keep their trucking business afloat. Id. at 34. Bissonnette therefore claims that their work was no different than that done by Southwest Airline workers in Saxon, and that the Court must maintain consistency and likewise grant them an exemption from the FAA arbitration requirement. Id. Bissonnette further states that Saxon held that “any” class of workers can fall under the FAA exemption as long as they are involved in transportation. Id. at 33. Accordingly, Bissonnette maintains that this wording is indicative of the irrelevance of industry in the court’s considerations. Id. Therefore, Bissonnette urges that there is no reason why independent contractor truckers would not qualify for FAA exemption. Id. at 38. Bissonnette concludes that any other standard would be inconsistent with the law and largely unworkable, especially because imposing this new standard necessitates a “fact intensive inquiry” into whether an employee’s industry is sufficiently involved in transportation. Id. at 37.


LePage argues that the Court has historically interpreted the FAA exemption narrowly to include only workers in industries that derive the majority of their income from transporting goods. Brief for Respondents at 16. LePage emphasizes that courts generally tended to hold that industry is more dispositive than the type of work that employees perform. Id. at 30–31. In fact, LePage insists that Saxon recognized that the only commonality between “seamen” and “railroad employees” was that both were engaged in the transportation industry and their workers were crucial to the smooth operation of interstate commerce. Id. LePage cites to the Court’s opinion in Saxon which admitted that not all seamen would have engaged in transportation at the time of the FAA’s enactment. Id. at 30. LePage also challenges Bissonnette’s contention that their line of work is akin to the Southwest Airline workers in Saxon. Id. at 31. Specifically, LePage argues that, at most, Bissonnette’s customers will be displeased if their shipment arrives late or does not arrive at all. Id. Therefore, LePage maintains that the extent of injury to interstate commerce is almost non-existent if Bissonnette does not perform their trucking responsibilities. Id. Accordingly, LePage urges that Bissonnette’s role in the transportation is nowhere near as important as the role of airline workers in Saxon, or seamen and railroad workers. Id. LePage further cites Circuit City Stores Inc. v. Adams which held that the connection between seamen and railroad employees was the nature of their industry and that the interpretation of the FAA’s exemption should be narrowed to maintain this narrow focus on industry alone. Id. at 33–35. LePage therefore objects to the idea that imposing the Second Circuit’s standard would create discrepancies in the law. Id. Rather, LePage states that courts will still continue to acknowledge the day-to-day work of employees, just as Saxon acknowledged that not all seamen perform duties that support the transportation industry. Id. at 30–31. Therefore, LePage proposes that the Second Circuit’s standard would make industry a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for determining whether a worker falls under the FAA exemption. Id. at 44. On the other hand, LePage warns that interpreting the FAA exemption broadly to place more emphasis on an employee’s work would be inconsistent with past law and would negate the language in the exemption. Id. at 45–46.

Discussion 

PREDICTABLE EXEMPTION FROM THE FEDERAL ARBITRATION ACT

In support of Bissonnette, Public Justice argues that determining whether a transportation worker is exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) based on whether that worker crossed state lines while transporting goods would result in courts unpredictably and arbitrarily exempting transportation workers based on their delivery routes. Brief of Amicus Curiae Public Justice, in Support of Petitioners at 20. The National Employment Law Project (“NELP”) and National Employment Lawyers Association, writing in support of Bissonnette, further adds that interstate commerce depends on last-leg transportation workers to move goods from centralized warehouses to local stores. Brief of Amici Curiae National Employment Law Project and National Employment Lawyers Association, in Support of Petitioners at 8. The NELP also argues that imposing a transportation-industry requirement for workers in order to be exempted from the FAA would keep millions of workers involved in transporting goods for non-transportation companies from being exempted, despite performing similar work to those who transport goods for transportation companies. Id. at 16-17.

In support of LePage, the California Employment Law Council (“CELC”) counters that determining whether workers are exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act based on their “engage[ment] in transporting interstate goods” could exempt non-transportation workers from the Act merely for using goods transported between states. Brief of Amicus Curiae California Employment Law Council, in Support of Respondents at 7-8. The CELC additionally argues that interstate commerce only consists of transporting goods from distributors to centralized warehouses, and that transportation workers moving goods intrastate cannot rely on the out-of-state origin of the goods to qualify for exemption from the FAA. Id. at 9-10, 17. The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America (COCUSA) and others, writing in support of LePage, contends that requiring workers who perform similar duties to seamen and railroad employees to be exempted from the FAA would allow courts to easily determine which workers should be exempted. Brief of Amici Curiae Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America et al., in Support of Respondents at 18-19.

OFFERING EMPLOYEES EFFICIENT AND EQUITABLE DISPUTE RESOLUTION

In support of Bissonnette, Illinois and other states argue that workers exempted from the FAA enjoy more transparent dispute resolution processes through litigation than workers covered by the FAA do through arbitration, and that state governments rely on transparent dispute resolution processes to identify companies systemically violating employment law and target such companies for enforcement actions. Brief of Amici Curiae Illinois et al., in Support of Petitioners at 16, 21-22. Illinois further argues that requiring courts to evaluate a transportation-industry requirement to exempt workers from the FAA would delay dispute resolution while necessitating expensive and time-consuming factual analysis of whether the workers are employed by a transportation company. Id. at 11-12. The NELP adds that employers could easily circumvent a transportation-industry requirement by not writing into their employment contracts that their workers are employees of transportation companies, thus giving them final say over whether their workers must resort to arbitration or litigation. Brief of Amici Curiae National Employment Law Project at 17-18.

In support of LePage, Professors Samuel Estreicher and David Sherwyn counter that arbitration permits workers to pursue their legal claims when the cost of litigation would otherwise prohibit them from doing so. Brief of Amici Curiae Professors Samuel Estreicher and David Sherwyn, in Support of Respondents at 16-17. The COCUSA adds that arbitration offers workers a more efficient means of dispute resolution than litigation and points out that employees generally are more successful in arbitration than in court. Brief of Amici Curiae Chamber of Commerce et al. at 22-23. The Independent Bakers Association, writing in support of LePage, contends that a transportation-industry requirement would allow courts to quickly assess whether workers are exempt from the FAA, as well as render decisions on whether workers are exempt without having to consider all of the tasks they perform as part of their work. Brief of Amicus Curiae Independent Bakers Association, in Support of Respondents at 18-19.

Conclusion 

Written by:

Anna Temchenko

Nicholas Sola

Edited by:

Erik Olson

Acknowledgments 

Additional Resources