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Supreme Court weighs worker definitions in Southwest Airlines case

The Supreme Court of the United States is held in Washington, DC on October 4, 2021.

Supreme Court, seen in Washington, DC on October 4, 2021.

The Supreme Court of the United States on Monday ruled oral argument in a case involving a Southwest Airlines employee who claimed she was forced to pay wages and work overtime by the Dallas-based company.

Case, Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxonis the Monday issue that Justice Amy Coney Barrett reuse yourself for participating in lower court proceedings.

The case is the latest in a string of disputes that have been subject to arbitration to the nation’s highest court under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Judges were asked to consider whether an airport queuing supervisor could be considered an “interstate commerce” employee and therefore have the power to sever the clause in her contract. .

Latrice Saxon worked at Chicago Midway Airport as a supervisor for the ramp staff loading and unloading baggage and cargo on board. She had previously filed a federal claim for unpaid wages and overtime, and Southwest refused, citing Saxon’s contract that she had to submit it to private arbitration instead of using a lawsuit. civil litigation to settle wage claims.

The FAA generally maintains arbitration agreements such as the one in question. However, Saxon argued that she was a “worker… engaged in commerce” and was exempted by the FAA from contracts with “sailors, railroad workers or any other class of workers.” otherwise engaged in foreign or interstate commerce”. The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had previously sided with Saxon.

Southwest appealed on the grounds that the exception only applies to interstate “transportation workers,” a term developed by the courts that, notably, does not appear in the statute itself.

“No, I don’t have any proof.”

Answering a series of probing questions from the Chief Justice John Roberts on the function that border crossing plays in the airline’s preferred legal test, attorneys Shay Dvoretzky outlines Southwest’s general theory of the case regarding class characteristics and what constitutes a “typical” worker in cases like these.

Dovretzky likened the test the airline wanted to a rebuttal from Track 9 about “dull knives,” saying that “knives, like a knife, are very sharp” and that “you There may be a dull knife, but it is still a knife.”

“You can have a sailor who doesn’t cross borders,” continued Dvoretzky, but says sailors as a class have a “central feature” of sailing on ships that “frequently cross borders.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch skeptical of Southwest, suggesting an analogy that he says has a serious impact on the company’s position.

“What about the guy who unloads interstate commerce from the railroad and then delivers it to a local carrier?” Justice is inclined to the text asked. “That person. And if that person is exempt from that conduct, then why wouldn’t the same person unload from an aircraft in the same location?”

Dvoretzky replied that he did not believe such a railroad employee would be exempt from arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act.

“What proof do you have of that?” Gorsuch said, while repeatedly interrupting Dvoretzky’s words as he tried to answer. Finally, the lawyer replied to Gorsuch, “No, I don’t have any proof.”

Gorsuch then posed a related question, asking: “Why don’t we naturally understand that someone loading and unloading goods from interstate commerce is engaged in interstate commerce? states in the narrow sense of this act, as a class?”

The attorney paused for a few seconds before calling that interpretation of the statute a “clean-up” and immediately caught himself — and another rebuff from the bench.

“You can call it ‘scan,’ you can call it ‘narrow,’ whatever adverb or adjective you want to attach it to,” said Gorsuch. about the regulations, advisor?”

Dvoretzky replied that the setting of railroad workers next to sailors in the statutes should inform understanding.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh based on that logic and inquired about previous court decisions dealing with “in commerce” language.

“It is too simple to require discussion that the loading or unloading of an interstate shipment by employees of a carrier is closely related to interstate shipping and is in fact part of it. ,” he said. from a case in 1924then said that language hints at Supreme Court precedent and understanding.

Dvoretzky said that case was discussing a different issue and law, and because of different contexts, it shouldn’t apply here.

After another round of scathing questioning from Gorsuch, Kavanaugh expressed displeasure with the airline’s argument and wanted to know why “railroad worker” didn’t just mean railroad employee.

Justice Elena Kagan did not appear similarly convincing to Southwest’s arguments in Monday’s trading session.

“Do you admit that if rail baggage handlers are covered, then you lose?” she asked, before answering her own question. “There’s no way to separate those two, is there?”

Dvoretzky said they could split but quickly turned around saying that Congress did not intend to exempt “the entire aviation industry.”

Justice Clarence Thomas was skeptical of the airline’s claim that sailors, as a class, must travel to be covered while a particular sailor doesn’t need to cross a border to be insured and wondered what What is the use of such a test? Justice then gives the example of tugboat operators, who never or rarely cross the border, and asks where they will fall. Dvoretzky replied that they would be classified as sailors because they passed the class characteristics test.

Thomas offers various examples, but remains skeptical of a generic class with highly involved exceptions.

“Isn’t that a weird way to create a class?” he asks.

Kagan and Kavanaugh both asked Dvoretzky again, and again seemed unsatisfied with his answer.

To the question of whether railway signal operators are railway employees for exceptional purposes, Dvoretzky answered in the negative. This prompted Kagan to note that trains don’t move unless those operators “say red light, green light.” Dovretzky then compares signal operators with travel agents.

“So the test is ‘are you moving? “” Kagan asked.

“The test is that you are traveling on ships, planes, trucks through interstate commerce channels,” Dvoretzky replied.

Kavanaugh, concluding the court’s dissection of Southwest’s position, noted that several prior precedents have held that loading and unloading is engaging in interstate commerce. The airline’s lawyers said those cases were different and shouldn’t be counted out of concern commercial terms do not work problem.

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Justice Samuel Alito presented the biggest obstacles when the court questioned the lawyer of Saxon Jennifer Bennett.

Justice asks whether “all persons employed” for a shipping line or “shipping company” are covered by law here as seafarers. The worker’s attorney replied that the exception should apply to people who “do customary work”, but Alito is quick to dismiss the formula, saying that “a lot of people” do the usual job of an employee. such a company, wonder why the seamen are specifically listed. Bennett replied that seafarers were interested in Congress for other reasons but noted that their inclusion directly in statute was largely immaterial due to the language of other workers in “trade.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, following Alito’s question about who wouldn’t be covered, asked about the website operator for an airline. Bennett said such employees could be those on the “outer edge” of those who would be exempted by the FAA.

“On the other hand, cargo handlers are at the core,” argued the workers’ attorney.

Bennett went on to say that Southwest’s theory probably wouldn’t take into account the payload masters, those who balance the amount of weight an airplane can carry, as well as railroad laggards and people baggage handler.

Then, Alito and Kagan respectively asked to isolate the tests to solve the problem. The attorney’s response prompted a flurry of discussion from judges about where Amazon could fall.

“For me, it’s not a narrow group,” the judge said. Bennett replied that it was “apparently retail warehouse workers” were not exempt and made a distinction between retail warehouses and freight warehouses. In response to a follow-up question from Roberts, Bennett replied that UPS and FedEx would both be mentioned and there was precedent to support such an interpretation.

Justice Stephen Breyer took Amazon’s question and asked about other businesses, like department stores, who ship themselves. Bennett says the problem has been resolved with public shipping and inter-company shipping cases and likens the issue to how coal companies used to have their own railroads.

Alito then accused Bennett of moving “back and forth” and articulated concerns about his slippery slope, saying the attorney’s definition was too broad and “could include just any commercial activity.”

“We’re talking about industry-specific classes of workers, seemingly trying to clarify by addressing that direct question as well as repeated concerns about the types of clerical workers,” says Bennett. Railroad and airline accommodations would not qualify for an exemption under the FAA.

“Southwest has produced no evidence, from any length of time, as to what the phrase ‘engage in interstate commerce’ or the phrase ‘sailor or railroad employee’ meant. is to point out that these words are limited to those on board the summary Bennett.

Dvoretzky, in rebuttal, suggests that railway employees and more broadly, employees such as Saxon, are defined much more narrowly as only those employees engaged in “the movement of any train ” and those who “have served on the carriages”.

“Is the working class mainly working on planes or trains?” Southwest lawyer asked. He ended by saying that the investigation involved was a question of crew versus crew on the ground.

“Crew is similar to crew, ground crew is not,” he said, hoping judges will accept that framework as the basis for a “clear rule” “that also applies to [Congressional] purpose.”

Elura Nanos contributed to this report.

[image via Getty Images]

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James Brien

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