The Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling against Southwest Airlines on Tuesday that is both almost self-evident in its simplicity as it will be surprising to some to see.
The Court ruled 8-0, with Justice Thomas writing the opinion and Justice Barrett not participating in the case, that ramp workers loading and unloading baggage and cargo are engaging in interstate commerce. That’s obvious since,
- Loading and unloading baggage and cargo is a part of interstate commerce
- Since at least 1942 the Supreme Court has considered everything to be interstate commerce (then again, Justice Thomas at least might be inclined to revisit this given his dissent in Gonzales v. Raich)
As a ramp supervisor, Latrice Saxon is subject to an arbitration provision in her work contract. She sued and sought class action status under the Fair Labor Standards Act for underpayment of overtime wages. Southwest wanted her to arbitrate her claims under the Federal Arbitration Act. However that act exempts any “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”
Not all airline employees are engagd in interstate commerce under the act. The court distinguishes an employee’s conduct from their employer’s business. But ramp supervsiors don’t just observe from a distance, they frequently load and unload items that are a part of interstate commerce. Ther ruling could have been broader – in the sense that it could have said all airline workers are engaged in interstate commerce. That would have been bad for Southwest (more class action litigants) and bad for the country (further expanding the doctrine of interstate commerce).
Justice Thomas wrote an opinion supporting the right of a worker to sue their employer in a class action while endorsing a broad reading of the commerce clause. Those are things one doesn’t normally associate with Justice Thomas.
But a ramp supervisor does seem to be engaging in interstate commerce, and so the Federal Arbitration Act’s exemption does seem to apply.
I would have preferred a world where the Supreme Court’s commerce clause jurisprudence was more aligned with Southwest’s position that
only workers who physically move goods or people across foreign or international boundaries—pilots, ship crews, locomotive engineers, and the like—are “engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.
That’s the world of Justice Thomas’ dissent in Gonzales v Raich where the majority concluded growing medical marijuana for personal non-commercial use constituted interstate commerce and was thus subject to federal regulation. Justice Thomas argued in that case such a broad reading of the commerce clause “makes a mockery of Madison’s assurance to the people of New York that the “powers delegated” to the Federal Government are “few and defined”, while those of the States are “numerous and indefinite.”
Ultimately the commerce clause is read too broadly but this wasn’t the case to make that point and reign it in.
(HT: Josh B)