Southwest Airlines Loses At The Supreme Court As Justice Thomas Protects Workers’ Rights

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)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This case had nothing to do with the commerce clause on Article I of the constitution. It was about the definition of “foreign and interstate commerce” as defined in section 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act. There’s no mention of any constitutional issues in the opinion.

  2. @Vasco – the question of ‘what is interstate commerce’ is directly relevant, and to have Justice Thomas take an expansive view of that here makes it an interesting case.

  3. @vasco The whole reason that “foreign and interstate commerce” is mentioned at all in that act – like in probably thousands of others – is that that’s the only sort of commerce that the Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate. If it were outside of the Commerce Clause’s definition of “commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states”, then it would be outside of Congress’ power, and thus, the law itself would be unconstitutional.

  4. @gary and @vbscript2 yes but the question at issue in this case was how to interpret the phrase as it appears in the act. The Federal Arbitration Act was enacted in 1925. You can read the meaning of those phrases at that time back into 1792. None of the parties had brought up the constitutional issue, so the court wouldn’t raise it sua sponte.

  5. Maybe I’m missing relevant facts but from your description the Gonzales v Raich decision seems truly bizarre and a huge overreach of federal power…..

  6. @JorgeGeorge The only part of Gary’s description of the ruling in Raich that I’d say is even slightly off is saying that they ruled it constituted interstate commerce. My understanding of the ruling is that it ruled that growing cannabis for personal, non-commercial use affected interstate commerce, not that it actually constituted interstate commerce. But, yes, it is a very broad ruling. Though unfortunately, not an especially surprising one. The Supreme Court has long had a wide view of the Commerce Clause, especially the liberal wing of the court. Though, in that particular case, O’Conner dissented, while Scalia filed a separate opinion that ultimately agreed with the outcome from the majority ruling. The majority ruling was written by Stevens with Kennedy, Ginsburg, Souter, and Breyer joining it. O’Connor wrote a dissenting opinion, which Rehnquist joined, and Thomas also wrote a dissenting opinion.

    That case was in 2004/2005, though. Justice Thomas is the only Justice who was on the court back then who will remain on it after Stevens’ retirement within the next month or two. Things could go quite differently if a similar case were argued today. Though, as recently as 2012, the 4 liberal justices remaining on the court at that time held that the commerce clause was so broad that it included the power of Congress to *mandate* participation in some form of commerce, rather than merely to regulate commerce that was taking place. This reading was defeated by only one vote at the time, though it would likely be defeated by a somewhat wider margin now.

  7. @vasco Right, but the reason the Constitutional issue wasn’t brought up was just because it wasn’t necessary since that exact same restriction was included in the actual bill. The general meaning of that phrase in bills, though, tends to be “we want this to apply as widely as it can under our power authorized in the Commerce Clause.” So, while a ruling here wouldn’t directly interpret the Commerce Clause, it would certainly provide insight into how broad (or narrow) the current justices view its limits to be.

  8. Thankfully, Justice Thomas IS on the Supreme Court and Gary is not. The difference in cases is pretty clear.
    It is also clear that Southwest still has a mindset to fight in the courts what it won’t do on the basis of responsibility – including paying its people what they earned. Kinda hard to believe that the heart of the verdict is not being discussed.

  9. So does this mean I can’t elect arbitration if they catch me transporting a minor across state lines?

  10. Reign is what the queen does; Rein in is what a rider on a horse does to control

    “Ultimately the commerce clause is read too broadly but this wasn’t the case to make that point and reign it in.”

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