June 06, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon

On June 6, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, No. 21-309, holding that a Southwest Airlines employee whose work involved loading and unloading cargo from planes that travel across state lines belonged to a “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” under § 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

The Petitioner, Latrice Saxon, is a ramp supervisor at Chicago Midway International Airport. She brought a putative class action against Southwest under the Fair Labor Standards Act for failure to pay proper overtime wages. Southwest moved to dismiss the suit under the Federal Arbitration Act because Saxon had agreed to arbitrate wage disputes individually in her employment contract. Saxon tried to invoke § 1 of the FAA, which excepts workers engaged in interstate commerce.

The district court sided with Southwest, holding that Saxon didn’t fall within § 1 because she was not involved in actual interstate transportation, merely the handling of goods. The Seventh Circuit reversed.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed. It first held that Saxon fell within the relevant “class of workers” under § 1. The Court rejected the argument that all airline workers, regardless of their job duties, fall within the statute’s scope, but held that Saxon herself fell within the “class of workers” because she regularly loaded and unloaded cargo.

The Court further determined that loading and unloading cargo from planes qualified as engaging in interstate commerce, because the act of loading and unloading cargo is a practical and essential component of transporting the cargo through interstate commerce.

The Court specifically rejected Saxon’s argument that the “class of workers” under § 1 could include all workers that carry out the “customary work” of the airline, such as shift schedulers and website designers as too broad. At the same time, it rejected Southwest’s definition, which would include only workers that physically transported goods across state lines themselves, as too narrow. It also rejected Southwest’s arguments that loading and unloading cargo lacked a significant nexus to interstate commerce and that including cargo loaders within § 1 is inconsistent with the FAA’s purpose.

Justice Thomas authored the opinion for the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Justice Barrett, who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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