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Overdrive February 2019

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24 | Overdrive | February 2019 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that legal disputes between carriers and independent contrac- tors cannot be forced into arbitration even if their contractor agreements include an arbitration clause. In an 8-0 decision, the nation's high court sided with owner-operator Dominic Oliveira over his carrier, New Prime Inc., the legal name for Springfield, Missouri-based Prime Inc., which has contracts with more than 5,000 independent contractors. The question before the court was whether arbitration clauses within contracts between fleets and inde- pendent contractors are binding. Oliveira sought to have a lawsuit he brought against New Prime in 2015 over his employment status heard in court. New Prime argued that his lawsuit was bound to arbitration, per the arbitration clause within his con- tract with the company. In that original lawsuit, Oliveira claimed he was a company driver and an employee of Prime but that he was misclassified as an independent con- tractor. The Supreme Court ruled not on that matter, but simply on wheth- er Oliveira could pursue his challenge via the courts instead of arbitration. Braden Core, a transportation attorney at the firm Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, described the ruling as "a broad hold- ing that applies across the country" to "any owner-operator who looks like the plaintiff in the case — a one-man one-truck operation in which he was personally driving the truck." The justices answered only the "narrow questions" brought before it, Core says: whether independent contractors have a "contract of employment" with their carriers, and whether contractors are exempt from the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act. The court answered yes to both questions. Now, lawsuits made against fleets from owner-operators can't be forced into arbitration, even if their contractor agreements include an arbitration clause. Instead, courts will determine whether lawsuits brought by contractors against their carriers will be heard in court or by an arbitrator. However, the decision only applies to federal law. That means its impact on independent contractor agree- ments could be limited, as fleets still could try to force arbitration under state law, says Bob Roginson, chair of the trucking and logistics group at the Ogletree Deakins law firm. "It does not impact [carriers'] ability to rely on state law," he said. "Carriers are going to need to go back and look at state arbitration laws in the states where they operate or where they have these agreements." Jennifer Bennett, an attorney for the nonprofit group Public Justice and a member of Oliveira's legal team, said Oliveira's original law- suit regarding his classification as a contractor now can proceed in court. "This decision will enable so many drivers like Dominic who are not being paid what the law requires to go to court and fight for their rights," Public Justice said in a statement. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opin- ion for the Supreme Court. "The par- ties' private agreement may be crystal clear and require arbitration of every question under the sun, but that does not necessarily mean the Act authoriz- es a court to stay litigation and send the parties to an arbitral forum," he writes. Gorsuch added that Prime's arguments weren't "compelling." Lower courts also ruled in favor of Oliveira. Owner-operator wins in key arbitration decision Attorney Braden Core described the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Prime case as "a broad holding that applies across the country." B U S I N E S S BY JAMES JAILLET

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