Some pundits were surprised that the Court would issue a "pro-worker," "anti-arbitration" decision, failing to understand that the Justices all do their best to be faithful to the words Congress puts into its statutes.
Dominic Oliveira is an interstate truck driver whose contract with New Prime designates him as an independent contractor. The contract contains a mandatory arbitration provision and contains a "delegation clause," giving the arbitrator authority to decide threshold questions of arbitrability. Oliveira filed a class action claiming that New Prime failed to pay statutory minimum wage. The trial court denied New Prime's motion to compel arbitration; the 1st Circuit affirmed. The US Supreme Court affirmed unanimously. New Prime v. Oliveira (US Supreme Ct 01/15/2019) http://case.lawmemo.com/us/Oliveira.pdf
The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) directs courts to compel arbitration, but §1 says that "nothing" in the Act "shall apply" to "contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce."
The Supreme Court held that the trial court – not the arbitrator – must first decide whether FAA §1 excludes Oliveira. This is because the contract's delegation clause (which is merely a specialized type of arbitration agreement) can be enforced only if the FAA applies in the first place.
The Supreme Court also held that FAA §1 excludes Oliveira. The FAA's term "contract of employment" refers to any agreement to perform work. At the time of the FAA's adoption in 1925, the phrase "contract of employment" was not a term of art, and dictionaries tended to treat "employment" more or less as a synonym for "work." Contemporaneous legal authorities provide no evidence that a "contract of employment" necessarily signaled a formal employer-employee relationship.