Bautista v. Star Cruises

Decision Date14 October 2003
Docket NumberNo. 03-21647-CIV.,No. 03-21648-CIV.,No. 03-21646-CIV.,No. 03-21649-CIV.,No. 03-21642-CIV.,No. 03-21644-CIV.,No. 03-21643-CIV.,No. 03-21650-CIV.,No. 03-21645-CIV.,03-21642-CIV.,03-21643-CIV.,03-21644-CIV.,03-21645-CIV.,03-21646-CIV.,03-21647-CIV.,03-21648-CIV.,03-21649-CIV.,03-21650-CIV.
Citation286 F.Supp.2d 1352
PartiesRizalyn BAUTISTA, etc., et al. Paul Peralta Raymond Lovino Ronaldo Marcelino Rolando Tejero Abdi Comedia Cristina L. Valenzuela, etc., et al. Marilen S. Bernal, etc., et al. Willy I. Villanueva, etc., et al. Maria Garcia L. Rosal, etc., et al. Plaintiffs, v. STAR CRUISES and NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE, LTD., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Florida

Harley Shepard Tropin, Kozyak, Tropin & Throckmorton, Charles R. Lipcon, Lipcon, Margulies & Alsina, Elizabeth Koebel Russo, Russo Appellate Firm, William Turner Huggett, Jerrold Keith Wingate, The Huggett Law Firm, Miami, FL, for Plaintiffs.

Curtis Jay Mase, Rachel Sherry Cohen, Mase & Gassenheimer, Miami, FL, for Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE, LTD.'S MOTION TO COMPEL ARBITRATION, DENYING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR REMAND, AND DENYING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES

SEITZ, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Norwegian Cruise Line, Ltd.'s ("NCL") Motion to Compel Arbitration [DE-10], and Plaintiffs' Motion for Remand [DE-13] and Motion for Attorneys' Fees [DE-19].1 Plaintiffs filed their three-count complaints alleging negligence and unseaworthiness under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, and failure to provide maintenance, cure and unearned wages under the general maritime law of the United States. Following removal of these cases to federal district court, NCL moved to compel arbitration pursuant to written arbitration agreements between the company and the Plaintiff seamen. Plaintiffs contend that no enforceable arbitration agreements exist, and seek remand of their claims to state court along with an award of attorneys' fees due to Defendants' allegedly improper removal. The parties' respective motions ask the Court to assess the balance between the protection of seamen, who have traditionally been viewed as the "wards of the courts,"2 and the interests supporting enforcement of international arbitration agreements. The Court has considered the parties' thorough papers, the arguments of counsel, and the amicus briefs submitted on behalf of Plaintiffs. For the reasons stated below, the Court must grant NCL's Motion to Compel Arbitration and deny Plaintiffs' Motion for Remand and Motion for Attorneys' Fees.

Background

These cases arise from the May 25, 2003 steam boiler explosion on board NCL's vessel, the S/S Norway, at the Port of Miami. The explosion killed six of the Plaintiff seamen, and seriously injured four others. On June 2, 2003, the four surviving seamen and the personal representatives of the six decedent crew members filed suit against NCL and Star Cruises in the Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida. Plaintiffs' virtually identical complaints seek damages for negligence and unseaworthiness under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.App. § 688, and for failure to provide maintenance, cure and unearned wages under the general maritime law of the United States.

On June 17, 2003, NCL and Star Cruises removed these cases to federal district court, alleging that Plaintiffs had entered into written agreements to arbitrate claims arising from their employment with NCL in the Philippines, and that these agreements were subject to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards ("the Convention"). Both the United States and the Philippines are signatories to the Convention, with the former implementing the Convention in 1970 through the enactment of 9 U.S.C. §§ 201-208 (collectively, "the Convention Act").3 NCL and Star Cruises based their removal on § 205 of the Convention Act, which allows a defendant to remove an action to federal district court before the start of trial when the dispute relates to an arbitration agreement or arbitral award covered by the Convention.

At the time of the Norway explosion, Plaintiffs' employment with NCL was governed by the terms of a standard Contract of Employment approved by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration ("POEA"), a division of the Department of Labor and Employment of the Republic of Philippines ("DOLE"). Among other things, the POEA supervised, regulated, promoted, and monitored overseas employment programs for the purpose of ensuring the best terms and conditions of employment for Filipino contract workers.4 To further this objective, the POEA periodically issued memorandum circulars setting minimum requirements or standards of compensation and other benefits for overseas Filipino workers, especially seafarers, to keep them on par with prevailing international standards. The POEA also collaborated with representatives of the local manning agencies and maritime employers such as NCL in negotiating standard employment agreements and terms of employment. This collaborative effort is referred to as the "Tripartite Technical Working Group" because of its goal of protecting the interests of three distinct groups: the Philippine government, the seamen or other contract workers, and the employers.

Each seaman was hired for employment through a manning agency licensed by the POEA to conduct recruitment activities. Each seaman's employment contract was signed in the Philippines by the seaman and by an NCL representative between August 2002 and March 2003, and was verified and approved by a POEA officer. Plaintiffs also initialed or signed each page of the Standard Terms. Plaintiffs' employment contracts, identical in form but varying based on the particular position attained, consist of one page that sets forth the basic terms and conditions of the seaman's employment, including the duration of the contract, the position accepted, and the monthly salary and hours of work. Paragraph 2 of the standard contract states that its terms and conditions are to be observed in accordance with Department Order No. 45 and Memorandum Circular No. 9, promulgated by the DOLE and the POEA in 2000. Department Order No. 4, in turn, incorporates the Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers On Board Ocean-Going Vessels ("Standard Terms").

Section 29 of the Standard Terms requires arbitration "[i]n eases of claims and disputes arising from [the seaman's] employment," either through submission of the claims to the National Labor Relations Commission ("NLRC") or voluntary arbitrators or a panel of arbitrators.6 While Plaintiffs dispute that they ever saw or had the arbitration provision explained to them, NCL has produced copies of the Standard Terms initialed or signed by each of the Plaintiffs. NCL has also produced affidavits from managers at various manning agencies licensed by the POEA to recruit seamen, certifying that they explained the employment documents to the seamen in their native language and that the seamen had an opportunity to review the documents. See Exhibits C-G to NCL's Resp. in Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for Remand. Further, NCL's affidavits indicate that before the Plaintiffs were actually deployed to the vessel the S/S Norway, they were required to attend a Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar for seamen, which is conducted in both the English and Filipino languages and which reviewed, among other subjects, the Standard Terms and the dispute settlement procedures provided for in the employment contract. Id.

With these facts in mind, the Court turns to the parties' various arguments and the applicable law.

Discussion
A. The FAA's Exclusion of Seamen Contracts Does Not Apply to the Convention Act

Plaintiffs assert that as a matter of law, NCL's Motion to Compel Arbitration must be denied because seamen employment contracts are exempted from the coverage of the Convention Act. Although the Convention Act does not explicitly exempt seamen employment contracts, Plaintiffs argue that the exemption in § 1 of the FAA applies to the Convention Act, thus precluding enforcement of Section 29 of the Standard Terms. Unfortunately for the Plaintiffs, application of the seamen exemption in the domestic arbitration act to the international context is unsupported by the plain language of the Convention Act.

The threshold issue of whether the FAA's § 1 exemption of seamen employment contracts applies to the Convention Act is a question of statutory construction. As in all such disputes, the Court must begin its analysis with the plain language of the statute in question. See Rendon v. Valleycrest Prods., Ltd., 294 F.3d 1279, 1283 n. 6 (11th Cir.2002) (citing K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., 486 U.S. 281, 291, 108 S.Ct. 1811, 100 L.Ed.2d 313 (1988)); see generally 2A Norman J. Singer, Sutherland on Statutes and Statutory Construction § 46.01 (6th ed.2000). The "first step in interpreting a statute is to determine whether the language at issue has a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the particular dispute in the case." Id.; see also Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 340, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808 (1997). A court need look no further where the statute in question provides a plain and unambiguous meaning. Id.

The parties' dispute, regarding the application of the FAA's seamen exemption to the Convention, stems from the language of the Convention Act, 9 U.S.C. § 202. Section 202 limits the Convention's reach to "[a]n arbitration agreement or arbitral award arising out of a legal relationship, whether contractual or not, which is considered commercial, including a transaction, contract, or agreement described in section 2 of this title." 9 U.S.C. § 202 (emphasis added). Section 2 of Title 9 describes the arbitration agreements that are enforceable under the FAA and states as follows:

A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction...

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    ...3 (the "Convention"), and its implementing legislation, 9 U.S.C. §§ 202-208 (2002) (the "Convention Act"). See Bautista v. Star Cruises, 286 F.Supp.2d 1352 (S.D.Fla.2003). Plaintiffs' appeal presents an issue of first impression in this Circuit: whether the crewmembers' employment agreement......
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