Seaman Can’t Deny International Character of Employment Agreement

In Johnson v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd., Case No. 2:15-cv-04400-NJB-DEK (E.D. La. February 19, 2016), Judge Nannette Brown recently compelled arbitration between Norwegian Cruise Lines (“NCL”) and the Plaintiff, a U.S. citizen crewmember.  The Plaintiff’s employment agreement contained an arbitration clause mandating that any claims related to his employment would be resolved by arbitration pursuant to the United Nations Convention on Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, more commonly referred to as “The Convention.” While this arbitration clause is typically enforced between the cruise lines and its foreign crewmembers, the issue here revolved around whether the Convention was applicable when both contracting parties were U.S. citizens.

The Court noted that the Convention applies to relationships entirely between citizens of the United States if the relationship “envisages performance or enforcement aboard, or has some other reasonable relation with one or more foreign states,” relying on a Fifth Circuit case, Freudensprung v. Offshore Tech. Servs. Inc. Here, Plaintiff was a casino pit supervisor aboard a ship that traveled to foreign countries and was constantly sailing on the high seas. Plaintiff argued that because both parties were U.S. citizens, the employment agreement was signed in Boston, the agreement was silent as to place of performance, and all of his work was performed on the vessel rather than on foreign soil, there was not a reasonable connection between the parties’ employment agreement and a foreign state to satisfy the Convention.

Contrary to the Plaintiff’s argument, the Court elaborated that Freudensprung did not require that an employee’s work or performance take place on the soil of a foreign state in order to constitute “performance aboard.”  The Court considered the most relevant evidence to be the international flavor of the employment agreement, which included language requiring the Plaintiff to have documentation to travel worldwide, and also listed the vessel the Plaintiff would serve on. At the time the Plaintiff signed the agreement, the ship was scheduled to regularly sail to numerous foreign countries, and that NCL’s other vessels sail to more than 70 countries, which was information readily available online and in NCL’s advertising. Judge Brown also discussed that during the Plaintiff’s tenure, the vessel touched ports in ten different countries, sailed constantly, and spent more than 80% of her time abroad.

The Court ultimately enforced the arbitration provision and rejected the Plaintiff’s various arguments, including that the Plaintiff was unaware of the international itinerary of the ship at the time he signed the employment agreement.  Judge Brown concluded that whether the Plaintiff knew of the precise routes or not, “a contract with a cruise line cannot be deprived of its international character solely through the alleged ignorance of its would-be employee.” This decision out of the Eastern District of Louisiana strengthens case law in favor of enforcing parties’ agreements to arbitrate.


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