By:  Skelly Harper

An Illinois state appellate court recently confirmed that Railway Labor Act “minor dispute” preemption is alive and well as a potential defense to state-law retaliatory discharge claims. The case, Hughes v. United Airlines, Inc., involved a former flight attendant’s claim that she was fired for filing a worker’s compensation claim.

The flight attendant had taken a medical leave, and the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between United and the union representing the flight attendant set a three-year limit on medical leaves. The flight attendant said she was ready to return from her medical leave just before the three years was up.  Alas, she came down with another medical condition on the day of her first scheduled flight back from leave, so she didn’t report to work.  Because she did not return to service within three years, United administratively separated her from employment, citing the CBA provision limiting leaves to three years.

The flight attendant filed a contractual grievance, challenging the airline’s interpretation of the contract, but that grievance was denied. The flight attendant then pursued litigation in court, claiming that she was fired for filing claim for worker’s compensation benefits, in violation of Illinois common law. She alleged that United’s stated reason for terminating her employment was a pretext for unlawful retaliation.  Her pretext allegation was based on her dispute with United over the proper interpretation of the medical leave provisions in the CBA.

United moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the court could not resolve the flight attendant’s state law tort claim without resolving the parties’ dispute about the meaning of the CBA. Consequently, United argued, the state law claim was preempted by the Railway Labor Act, which mandates that contractual disputes be resolved in arbitration.  The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.  The flight attendant appealed.

Despite noting that “claims for retaliatory discharge do not necessarily require a court to interpret a collective bargaining agreement,” the dismissal was affirmed by the Appellate Court of Illinois. In this particular case, the court held that a resolution of the flight attendant’s claim would have required interpretation of the CBA. The court highlighted the fact that the flight attendant’s own allegation of pretext in the complaint — that United had relied on a supposedly unknown, unwritten, and incorrect interpretation of the CBA — brought the meaning of the CBA squarely into issue.

The takeaway for carriers? Even in state court, Railway Labor Act preemption is alive and well as a potential defense to state law retaliation claims.  For unionized employers not covered by the RLA?  The same preemption principles apply to labor agreements negotiated under the National Labor Relations Act.  While many retaliation and discrimination claims by unionized employees   are not preempted (because they require no interpretation of a CBA), never be too quick to overlook the preemption defense.