Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Discrimination claim is preempted by federal labor law

This woman sued her former employer, a Long Island hospital, and her labor union after she was fired for allegedly falling asleep on the job. She claimed her termination constituted disability discrimination because she has sleep apnea, which can cause excessive somnolence. She also claimed the union did not fight for her. The case is dismissed on preemption grounds, as the district court found, and the Court of Appeals agrees, that the case is preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act, a federal statute. The claim is also untimely under that statute.

The case is Whitehurst v. 1199 SEUI United Healthcare Workers East, issued on June 28. Plaintiff brought her claims in state court alleging disability discrimination under state and New York City law. The Union removed the case to federal court, and the district court denied plaintiff's request to send it back to state court, as she was really asserting a duty of fair representation" claim under the LMRA. The federal court also said the claim against the hospital arose under federal law. In the end, the EDNY dismissed the complaint as untimely under federal law. I presume the state law claims that plaintiff tried to assert were timely.

Off to the Court of Appeals (Hall, Sack and Droney), which agrees with the district court. Certain claims simply cannot be brought in state court, and LMRA claims are among them. That means claims like this are subject to "complete preemption." Under that statute, suits for violation of contracts between and employe and a labor organization may only be filed in federal court provided the industry affects interstate commerce, which covers most industries, including Wickerd's farm (two points if you know what that even refers to). Where, as here, the claim actually implies rights created by the union contract, the state law claim must either be treated as an LMRA claim or be dismissed as preempted by federal labor-contract law. The Supreme Court said that in Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202 (1985). So, while plaintiff thought she was bringing a legitimate state law claim in state court, she actually only had an untimely federal claim that could only be heard in federal court.

The problem with plaintiff's claim against the hospital is that a court cannot adjudicate that claim without first deciding whether she had a right to avail herself of the grievance process, which in turn requires an interpretation of the union contract. Since the contract is the source of the rights plaintiff seeks to vindicate, her claim is intertwined with that contract and is therefore preempted by the LMRA. We have a similar analysis with respect to her claims against the union. Any claim against the union implicates the collective bargaining agreement, as she claims the union denied her proper representation by failing to pursue arbitration. All of this is tied up in the union contract. And, I am sure a major bummer for Whitehurst, who loses her claim based on a technicality that only lawyers and judges will ever understand.

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