Labor & Employment Law Daily Muslim flight attendant asks SCOTUS to sort out religious accommodation, CBA seniority, and arbitration issues
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Monday, October 19, 2020

Muslim flight attendant asks SCOTUS to sort out religious accommodation, CBA seniority, and arbitration issues

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

“If left in place, the Sixth Circuit’s decision would make workers have to decide between their religious rights under the Civil Rights Act and their right to unionize,” the CAIR Legal Defense Fund says.

A discharged flight attendant who is a Muslim is asking the Justices to determine whether and when claims arising under federal statute are subject to the Railway Labor Act’s mandatory arbitration requirement, according to the petition for certiorari she filed on October 12, 2020. She is also asking the High Court whether the “undue hardship” inquiry in a Title VII case is an affirmative defense to liability.

In the trial court. Below, in Stanley v. ExpressJet Airlines, Inc., a federal district court in the Eastern District of Michigan held that the flight attendant’s Title VII and state-law religious discrimination claims (that ExpressJet Airlines unlawfully refused to accommodate her religiously held belief that prevented her from serving alcohol to passengers) were preempted by the Railway Labor Act. Granting summary judgment to her airline employer, the court found that to the extent her requested accommodation—to never serve alcohol—resulted in a violation of the seniority provisions of the governing collective bargaining agreement, or adversely affected the seniority rights of other flight attendants, the “undue hardship” issue would be conclusively resolved by interpretation of the CBA and thus was a minor dispute subject to adjudication through the RLA arbitration provisions.

In the Sixth Circuit.On appeal, in an unpublished opinion, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, noting that because an accommodation that violates a CBA’s seniority provisions, as the airline contended, constitutes undue hardship, it would need to interpret the CBA to resolve her claims on the merits. And because the CBA could conclusively resolve her claims, they were preempted under the RLA and had to be brought before an arbitrator.

What the ruling means to workers.According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Legal Defense fund, which, along with J. Carl Cecere of Cecere PC, is representing the flight attendant in the Supreme Court, “If left in place, the Sixth Circuit’s decision would make workers have to decide between their religious rights under the Civil Rights Act and their right to unionize.”

“There are two problems with the court’s reasoning,” said CAIR attorney Justin Sadowsky. “The first is that federal labor law should not displace federal discrimination law. The second is that a federal court must decide whether or not there is a conflict between the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the requested accommodation, rather than simply kick the case to a labor arbitrator whenever an employer claims a conflict.”

The petition outlines a split among courts over whether one federal labor law requiring arbitration can displace another federal law that permits claims to go to court through preemption.

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