Employment Law Daily Nuclear power plant worker’s state-law disability bias claim preempted by LMRA, required CBA interpretation
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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Nuclear power plant worker’s state-law disability bias claim preempted by LMRA, required CBA interpretation

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

A worker whose lawsuit for disability discrimination was dealt a one-two punch by a federal district court—which had determined that the state-law claim was preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) and then had granted judgment on the pleadings to his employer based on its untimely filing—was unable to revive his claim on appeal. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the lower court that the claim, which sprang from the employer’s requirement that the employee go on leave and undergo fitness-for-duty tests after it suspected he had come to work drunk, would require interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement. Therefore, the appeals court ruled, it was preempted, the district court had jurisdiction, and judgment on the pleadings was affirmed (Boldt v. Northern States Power Co., September 14, 2018, Stras, D.).

Supervisor smelled alcohol. According to the employee’s boss, one day the employee, who was also a union member, came to work at the nuclear plant smelling of alcohol. Although he passed a breathalyzer test, the employer remained concerned and placed him on administrative leave. Over the following eight months, the employee was required to undergo a series of tests and treatments before he was cleared for work. He accepted a layoff and filed suit against the employer alleging disability discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, arguing that he was constructively discharged. He argued that he was treated more harshly because he was regarded as an alcoholic.

Employer pointed to CBA. However, the employer contended that its actions comported with the parties’ collective bargaining agreement, which provided that employees had to “meet all security and drug screening requirements as set forth by the Company” and that both the employer and employee should abide by all of the company’s “safety regulations, policies, and plant-specific or site-specific work rules.” According to the employer, its fitness-for-duty policy required that the employee be placed on leave and that conditions be imposed upon his reinstatement.

Judgment to employer. The employer removed the case to federal district court and that court subsequently denied the employee’s motion to remand the matter to state court. The federal district court held that the LMRA and the Energy Reorganization Act established federal jurisdiction by completely preempting the employee’s state-law claim. The court then granted judgment on the pleadings to the employer. The employee appealed.

Complete preemption. Central to the appeal was whether the case belonged in federal court or whether, as argued by the employee, it should have been remanded to state court because it was a state-law claim and the parties were non-diverse. The appeals court concluded that the federal district court had been right—even though complete preemption by federal statutes of state-law claims is “rare,” it applied in this case. Indeed, the appeals court explained, Section 301 of the LMRA is one of the limited number of federal statutes in which complete preemption has been found to apply. That section governs lawsuits to enforce collective bargaining agreements and complete preemption is found in such cases when either the claims are founded on rights created by the agreement or when the claim “substantially” depends on analysis of that agreement.

Fitness-for-duty was incorporated. Although the employee’s disability discrimination claim was founded on the right created by state law, it was “substantially dependent on analysis” of the collective bargaining agreement, the court concluded. In order to prove his discrimination claim, the employee would have to establish that he was “qualified” to continue working for the employer and to do so he would have to face down the employer’s contention that he was not fit for duty. According to the employer, the fitness-for-duty rule was implemented to comply with federal nuclear-safety regulations and was incorporated into section 5.9 of the collective bargaining agreement. The court agreed that the broad language of the section, which provided that “[t]he Employer and Employees shall abide by all Company safety regulations, policies, and plant-specific or site-specific work rules” sufficiently incorporated the employer’s fitness-for-duty policy.

The appeals court found instructive a Third Circuit decision, McNelis v. Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., in which that court considered a similar policy as it related to a disability discrimination claim and concluded that an employee who was deemed unfit for duty was also unqualified. And within its own precedent, the appeals court found a case in which it had reached a similar conclusion with regard to the Railway Labor Act. In Gore v. Trans World Airlines, a case wherein the employee was suspended based on CBA employee safety requirements after he threatened to kill himself and others at the airport, the appeals court had held that the RLA completely preempted the employee’s state-law claims against his employer. It had reasoned that the employee could not establish liability against the employer without showing that its actions were wrongful under the CBA. The complete-preemption analysis was “virtually identical” under the LMRA and the RLA, the court explained, and aside from the statute involved, Gore was no different than this case.

Untimely under Section 301. Having concluded that the district court had jurisdiction in the first place, the appeals court charged ahead with a review of the merits. The employee could not prove his claim without relying on the agreement and the fitness-for-duty policy. His claim either had to be treated as a Section 301 claim or dismissed as preempted. Under Section 301, however, it could not proceed because the employee did not sue within the applicable statute of limitations. Thus, the district court did not err in granting the employer’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

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